On The Democratic Party's Immigration Reform

The latest Democratic Party Platform (2012) presents a brief plan on what’s to be done about the 11+ million undocumented immigrants currently living in America:

the country urgently needs comprehensive immigration reform that brings undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and requires them to get right with the law, learn English, and pay taxes in order to get on a path to earn citizenship. We need an immigration reform that creates a system for allocating visas that meets our economic needs, keeps families together, and enforces the law.
— 2012 Democratic National Party Platform

The national party’s website on immigration reform clarifies that to “get right with the law” must be accompanied by confessing and paying a fee, but also includes other unspecified acts of penance:

Undocumented workers who are in good standing must admit that they broke the law, pay taxes and a penalty, learn English, and get right with the law before they can get in line to earn their citizenship.

While there are no precepts more liberal than humility before the law, family, wage work, and taxes, the Democrats must have found a copy of old Rousseau’s social contract and had their lawyers amend its clauses to include mandated confessions, money transactions, and assimilation.

In fact the Democratic platform is not an extension of liberalism to undocumented immigrants; it is a withholding of the promises of liberalism from millions of immigrants and substituting in its place an aristocracy of citizenship in which some of us are born with the guarantees of liberty, equality, and impartiality of law while others must “earn” a conditional recognition under state institutions — conditions which will maintain immigrant populations as easily governable and highly exploitable. “Earned citizenship” is not citizenship.

Forcing undocumented immigrants to confess as criminals aims to inculcate in them an identity of second-class citizenry. Compelling them to learn English (even when they would learn English anyway) aims to reinforce with official edict the notion that their native identities are inferior. Undocumented immigrants who are attempting to escape poverty are in a poor position to resist such Democratic Party efforts to erode their sense of dignity.

Furthermore the vague notions of “good standing” and the implications of English competency testing will keep even compliant immigrants precariously exposed to the whims of politicians and law enforcement.

The Democratic Party is one of the most powerful bourgeois political parties in history, so it is not surprising that their platform pushes a capitalist agenda to regulate, humiliate, track, and exploit migrant workers. What is notable, however, is the discontinuity in liberalism revealed by such policies. Liberal ideology cannot maintain itself at the border. Because it is at the border that the liberal pretenses of liberty, equality, and fraternity clash with global capitalism’s need to control the movement of workers.

And so it is also not surprising that when examining Democratic rhetoric the plan to identify, punish, and assimilate undocumented immigrants is secondary while securing the border is often given the first priority.

That priority was apparent in the title the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 744 “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act”) introduced by a bipartisan group of senators but championed and passed in the Senate mainly by Democrats (and then never taken up by the Republican-controlled House). The bill would have required 700 miles of fence, an increase to at least 38,405 trained full-time active duty U.S. Border Patrol agents, and allowed the deployment of the National Guard to the border before the other parts of the legislation (such as an earned path to citizenship) could have been implemented. To his credit, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy (D) spoke against many of the border security measures, denouncing them as “a Christmas wish list for Halliburton” and “a potential recipe for waste, fraud and abuse.”

Unfortunately the Democratic Party’s stance is much closer to that of the Republicans Leahy ultimately capitulated to. The same priority can also be seen on the Democratic Party website on immigration reform. The proposed requirements to be imposed upon undocumented immigrants, quoted above, is actually the third of three bullet points. The first boasts that “The Obama administration has dedicated unprecedented resources to securing our borders and reducing the flow of illegal traffic in both directions.”

So it is a two-step plan: 1) secure the borders; then 2) change the law to officially recognize previously undocumented workers as a second tier of citizens. The first step allows the state to control more precisely the rate of illegal immigration so that the number of Mexican fathers working America’s fields, the number of Mexican daughters working in the maquiladoras, and the number kept desperately unemployed can be adjusted for optimal profits. The second step allows the state to more easily govern immigrants and regulate labour markets within the country.

President Obama’s Immigration Reform Speech

On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced three executive actions to implement a degree of immigration reform while urging congress to decide upon a more permanent solution. His announcement speech included both steps of the Democratic plan. His opening remarks contained the familiar boasting about his administration’s ongoing efforts to make the life of migrant workers more dangerous:

Today we have more agents and technology deployed to secure our southern border than at any time in our history. And over the past six years illegal border crossings have been cut by more than half.

And the very first of the executive actions he announced was to supply more cops, guns, and tools of surveillance to the border:

First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do cross over.

He then went on to express his personal moral indignation toward immigrants who enter the country without permission:

undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable.

The idea of accountability he went on to outline in his speech is very similar to that in his party’s platform: confession, penance, assimilation. But why should undocumented immigrants be subjected to such a process of accountability? According to Obama, it is a matter of fairness:

We expect people who live in this country to play by the rules. We expect those who cut the line will not be unfairly rewarded. […​] Millions of us, myself included, go back generations in this country, with ancestors who put in the painstaking work to become citizens. So we don’t like the notion anyone might get a free pass to American citizenship.

To add some context to that statement, keep in mind that this speaker is the highest ranking executive in a government which currently rules one of the wealthiest nations this planet has ever had the burden of supporting, and he is telling the current generation of undocumented immigrants that they must be found out and subjected to a “painstaking” process out of fairness to previous generations of unfortunate immigrants who were likewise mistreated. That is the logic of a degenerate justice.

Some might try to defend the language of the Democratic Party as being constrained by the exigencies of bipartisan politics, that the president must word his speeches carefully if his reforms are to have any chance in such a conservative country. But when pandering to political opponents and nativists, there is no excuse for bringing human dignity to the bargaining table.

The president and his party are correct about the existence of an element of unfairness, but they are wrong about its nature. Undocumented workers often take greater risks, make greater sacrifices, work more demanding jobs for longer hours to provide for their families (making Americans rich in the process), yet they receive lesser wages, benefits, opportunities, protections, and respect. That’s not fair.


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