Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama's Immigration Challenge -- More About Words Than Policy

(Border Lines CIR Series #16) 

President Barack Obama could quickly go a long way toward resolving the immigration policy crisis. But it’s not the path that the leading liberal immigration reformers are demanding. At this time the introduction of new comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill would, even if supported by the president, would be disastrous.

Many of the forces that supported CIR last time around are calling for the Obama administration to support liberal immigration reform within its first year. They say it’s what the voters want and what’s needed to solve the immigration crisis.

But another divisive debate over the details of a new immigration policy is not what the U.S. public needs, and it’s not what immigrants need. Even with an increased Democratic majority, there isn’t the political will or political capital to pass a liberal immigration reform.

What’s needed is not another unwieldy CIR bill. What’s desperately, urgently needed is simply the power of words – and this is a power that the president has in abundance. Before dealing with the controversial specifics of a new immigration policy, Obama needs to weave a new narrative about immigration in 21st America.

A central reason why the immigration debate is so contentious, so deeply bitter is the absence of common terms of discourse. Each side in this debate has set out to frame the issue in terms that reflect its own distorted worldview. The result is a nation that is variously divided and confused. Some say that the immigration crisis is at its heart a national security crisis in which the homeland is threatened by porous borders and millions of illegal immigrants in the heartland.

Others say that it a crisis of supply and demand in the laws of the market clash with unrealistic immigration laws that turn workers into illegals.

Some say it is a social and cultural crisis in which stability and identity in America are undermined by a pervasive presence of illegal immigrants, while others say that it is a crisis in which there is a massive violation of immigrant rights – the right to work without exploitation and the right to be treated fairly.

Adding to the confusion about the immigration issue is that opposing sides employ some of the same conceptual frameworks to mean different things. Both pro-immigration and anti-immigration institutes in Washington, DC now sprinkle their messaging with appeals to the “rule of law” and “worker rights.”

For the pro-immigration forces, the only way to restore the rule of law is to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows” of the law through a legalization process and to provide more legal paths of entry. In contrast, the anti-immigration groups say that only by enforcing immigration law consistently – both at the border and in the country’s interior – will the rule of law be restored.

Worker rights for the immigrant advocates means enforcement of labor laws to protect immigrants (and by extension all workers), while anti-immigration organizations say that the large presence of illegal workers undermine the rights of legal workers who are forced into a competition that drives wages and working conditions downward.

Each side claims the virtue of common sense.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the nation’s oldest restrictionist institute, boasts in its slogan that is "Restoring Common Sense to America's Immigration System." Meanwhile, the competing slogan of America’s Voice, an immigrant-rights organization created in the wake of CIR’s defeat in 2007, is “The Power to Win Common Sense Immigration Reform.”

Each side tells America that its vision of immigration reform is the fair one. It’s the acronym of the leading restrictionist organization, and it kicks off the name of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, the networking branch of the immigrant-rights institutes in Washington.

As it became evident in the CIR congressional battles in 2006 and 2007, comprehensive immigration reform, even if passed, would fall far short of establishing a new immigration policy that was both sensible and fair. While attempting to be comprehensive – border security, temporary workers, family visas, employment verification, immigration law enforcement, citizenship conditions, etc. – the last CIR bill of the Bush administration came to the Senate floor as patchwork of compromises and contradictions.

No doubt there is an immigration crisis in America. No doubt that the system is broken, as contending sides both assert.

It’s out of control.

The budget being thrown by both Democrats and Republicans at border control and immigration law enforcement increases every year by more than a billion dollars. Thousands of newly hired and inadequately trained border patrol officers in an armada of new vehicles roam the borderland, which is booming with construction of border walls, fortified ports of entry, and imposing new headquarters for an occupying arm of Homeland Security agents.

