By Arturo Ignacio Sánchez
President Obama’s executive action on immigration has been uncritically embraced and lauded by immigrant activists, so-called political progressives, and corporate interests.
At first glance, this is totally understandable. From an immediate humanitarian perspective the initiative will insulate five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. In effect, immigrant families will no longer be torn apart when the undocumented parent of a child born in the U.S. is deported. Moreover, the dreaded and highly criticized Secure Communities program, which rounds-up unauthorized immigrants for minor violations like a traffic summons, will be dismantled. In the short-term, this is clearly a significant step in the right direction. It is the humane and right thing to do.
Nonetheless, what should concern thoughtful observers are the long-term impacts on citizenship and the accompanying rights flowing from U.S. nationality. Because of viral, unrelenting, and uncompromising anti-immigrant sentiments, the directive is being politically marketed as a tightly bounded initiative that limits immigrant rights. As the president stated: “All we are saying is that we are not going to deport you.” He goes on to explain that this “deal” does not apply to “illegal” immigrants in the future; does not grant citizenship; does not provide permanent residence in the U.S.; and does not offer the same benefits that citizens currently receive.
Besides the all-important constraints on deportation what does the executive action place on the proverbial table? The initiative creates – for all intents and purposes – a subset of millions of foreign-born folks that will be entitled to temporarily remain in the U.S. as low-wage workers. Yet, we should be alert to the fact that the explicit lack of a pathway to naturalization means that we are
constructing a special class of workers that will not have the political rights associated with U.S. citizenship. This is reminiscent of the discredited U.S./Mexican agreement that established the Bracero guest worker program which provided cheap and easily exploitable labor for the U.S. agro-industrial sector.
In short, the president’s initiative brings undocumented immigrant out of the proverbial shadows and then interns them in a special category of workers without political rights. In the long-run, the unintended consequences for the U.S. political and economic system may prove to be unsustainable. What will it mean for the country to have millions of immigrant workers excluded from the supposed benefits of living and working in the United States? Will the establishment of millions of workers that are structurally prevented from organizing their workplaces ring the death bell for the labor movement? What happens to the historical notion that hard work is rewarded with economic stability? And in a political economy characterized by increasing levels of economic and racial inequality do we really want to have an apartheid-like economic system that condemns millions to permanent poverty?
These are important questions that must be asked and answered in a politically forthright manner. To limit our comments to a set of uncritical and unexamined statements that merely appeals to our immediate sense of social justice is both short-sighted and politically unsustainable. As a nation of immigrants we require and deserve a wider and more critical conversation. Difficult and penetrating questions must be asked. Are we up to the political task? Stay tuned, the jury is still out.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught contemporary immigration, entrepreneurship, and urban planning at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, and Pratt Institute.