President Obama’s Executive Order on immigration: Two faculty experts weigh in on the subject

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YaleNews invited two faculty members whose research focuses on issues of migration — Alicia Schmidt Camacho and Margaret Peters — to comment on President Barack Obama’s executive action deferring the deportation of undocumented parents of American citizens or legal permanent residents who have been in the country for at least five years. The action, which will affect some four million undocumented immigrants, will allow those who meet certain conditions to work legally in the United States.

Schmidt Camacho is professor of American studies and of ethnicity race and migration, and is the associate master for Ezra Stiles College. She has studied the femicide in Ciudad Juárez, transnational migration, border governance, and social movements in the Americas, and is the author of “Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the Mexico-U.S. Borderlands.” She chairs the board of Junta for Progressive Action, a community agency serving the Latina/o community of Fair Haven.

Peters is an assistant professor of political science whose research focuses broadly on international political economy with a special focus on the politics of migration. She earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 2011, writing her dissertation on the relationship between trade and capital policy and immigration policy.

YaleNews posed the same questions to both scholars, who offered their comments separately.

During his address announcing expanded programs that would grant nearly four million undocumented immigrants temporary relief from deportation, President Obama said the new measures would allow those immigrants “to come out from the shadows.” Many of them reacted to the news with jubilance. How did you react?

Schmidt Camacho: Like so many, I was impatient for Obama to use the power of the executive office to provide relief for the millions of people vulnerable to detention and deportation. In my view, the lack of opportunity for legal migration or adjustment of unlawful status for this enormous population distorts the institutions of immigration regulation and border security, and causes grave social harm. Since the U.S. legislature has refused to engage in a substantive process of immigration reform that could provide this much needed relief and more practical and humane priorities for enforcement, the President was forced to act.

I welcomed the news that some three- to five-million people may obtain temporary protected status and have the opportunity to work legally in the United States. But I am concerned that the remaining millions are unprotected and categorized as criminals, and that this temporary protected status creates a peculiar legal category of limited rights in the United States. The fact that the administration feels compelled — or even entitled — to escalate the current militarized operations of Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol alarms me. Under Bush and Obama, these institutions became the largest federal law enforcement agency, operating with an unprecedented budget and reach, and with insufficient accountability or oversight. Addressing the complex and diverse dynamics of migration through a single lens of national security and criminal law makes little rational sense. It is not only bad domestic policy; it poses even greater threat to democratic partnerships with sending countries in Central America and Mexico. It represents a failure to engage with the realities that make migration a fundamental social fact, rather than a political problem. In the bifurcated logic of his address, Obama wanted to have it both ways, to call undocumented migrants lawbreakers on the one hand, and yet dignify their struggle against being criminalized on the other.

Peters: I was not surprised by Obama’s speech since he has been saying he was going to act without Congress for a while now. I think that this move, overall, will be good for the country. Having people live in the shadows creates many problems: Undocumented immigrants are less willing to speak up about labor standard abuses and about crime. Clearly, we want everyone to feel comfortable to go to the police if they have knowledge about a crime. The employers who abuse undocumented immigrants gain an unfair advantage that hurts native-born labor and employers who do not use undocumented immigrants. Now, these undocumented immigrants will be more willing to speak up in face of labor abuses that will help both native labor and honest employers.  

Of course, this is great for all the families that this deferred action will help as well. No child should be separated from his/her parents just because they are here illegally, and all American children, including those born to undocumented immigrants, deserve the right to grow up here in the United States with their families intact.

However limited the relief, is it better than nothing?

Schmidt Camacho: There is much to celebrate in President Obama’s establishment of new priorities for immigration enforcement. The promise of new restraints on the deportation of ordinary immigrants represents a critical reprieve from the militarized regime of law enforcement that has imposed terror on communities around the country and done so much to devalue the civil and human rights of millions. The pledge to extend temporary protected status to the parents of U.S. citizen children and longstanding residents represents a major rebuttal to the cynical politics that have delayed immigration reform, and allowed the G.O.P. to use racism and xenophobia to secure their hold on government. Obama spoke of an immigration enforcement system that could distinguish the student, the neighbor, the parent, or the hardworking employee from the security threat; as modest as this may sound, it is a distinction that his administration has been all too willing to set aside in its aggressive campaign of deportations.

Peters: Yes.   

Do you think the president’s action will halt any forward motion on a more comprehensive immigration reform?

Schmidt Camacho: Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform will have to mobilize against the conservative backlash against Obama’s action. This order will only work if it is followed by a concerted investment in progressive legislative action, which should finally include the path to citizenship. I am afraid that this order will be seen as a gift bestowed by the President rather than as a spur to further legislative action. It could end up empowering the xenophobic forces in the Republican Party — the ones who want only a border wall — to bring much more harmful proposals to Congress.

