Letter from the US: Under fire, Obama grants immigrant concession

A march for immigrant rights, Boston, 2010.

United States President Barack Obama announced on June 15 that deportations of undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children would be put on hold for two years.

During this time, they could apply for work permits. About 800,000 young people could be affected.

To be eligible, these youths must be 30 years old or younger, and have come into the country before they were 16. They must be in school, be high school graduates or military veterans and have no criminal records.

The announcement came as hundreds of undocumented youths staged sit-ins at Obama campaign offices in California, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio demanding action. Most are Latinos and many proudly wore T-shirts with “I am undocumented” logos.

The sit-ins were becoming an embarrassment for Obama in a context of slipping support for him among Latinos. It’s not hard to see why.

In his election campaign, Obama promised to enact “immigration reform”. However, like many of his promises made before taking office, it was vague and lacked details.

In spite of the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress in his first two years as president, Obama did nothing on the issue.

In fact, the Obama administration has gone in the opposite direction. Deportations of people without papers were highly publicised under Bush, but when Obama took office, deportations rocketed.

It’s hard to get the exact figures, but it seems deportations for the “crime” of not having papers have tripled or quadrupled in the first three years of the Obama administration. This has torn apart families and imposed fear and hardship within immigrant communities as a whole.

Last year, in a sop to Latinos, the administration announced that “prosecutorial discretion” would be implemented to relieve the situation for undocumented youths. This turned out to be a bald-faced lie.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance, which organised the sit-ins, said in a statement on Obama’s announcement: “In direct response to the actions carried out by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance over the past two weeks, the White House has agreed to provide Deferred Action for undocumented youth.

“We will confirm the veracity of the claim with our caseload and maintain our present occupations until any proposed policy change goes into effect. We note that this announcement comes a year after a similar announcement for discretion. Prosecutorial Discretion has yet to be implemented.

“By regulation, it will take 60 days for this action to go into effect. If it does not go into effect fully after 60 days and provide sufficient protection for undocumented youth, we will resume occupying the offices.

“We will also have zero tolerance [if any such youth are put into deportation proceedings] in the interim …

“We are pleased to see this administration make progress, but we will not accept the announcement at its word. Prosecutorial discretion turned out to be ineffectual, and essentially a broken promise.

“We will review the announcement and will not back down until we are certain the commitment is firm.”

Some issues of concern include the record of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) refusing to carry out the earlier “prosecutorial discretion” policy.

Also, it remains to be seen whether a “criminal record” applies to the many undocumented youths cited for driving without a license (since they were denied licences because they didn’t have papers).

Another thing to note is that if any applicant is turned down, there are few ways to appeal.

The reaction in the Latino community has been one of guarded hope. The New York Times reported on some reactions. A recent graduate of UCLA who works in a taco shop in Los Angeles for low pay responded: “This is opening a door for me. Now I can get a job that uses my degree. I can do something with myself.”

The article reported: “We heard the news, and it’s great, but it’s just a first step,” said Maxima Guerror, 22, a college student who wore a shirt that read, “I Am Undocumented” to a rally in downtown Los Angeles.

“When I see it in action, then I’ll say 'This is fantastic’. For now, we’re just getting the ball rolling.”

Another immigrant, who has since become a citizen, told the NYT that she voted for Obama, but was conflicted because so many people had been deported. “If he completes what he promised today, I will vote for him. It’s very important. But I want immigration reform that will benefit everyone.”

This reflects the deep feelings among immigrants that they want a road to citizenship for all.

Polls show a two-thirds majority of Americans support Obama’s announcement, which they take at face value. After all, deporting young people who were brought here by their parents, through no fault of their own, and have grown up in the US, is blatantly disgusting.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books.]