Private prison firms and local governments rush to build dozens of new prisons for immigrants stopped at the border or rounded up in the interior. Most major and medium-size cities now host Homeland Security “fugitive operations teams” that in their hunt for criminal and fugitive (who have not responded to immigration court orders) immigrants are banging down doors in dawn raids and collecting as collateral nontargeted immigrants, legal residents and immigrant-looking citizens.

It’s shameful.

In the name of restoring the rule of law, immigrants are being pulled from their families, communities, and employment and the outsourced to private prison companies that own and operate the country’s new array of immigrant prisons. Immigrant settlements that have revitalized urban centers and dying rural towns are being shorn apart

But in the absence of a national consensus about immigration, the government says it has no recourse but to enforce the law.

It’s up to President Obama to forge that consensus with new words about immigration. Just as he is bringing rivals and parties together and just as bridging other ideological divides with a vision of common hope for a renewed America, he needs to create a new common language about immigration.

The immigration debate that is raging in America is suffused with many valid terms: immigrant-rights, nation of immigrants, justice for all, nation’s right to control its border, identity theft, overburdened social services, etc.

Cobbling all these terms and associated policies together into a comprehensive immigration bill is one approach to solving the immigration crisis. But in a post-Bush America it’s old approach that doesn’t rise to this new hopeful political time.

No one else has risen to the challenge, but Obama is a natural for the task of creating a new framework for understanding immigration and managing it in the national interest. What he needs to explain, as perhaps only he can, is that the nation needs a healthy debate over immigration.

But not a debate shaped and driven by pro- and anti-immigration groups that are irretrievably entrenched in their own narrow rhetoric and convictions. Rather a debate and a discourse that is positive, inclusive, and pragmatic.

The terms used to frame the new national discussion about immigration can be common ones – like justice, community, sustainability, rights, national interest, and yes common sense and fairness – but Obama can infuse them with a new vitality, a new urgency, and an invigorating personal relevancy.

It’s his challenge now to create a new narrative to immigration that brings Americans together. With his power of words and ability to evoke hope, he needs to help us determine together how and how many immigrants contribute to our national interest and our nation’s future.

Next in Border Lines CIR Series: Latino Path to Immigration Reform


Anonymous said...

Nuevo Plan de Aztlan

WHEREAS, We the Chicanas y Chicanos of the United States of America honor our Native American heritage with all our hearts and minds;

WHEREAS, We the Chicanas y Chicanos of the United States of America honor the sacred call of our Native American ancestors for peace and justice throughout our Americas; and

WHEREAS, We the Chicanas y Chicanos of the United States of America recognize La Raza has been struggling with a new wave of racial harassment, discrimination and persecution in our Americas since September 11, 2001.

NOW THEREFORE, We the Chicanos y Chicanos of the United States of America resolve as follows:


This resolution may be cited as Nuevo Plan de Aztlan.


Nuevo Plan de Aztlan is based on the following terms:

a) Americanas y Americanos

Americanas y Americanos are ALL AMERICANS regardless of our races, colors, languages, cultures, nationalities, ethnicities, religions or creeds.

b) Aztlan

The concept of Aztlan is derived from the Nahua history of the Mexicas before their southern migration from Norte America into Centro Mexico during the 11th Century. Aztlan today is Indigenas of Mexican-American and(or) Mexican descent who consider ourselves Chicanas y Chicanos regardless of where we were born, live or die.

c) Carnalismo

Carnalismo is the love and compassion Chicanas y Chicanos have for each other as carnalas y carnales (sisters and brothers). Carnalismo is what unites and strengthens Chicanas y Chicanos as we work together for peace and justice.

d) Chicanas y Chicanos

Chicanas y Chicanos are Indigenas of Mexican-American and(or) Mexican descent who consider ourselves Chicanas y Chicanos based on our Native American heritage.

e) El Movimiento

El Movimiento is the Chicana y Chicano Movement for peace and justice. El Movimiento is comprised of numerous academic, athletic, artistic, business, commercial, cultural, educational, political, recreational, social, spiritual, wholistic and other Chicana y Chicano organizations and individuals working for peace and justice throughout Aztlan, our Americas and the world.

