President Barack Obama’s executive order on deportations of undocumented immigrants has created a firestorm of controversy between Democrats and Republicans.
However, the charges and counter-charges between the two big parties are not what are essential.
The presidential order, as far as can be determined from Obama’s speech — and the public has yet to see the full version in print — consists of the following: about 4-5 million workers without papers will be protected from deportation for up to three years.
That will leave at least 6-7 million undocumented workers still subject to deportation. Even for the 4-5 million who are covered, the order will not go into effect for another six months.
Under the plan, undocumented parents of US citizens will be allowed to remain in the country temporarily and receive work permits if they have lived in the US for at least five years and pass a background check.
That there are such people might seem odd to readers outside the US. This situation has come about because of an amendment to the constitution passed after the Civil War. The amendment states that anyone born in the US is automatically a US citizen.
Thus undocumented immigrants who have children born in the US are parents to US citizens, even though they are not citizens themselves.
Obama also promises to abolish the notorious Secure Communities program. Under this program, Obama has become the “deporter in chief”, deporting more people than any other president.
He promises to replace this with a new program that would target felons, instead of anyone caught up in immigration sweeps who have committed minor offenses.
But he says he will ramp up deportations of felons without papers. Given the vast industrial-prison complex in the US, with many convicted of felonies for things like possession of small amounts of marijuana, it remains to be seen how this will play out.
He also promised to militarise the border even further, and ramp up deportations of those not covered by his order.
Another provision will allow more immigrants with high-tech skills to get work permits. Conspicuously left out are agricultural workers. In California, half of all agricultural workers are undocumented.
Immigration activists have welcomed the positive aspects of the executive order, while recognising its limitations. They plan to fight to make the positive aspects permanent, extend them to the remaining 7-9 million undocumented immigrants, and overhaul the whole immigration system.
Two of these activists, Maru Mora Villapando and her daughter Josefina Mora (born in the US), recently spoke out.
Villapando said: “Well, under this plan, I only get to be here for three years without being deported, and I can apply for a work permit. But that doesn’t put me on the path to legal permanent residence and then the path to citizenship.
“This is just temporary relief, not really a change in my immigrant status …
“So, what we are going to do is to continue fighting, not only to keep what we have right now — which is very little, but it’s a step — but also to expand it.”
Josefina added: “[Obama] said he is going to ramp up more enforcement for those who do not qualify for this. So that puts many in even more danger than before.”
A so-called “comprehensive” immigration reform bill that passed the Senate with bi-partisan support was not even allowed to come up in the House by the Republicans, and so languished.
But this “comprehensive” bill made no provision for a real path to citizenship. It also did not address the whole racist immigration system, which makes it very difficult for non-whites to legally become citizens.
There is a stingy quota system for how many people, by country, can obtain citizenship legally. It is conservatively estimated that it would take 10 years for a Mexican to be granted citizenship through the legal process.
I doubt someone from Europe would have to wait that long.
It should be noted that the “free trade” agreement with Mexico allowed capital and goods to go more freely across the border, to the great detriment of Mexican peasants and workers. But there is one commodity blocked at the border: labour.
The positive aspects of Obama’s order come in the context of a new mass movement for immigrant rights that was launched in 2006.
That movement was sparked by a bill in Congress that was a gross attack on the undocumented and even made it illegal for citizens to give any type of aid to them.
There were huge marches in many cities against this bill in 2006, the largest being in Los Angeles. These were followed by big mobilisations on May Day.
The onerous bill was withdrawn as a result. There have not been mobilisations that large since, but important actions have occurred. Undocumented youth have rallied with T-shirts loudly proclaiming “I am undocumented” in open defiance of racist laws.
Obama himself has been dogged by demonstrations demanding he stop the mass deportations that have occurred under his administration.
Obama’s executive order will put wind in the sails of activists to fight for what they warn is “a long way to go”.