Monday, August 3, 2009

Responsibility and False Hope from Obama Administration

Responsibility. That’s been a central message of the Obama candidacy and presidency. After the Bush years of government irresponsibility, special-interest policies, and ideologically driven wars and federal programs, Americans were ready for Obama’s promised “new era of responsibility.” But responsibility is a loaded term in the country’s political lexicon, and most often it’s associated with more with charges that social problems stem from individual irresponsibility than with an evaluation of the government’s responsibility to institute and enforce laws that improve social well-being. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, the Obama administration has too often stressed the ideologically conservative message of responsibility – that is, individual responsibility, as distinct from social/governmental responsibility. This is especially true with respect to immigration. Rather than state clearly that the immigration crisis – namely an unsustainable system of immigration flows – is primarily the responsibility of the U.S. government and society, the Obama administration has deepened its commitment to enforcement policies that places the responsibility for the plight of the country’s 11 million (and declining) unauthorized immigrants primarily on the immigrants themselves. They broke the law by accepting work and working hard as business employees and household service workers. For the past few decades, the government has tolerated an immigration policy that is patently broken. Immigrants flowed into the country at increasing rates to fill jobs and to create small businesses, thereby helping the economy grow, as immigrants always have. But rather than reciprocating by offering legal status for these new workers and society members, government and business maintained an immigration enforcement system that kept these immigrants in the shadow of the law. Nor has government acted responsibility by proactively created a new immigration policy. Decade after decade, Congress and the White House have neglected their responsibility to back an immigration reform that would take immigration flows out of the shadows by creating systems that would be more responsible to the labor market, that would be more protective of workers, and that would acknowledge and legally integrate immigrants who are clearly constructive members of U.S. society. Responsibility is more about ethics than about law. By insisting that the government has the responsibility to enforce the law by detaining and deporting illegal immigrants, the Obama administration, like its predecessor administration, is justifying the immigrant crackdown in the name of the “rule of law.” If the administration were truly honest and responsible, Obama and DHS Secretary Napolitano would tell citizens and noncitizens alike that a broken law and failed system should not be used to disrupt society, divide communities, and break families. It is irresponsible. What’s more, it is not economically sustainable. In the past eight years the federal government has tripled the immigration enforcement and border control budget, spending tens of billions on creating an immigrant gulag of prisons, creating a police state in the northern and southern borderlands, and unleashing more than an hundred teams of immigration raiders. Not a responsible use of federal dollars, especially at a time when so many people are desperately in the need of work and government assistance. The Bush administration mounted the immigrant crackdown in response to the demands of the anti-immigrant zealots of the Republican Party and on trumped-up national security grounds. In contrast, the Obama administration in continuing the crackdown (with only slight fixes) while ignoring the reform demands from the Democratic Party’s grassroots progressive base and dressing the enforcement-first regime in ethics-free “rule of law” rhetoric. Get used to it. The immigrant crackdown has been institutionalized. President Obama and other Democratic Party leaders may in their heart of hearts believe that immigration reform that takes unauthorized immigrations out of the shadows would be best for the country and even best for the party. But they don’t now have – and show no signs of gaining – the political will and conviction to call an end to “enforcement first” practices and push through the kind of responsible, ethical reform law that is so badly needed. A steady attrition of the immigrant population is the result. It was part of the strategic plan of the immigration restrictionists, and has in effect become the law of the land. Immigrants without the requisite papers will for the foreseeable future need to seek temporary refuge in the diminishing shadows. Ideologues and conservatives are no longer running the immigration system. Lawyers and liberals are in charge, preaching systematic enforcement while offering false hope.


Dan Kowalski said...

The hope is not yet false. Wait until Spring 2010. If we don't have CIR (including robust labor protections) by then, I might begin to agree with you.

Dan Kowalski, Bender's Immigration Bulletin

Tom Barry said...


I hope I'm wrong, that you are right, and that we will see reform next year (or even in the Obama administration). Obama has never, not as candidate or president, taken the time to make a persuasive case for immigration reform, and instead has merely echoed the party platform. Neither he nor Napolitano -- let alone congressional leaders -- has acknowledged the major inconsistency in their position, namely that if it is right, fair, and economically positive for existing undocumented immigrants to have a legal place in our society, then why are these immigrants being subjected to a crackdown? Obama needs to chart a new position that rejects the dishonesty of enforcement-first and couples effective enforcement with legalization (with robust labor protections!). Yes, that would be difficult politically, but otherwise I fear that we will see year after year of massive immigrant removal. With respect to the political conditions, Republicans have no incentive to approve a reform (new voters will overwhelmingly vote Democratic), and moderate and conservative Dems are under no effective popular or business pressure to support reform. Immigration restrictionists, I believe, succeeded several years ago in framing the immigration debate, and continue to have the upper hand in recent debates (jobs, crime, for example).