f) Heritage

Our Native American heritage includes our ancestral lands and freedoms; and all the histories, cultures, traditions and mores of our Native American ancestors.

g) Indigenas

Often called Native Americans or American Indians, Indigenas are all the indigenous peoples of our Americas including those of mixed-race heritage like La Raza.

h) La Causa

La Causa is for peace and justice, the eternal cause of Chicanas y Chicanos who recognize there can be no true peace without true justice, i.e., the abolition of poverty, racism, sexism and all other injusticias in our Americas.

i) La Raza

Chicanas y Chicanos can be Black, White, Brown, Red, Yellow and(or) any other “skin color” like the rest of La Raza and the human race. The concept of La Raza was derived from a 1925 essay published by Jose Vasconcelos, a Mexican educator who called the millions of mixed-race Indigenas with Latin-American and(or) Latin-European ancestors La Raza Cosmica.

La Raza is comprised of every race, color, nationality, ethnicity, culture, language, religion and creed in the world. This rich diversity is the unifying power, force and strength of Chicanas y Chicanos, and of all La Raza as we grow to know, understand and honor our great heritage.

j) Latinas y Latinos

Latinas y Latinos of our Americas are Indigenas with a Latin-American and(or) Latin-European heritage. Millions of Latinas y Latinos also have African, Asian and other Non-Latino ancestors.

k) Racism

·Racial categories are crude labels based on parentage, genetics and(or) physical traits, not religious or scientific proof of one’s superior or inferior nature like racists believe.

·Racism is the belief one or more “races” are inherently “superior” to one or more other races. [Example: Many Americans believe “White people” are inherently superior to “Non-White people” and that “Black people” are inherently inferior to all other people.]

·Racism includes the belief “mixed-race” people like La Raza are inferior to those with birth parents of the same race. “Race-mixing” is still condemned by racists today. · Indigenas were considered savages (less-than-human) when Europeans first invaded and occupied our Americas. "Christianized" and(or) otherwise assimilated Indigenas are still considered inferior by today’s racists.

·Racists are not just poor or poorly educated citizens, there are wealthy and highly educated racists throughout government and society who strive to protect and preserve their privileged status via institutional, industrial and commercial racism. Racists are not just White, either; there are Brown, Black, Red, Asian and other racists, too.

·The racist imposition of the colonial English language on Indigenas continues to cause horrendous problems for Chicanas y Chicanos in education, employment and virtually all other aspects of life in the U.S. Laws, rules and regulations are selectively enforced by local, state and federal institutions against La Raza, as English is used as a weapon to deprive Chicanas y Chicanos of liberty, equality and justice throughout our lives.

·Private industry (“free enterprise”) also causes havoc for Chicanas y Chicanos by perpetuating racist stereotypes and beliefs about La Raza for profit and gain. [Example: Mass media and the “entertainment” industries commercialize racist stereotypes and beliefs about Latinas y Latinos throughout the world, while pretending to be “spreading freedom and democracy” alongside the Pentagon.]

l) Terrorist(s)

A terrorist or terrorists are human beings who use unwarranted violence and(or) the threat of violence to kill, rob, rape, torture, imprison or otherwise impose their will over other human beings.


Nuevo Plan de Aztlan addresses the alarming attacks orchestrated against Indigenas throughout Norte America since September 11, 2001 (9/11). U.S. officials are using La Raza as a scapegoat or smokescreen to distract or divert attention away from their heinous war crimes in the Middle East.

According to their domestic propaganda, the “real problem” and therefore actual enemy or threat to national security is Mexicans and other Indigenas “invading” Norte America, not the Pentagon killing, torturing, maiming, imprisoning and destroying other indigenous peoples' lives in faraway lands.