And, although the political sphere will see the order as Obama’s initiative, it is much more the achievement of a civil society formed by immigrants and their allies. As Obama himself acknowledged, it is the undocumented students who rallied for the Dream Act, the families who fought the separation of parents from children, and the cities that held the line against Secure Communities who have insisted that the President deliver on the change he promised on taking office. This order is far less, in fact, than the pledge for comprehensive reform. Temporary protected status may provide relief from forced removal and a work permit, but it leaves unrecognized and unprotected the fuller scope of these individuals’ integration into U.S. society. For this order to represent meaningful change, it will have to be the preamble to more expansive restructuring of immigration policy and immigration law enforcement, one that addresses the unprecedented build up of border security and immigration deterrence. Rather than challenge his opponents to lead with an immigration bill, the President should look to his own party to produce a new vision for border regulation and immigration policy that is both humane and responsive to the realities of human mobility and interdependence.

Peters: I do not believe that there was any serious forward motion on comprehensive immigration reform. For most Republican members of the House, comprehensive immigration reform is a losing issue. Most of them are in safe, conservative districts where they are more concerned about a primary challenger from the right than facing a Democrat in the general election. These House members saw what happened to Eric Cantor when he seemed to support a limited path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (just a reminder, he lost his primary to a challenger from the right). Since most of their constituents oppose any path to legalization, there is not a bill that could pass both the House and Senate and be signed by the President. Any talk about immigration reform was just that — talk.

Was there more he could have done via executive action, or does it make sense to fight for a legislative bill that would be more expansive?

Schmidt Camacho: The precipitous rise in violence that have made longstanding North American migratory circuit so deadly should have been grounds for a much bigger, more imaginative reckoning with the issues of international governance and human mobility by the President. He may not have been able to do more in an executive order, but he and the Democratic Party squandered many opportunities to do more to articulate a more reasonable and humane policy in his first term.

It is not enough for him to describe this system as broken, because it has engendered a human rights and economic crisis for the continent. For instance, the administration was unprepared to address the Central American child migrants as a different category of border-crosser from the unlawful alien. While some unaccompanied minors may obtain refugee status, the Obama administration has acted most forcefully to demand that Mexican and Central American governments bolster their efforts to detain and remove these children before they reach the United States. This despite the fact that they are widely recognized as fleeing conditions of grave peril. As rates of emigration rise around the world, the United States should absolutely craft more forward-looking, rational and humane policy for the future. One order, and one bill, will not resolve all the issues at stake. The U.S. legislature and executive office should create new mechanisms for reviewing all aspects of this issue, one that integrates social, labor, and economic policy into the framework of immigration.

Peters:

Margaret Peters
Theoretically, he probably could have created a more expansive program, but politically I think it would have been hard to enact a larger program. Yes, it still makes sense to fight for legislation but it is unrealistic to think it would be passed. That said, I have seen estimates that Immigration and Customs Enforcement can realistically deport up to about 400,000 people per year; that means that a lot of undocumented immigrants still will not be deported in any given year. Obama’s new priority system for deportation will allow undocumented immigrants who are productive members of society a little more security that they will not be deported. 

The President offered no plan for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. How much of a disappointment do you think that is to the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States?    

Schmidt Camacho: It is disappointing to see Obama repeat the same tired language that converts unauthorized migrants into criminals and threats to the rule of law. His order is indeed, no amnesty, no path to citizenship, and it retains damaging distinctions between the deserving migrants and the unredeemable majority of the undocumented. The refusal to engage more fully in the battle over the rights of immigrants — in this age of unprecedented human mobility — means he is willing to leave the worst of this broken system intact.

Obama has done the bare minimum to arrest the damage caused by the delays in comprehensive reform. If we allow this administration to exchange this concession to limited relief for further escalation of border security operations and from creating new options for expanding legal migration, then we will have retreated from the most pressing human rights concerns of our age. This is not a matter of making unauthorized migrants get right with the law; it is rather a matter of making the law get right with the realities of migration. Still, the immigrant rights movement has learned not to count on legislative reform or federal action for the solution to this crisis. At the local level, much more has been accomplished to protect and integrate migrants into U.S. society. When the Department of Homeland Security announced the end of Secure Communities, it was out of recognition that cities and states around the country had made it untenable policy. The refrain “no human being is illegal” continues to animate a vision for protecting migration as a fundamental human right.

Peters: The President cannot change the law; he can only change how the law is enforced (what is known as prosecutorial discretion). He could not offer a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants; only Congress can do that. That said, many of the undocumented immigrants that are protected under this action will eventually be eligible for citizenship because they have children who are American citizens. Their children will be able to sponsor them for citizenship when they are reach adulthood.

(Photo illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein. Image by Shutterstock

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