A Happy Thanksgiving for Five Million Immigrants

Basil Wilson's picture

President Obama’s Executive Order making it possible for approximately five million undocumented immigrants to experience family stability is a timely and humane initiative at Thanksgiving.  Undocumented family members who have been living in the United States for five years or more with a family member who is a permanent resident or a citizen will be spared from deportation beginning in January, 2015, providing that undocumented member can prove that he or she has no criminal record and has paid his or her taxes. The undocumented individual will also be given an authorization to work.  These measures are temporary and will last until the end of President Obama’s stint in office.  His successor can rescind the Executive Order or extent it after the 2016 presidential election.

Traditionally, American immigration policy placed great emphasis on keeping families together.  An America born child had the right to sponsor one’s parents until the change in the Immigration Act of 1996 which then President Bill Clinton signed into law.  As the law now stands, an American born child can only sponsor one's parents when the child turns 18 years of age.  The law seemingly fixed a problem but has also created a greater problem.  Unquestionably, those looking to migrate to the United States would travel to the United States in a state of advanced pregnancy and shortly after the child was born, initiate papers to become a permanent resident.

As the law presently stands, American born children would have their undocumented parents deported or being forced to stay in the shadows to escape the long arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Invariably, families in such a position lived in fear and a knock at the door could mean deportation for a breadwinner or a caregiver.

American society has been undergoing a militarization of civilian life from the 1970s.  The incarcerated population jumped from 200,000 to 1.4 million in 2014. Even though major crimes declined sharply in the 1990s, the prison population continued to increase exponentially.

The zero tolerance approach in the criminal justice system was easily transferred to the immigration enforcement after Al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001.  The fear of terrorism was readily linked to the need to secure the borders.  Immigration took on a new urgency and Congress allocated additional resources for border enforcement.

This process accelerated at the end of the Bush administration when Congress passed the Secure Communities Act providing additional resources to ICE and the Border Patrol to remove criminals and national security threats from the United States. Deportations beginning with the last year of the Bush administration and spilling over into the Obama presidency began to mirror mass incarceration.

Even though the emphasis is on deporting criminals, ICE’s definition of criminality is extremely elastic.  It encompasses undocumented immigrants who have committed traffic violations.  The deportation figures rose to over 409,849 in 2012.   There was a slight decline to 368,644 in 2013.

Apprehensions at the Mexican border are at an all time high and the border is more secure than heretofore.  But it is childish to presume that the Mexican-American border can ever be 100 percent sealed irrespective of how many border guards are deployed and other electronic gadgets.

The Obama Executive Order vis-à-vis Immigration has created an hysterical reaction from Republican elected officials and when they return after Thanksgiving, they will try to come to some consensus to negate the President’s Executive Order.  The President’s retort is that the Republican controlled House should just pass a bill.  It is unlikely that the House will pass legislation similar to what the Senate passed in a bi-partisan manner that received 66 votes in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.

Nonetheless, immigration invariably splits the Democratic and Republican Party.  The Republicans are locked into a cycle of white homogeneity and have demonstrated since the 2012 Presidential election an inability to diversify their base.  Thus immigration has become a zero sum game.  Whites on the right see the influx of “brown” immigrants as a threat to American civilization and a political advantage to the Democratic Party.

The demographic changes are inexorable.  The way the Electoral College is structured, it makes it exceedingly difficult for Republicans to win a Presidential election.  They fare better on the state level where gerrymandering and voter suppression enable Republicans to remain politically relevant.  All of this demographic upheaval is taking place when the White House is occupied by a black man who in the remaining two years of his second term, despite cries of impeachment, will not allow the hysteria of white conservatives to intimidate him.

There is a long honored practice in the country to deal with conflicts between the Executive Branch and the Legislature and that is judicial review.  The irresponsible rhetoric of charging the President with lawlessness does great disservice to democratic discourse.

Presidents have long since used Executive Orders as a means of furthering national objectives.  Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 to accommodate black demands for jobs in the war industry and to avoid the threatened March on Washington, in the midst of World War 11. Roosevelt also used Executive Order 9906 to intern 120,000 Japanese Americans after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941.  It was an outrageous act as it presumed that Japanese Americans would be disloyal to their country in the war against Japan. Congress apologized in 1988 when the Japanese Americans were compensated for their years of deprivation.

Obama’s Executive Order is an attempt to put an end to America’s war against itself.  There are millions of undocumented workers living in America who will not benefit from the Executive Order but at least five million undocumented immigrants will benefit temporarily. For three years they will experience family wholesomeness.  This is an age-old American tradition that America lost in a maddening ethos of mean spiritedness.

Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: basilwilson@caribbean-events.com.