Thousands of racist media, vigilante, “homeland security” and other hostile actions have been executed against Indigenas since 9/11, as tens of thousands of these indigent men, women and children have been rounded up and herded out of Norte America like cattle.


Indigenas have suffered centuries of injusticias including genocide, rape, torture, mayhem, kidnapping, slavery, peonage, poverty, homelessness and groundless imprisonment at the hands of the original European invaders and occupiers of our Americas.

The offspring of these European terrorists expect Chicanas y Chicanos to ignore or forget this true account of their ancestors’ horrendous atrocities, as if these abominations against our Native American ancestors never occurred or mattered.

As English imperialism via the U.S. government seeks to conquer the entire world, La Raza is increasingly faced with discriminatory law enforcement, housing, education, employment, healthcare, mass media, entertainment and other racist industrial, commercial and institutional policies and practices, especially since 9/11.

The offspring of the European terrorists who originally stole our ancestral lands are guilty of receiving this stolen property. Receiving stolen property is no less a crime than stealing it. These aliens remain in denial as they continue to exploit, oppress and otherwise deprive us of our ancestral lands and freedoms from generation-to-generation much like their terrorist ancestors did against our ancestors for the past few centuries.

U.S. racists are now working to outlaw MEChA and other Movimiento organizations being blamed for “too many Mexicans” and other Indigenas in Norte America today. Local, state and federal government agencies have also made it extremely difficult for the Partido de La Raza Unida to rise politically against this institutionalized harassment, discrimination and persecution in any significant way.

These same racists oppose Chicana y Chicano Studies, affirmative action, financial aid, bilingual and multicultural education, ethnic studies, fair housing, equal employment opportunities and all other ways and means of attempting to create level playing fields for La Raza, as if the U.S. only belongs to Anglo-Americans and everyone else is a second-class citizen at best.


The 21st Century campaign against Mexicans in the also aimed at Chicanas y Chicanos since we are all familia. Chicanas y Chicanos have a natural, inherent or innate relationship with Mexicanas y Mexicanos because of our common Native American heritage that is everlasting.Other Indigenas throughout our Americas are suffering from these racist attacks too.

We are all being treated as a threat or potential threat to national security by the racist U.S. government at the local, state, federal and international level.


a) We the Chicanas y Chicanos of the United States of America must reach beyond nationalism to establish and(or) coalesce with parallel movements of other Indigenas united around our multilingual, multiracial and multicultural heritage throughout our Americas and on outlying islands.

b) El Movimiento’s mass communication, organization and mobilization initiatives call for Chicanas y Chicanos to join forces with all La Raza against our common exploiters and oppressors because we cannot be free unless and until all La Raza is free.

c) Economic justice cannot be achieved without social and political justice. La Raza must join together as an international union of Indigenas to work for this justicia as opposed to permitting the racists to continue to exploit and oppress La Raza via commercial, industrial and institutional racism from generation-to-generation.

d) This indigenous union must ensure liberty, equality and justice for all Americanas y Americanos so We can all live, work and travel freely in peace and justice throughout our Americas for so long as the rivers flow.

e) The first priority of our new union is to abolish poverty, racism and sexism throughout our Americas.

f) This union must ensure all workers in our Americas receive good jobs and compensation so that all Americanas y Americanos can have nice homes in safe and secure neighborhoods and communities. People unable to work will also have nice homes in these safe and secure neighborhoods and communities because no one will live in poverty or homelessness in our Americas except by her or his own choosing.

g) We the Chicanas y Chicanos of the United States of America must ensure our children learn about our indigenous ancestors, at home and in all the schools, colleges and universities of our Americas so they and future generations will know, understand and honor our Native American heritage.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, We the Chicanas y Chicanos of the United States of America will live our daily lives in accordance with Nuevo Plan de Aztlan to the best of our abilities.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, We the Chicanas y Chicanos of the United States of America will encourage Chicana y Chicano organizations everywhere to review, adopt and incorporate Nuevo Plan de Aztlan into their own missions, goals and objectives so all Indigenas can stand united against the new wave of racial harassment, discrimination and persecution La Raza faces in the 21st Century.

Copyright 2008 Internet Mecha. Nuevo Plan de Aztlan may be reproduced, republished and disseminated freely.

Unknown said...

Reconcile through rhetoric fundamental differences of identity and ideology--that's a tall order for anyone, even Obama. I don't think even with his considerable skill he'll be able to pull it off. I hope so, in the short term ... but even if he does, in 20 years we'll likely be faced with another immigration crisis. I haven't read all of the entries in your series, but I'm getting a sense that one of your assumptions is that immigration policy should be primarily geared to serve the interests of the citizenry. I wonder whether immigration policy has ever been formulated in a clearheaded way with this objective at the fore.

But more than that, I wonder whether that is an adequate assumption in this globalizing world. The nation-state system has failed and continues to fail far too many in the global south, and pure pursuit of the national interest under Bush has not served even American citizens well. When there's no semblance of global democracy, adherence to national democratic ideals--and especially the purportedly universal/actually restrictive American ideal--rings hollow.

Perhaps strict pursuit of the national interest isn't the best way to formulate policy. But this conversation is bigger than just immigration reform. In the short term, what you're saying makes some sense, though I still don't know if I agree with it.

Dave Bennion

Tom Barry said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Dave.

I don’t think the challenge is so much a matter of reconciling differences of identity and ideology. Rather I think the challenge before him, before us, is to start talking differently about immigration so that fundamental differences are left behind. Yes, very hopeful, but it does seem that this is happening around other issues, such as big/small government.

Yes, I suppose that is my assumption: that immigration policy should be primarily geared to serve the interests of the citizenry. If we can not make that case – that a liberal immigration reform is in the best interests of citizens – then we have a proposal that will be rejected.

Looking at the immigrant-rights movement, I see a problem of trying to hawk a reform proposal based on, as they say, immigrant rights. Citizens can be concerned about the welfare of non-Americans – we have aid programs, we go to war presumably on their behalf – but to formulate a national policy that doesn’t have the interests of citizens up front, at its heart is I think not very strategic.

National interest doesn’t have to be a narrow interest. It can and should be broad. Surely, a new immigration policy should, for example, have a generous refugee and asylum component. And this is in our broad national interest as a member of an international community.

I don’t think that it is a conversation bigger than immigration reform. When we talk about immigration reform, it needs to have links to domestic policy and foreign policy, but within that large context, it needs to have the broad national interest at its core. If we doubt that a liberal immigration reform can have the national interest at its core, then we really have problems.

yave said...

If we can not make that case – that a liberal immigration reform is in the best interests of citizens – then we have a proposal that will be rejected.

I agree. The reason I say my challenge is bigger than immigration reform is because I question the fairness and efficacy of the international political system. I question the claims to democracy made by groups of citizens insulated by borders and tanks. But this is a long term question measured in, at the least, decades. In the near term, certainly an immigration policy must serve the national interest, broadly defined as you say, to have any chance of success when the political system that determines how policy is made vests control in the hands of citizens alone.

The failings of the international political system are most starkly visible where national populations overlap; that is, in immigration policy. And I think that helps explain a lot of the confusion and anger on both sides of this debate--each side is working from quite different assumptions about the fairness of the current system.

I do believe there is a place for immigrant rights in that broad conception of national interest. Migrants in U.S. territory are, after all, subject to constitutional protections and international human rights law. It has been difficult to ignore some of the most egregious violations of those protections and that law, especially with the treatment of mixed-status families, unaccompanied children, and deaths in detention. Those incidents resonate most painfully with ethnic groups of citizens with recent histories of immigration, but also with a swathe of liberals and people of faith who see a connection between callous conduct abroad and treatment of migrants at home.

How much strategic emphasis to give the issue of migrant rights is a question worth some discussion, so I thank you for writing this series.