Obama’s Deportations: A Reflection of America’s Fickle Welcome Mat

The Obama administration has set a record for deportations of illegal immigrants, much to the dismay of immigration reform advocates who had hoped the president would reverse the enforcement policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

In fiscal year 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 387,790 people, a 5% increase in “removals” (in the parlance of immigration officials) over the previous year.

President Obama may have made immigrant-friendly promises during the campaign, but viewed in the context of history, the deportations were practically inevitable. Anti-immigrant sentiment and immigration crackdowns have always paralleled America’s economic fortunes. Immigrants have been welcomed during good times, only to find themselves vilified when times get tough.

In the latter part of the 19th century, nearly 250,000 migrants from China — many recruited by U.S. companies — crossed the Pacific Ocean to work in America’s fields and mines and on the railroads. About 15,000 Chinese miners joined the California Gold Rush.

But after the boom went bust and an economic depression took hold, virulent anti-Chinese hatred — motivated by a combination of racism and the fear that Chinese workers were depressing wages — started in the West and rippled through national politics. Mobs attacked Chinese businesses and homes in San Francisco. The California Workingmen’s Party adopted the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” and rallies decrying the “Chinese curse” were held around California.

In an effort to bring a halt to most legal immigration from China, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was the first time that federal law had been used to control and limit migration to the United States by a particular nationality.

During World War I, agribusiness, worried about a labor shortage, prevailed on Herbert Hoover, then head of the U.S. Food Administration, to pressure Washington to open the migration valve and allow in more Mexican farmworkers.

But with the onset of the Depression at the end of the 1920s, Americans showed little tolerance for the migrants it had so recently courted. Hoover, now president, initiated a mass deportation program that continued into the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Immigration agents were ruthless in their raids, chasing down Latinos, ignoring due process and failing to distinguish between legal and nonlegal residents of the United States. Authorities deported as many as 1 million people.

The prosperous 1940s and 1950s gave birth to the Bracero Agreement, a “temporary” worker program to address World War II labor needs that ended up lasting 22 years.

But then an economic downturn at the end of the Korean War brought yet another crackdown. In 1954, President Eisenhower’s immigration chief, retired Gen. Joseph “Jumpin’ Joe” Swing, launched Operation Wetback. Government personnel rounded up migrants in border communities and deported them by bus, truck, train and ship, transporting them to the Mexican interior. By the time the deportations ended a few months after they began, the Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed to have forcibly removed 1.1 million Mexicans.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, migration from Mexico accelerated, pushed by economic conditions south of the border and fueled by relatively higher wages in the United States.

In 1981, as U.S. unemployment climbed, Atty. Gen. William French Smith sounded the alarm: “We have lost control of our borders.” As the country headed into a 16-month-long recession, the Reagan administration unveiled an immigration reform plan to combine increased enforcement with legalization. It took five years for President Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act to become law. During that time, the INS budget (measured in constant dollars) jumped by 28%.

The Reagan reforms did little if anything to stop illegal immigration, which ticked sharply upward in the early 1990s as a rise in the U.S. service economy created a need for low-skilled workers. The combination of continued migration and economic uncertainty made for a volatile political brew. In 1994, anti-immigration activists campaigned for a California ballot initiative designed to eliminate public social services for illegal migrants. Politicians seized on an emotional issue.

“They keep on coming!” an announcer ominously intoned over black-and-white video of Mexicans rushing across the border near San Diego, a campaign commercial for Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson, then running for reelection.

Stepped-up immigration enforcement was hardly a partisan issue. With initiatives such as Operation Blockade in El Paso, followed by Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, President Clinton continued the militarization of the border, a pattern that continued under President Bush. In eight years, Bush more than doubled the staff of the Border Patrol, raising the total from about 9,000 to 20,000 agents, even as he unsuccessfully pushed for comprehensive immigration reform.

In the face of declining congressional prospects for his own reform package, Obama is using executive powers to follow through on his other immigration-related pledge to step up enforcement. In doing so, he is following a long bipartisan tradition: Namely, as goes the economy, so goes immigration policy.

(This article appeared as an Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times).



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A Bipartisan Immigration Plan, Carrots and Sticks

Just days ahead of a planned Sunday rally that immigrants’ rights advocates hope will bring tens of thousands of people to Washington D.C., Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have put out a “blueprint” to overhaul the nation’s immigration system In a Washington Post column, the two legislators outlined a plan that should lower the decibel level of immigrants’ advocates who have voiced their frustration with members of Congress and the President for failing so far to make good on campaign promises to enact immigration reform. President Obama immediately congratulated the senators for producing “a promising, bipartisan framework which can and should be the basis for moving forward.” To the extent that publication of a newspaper op-ed article can signal progress, it offers a glimmer of hope that immigration reform might actually be in the offing, although its timing suggests that the immediate goal was to deflect likely verbal attacks during and after Sunday’s rally.

The two senators have outlined a four-point plan that, while vague on details, attempts to resurrect immigration reform proposals that were put forth but rejected in 2007. Schumer and Graham’s plan has “four pillars: requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement; creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here.”

As was the case in 2007, the blueprint attempts to offer something for all sides—a carrot and stick approach that might appease immigration reform advocates but is unlikely to win over critics, particularly in the current economic climate. Restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA will simply not go along with any “path to legalization,” no matter how “tough and fair” it might be. Ditto for plans to cater to the business community by setting up a system for “future flows” of low- and high-skilled workers. Biometric social security cards are likely to raise the ire of civil liberties advocates, as they have in the past. And, both immigrant rights and business groups have justifiably complained that a worker identification system is on the one hand unreliable, and, on the other could lead to racial discrimination in hiring.

But, even with its compromises and weaknesses, a plan for comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue. It is unconscionable that 11 million or more people live in the shadows—most of them welcomed during economic good times when we needed their labor, but now, with the economic downturn, considered expendable commodities.

The real problem, however, is that as long as the legislative stalemate over comprehensive immigration reform continues, a humane legalization program, such as the one that President Reagan signed in 1986, is impossible. As a result, the default executive policy embraced by the administration is a continuation of President Bush’s stern enforcement strategy. With the growing assault from the right, a focus on immigration enforcement might appear to be a politically pragmatic way of appeasing critics, but it does a disservice to the millions of voters who had a right to expect more from this President and this Congress. It’s encouraging that President Obama is urging Schumer and Graham “to translate their framework into a legislative proposal” and asking “Congress to act at the earliest possible opportunity.” But if he is sincere, he needs to join in spirit with the demonstrators on the Washington Mall on Sunday and put on the pressure.

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Business-Labor Blowout Imperils Immigration Reform

As if the prospects for serious overhaul of the immigration system weren’t dim enough in an economic downturn, organizations representing business and labor—groups that have supported immigration reform—are now publicly fighting each other.

At issue is the contentious matter of “future flow,” the desire by business for legal temporary worker programs. Unions and business interests are at loggerheads over how to regulate the flow of foreign workers. Organized labor has proposed a government commission to set numbers in order to protect American jobs. Organized business prefers a more market-oriented system. Talks aimed resolving differences have broken down, a dispute that has gone public with the release of opposing statements issued by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The groups issued dueling press releases following meetings last Thursday between President Obama and immigration reform advocates.

“A new temporary worker program in today’s economy would be political suicide,” declared AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a strongly-worded broadside aimed at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “American workers are facing a prolonged jobs crisis and nearly 10 percent unemployment, with no sign of recovery in sight. If immigration reform is to have any chance of passing this year, the Chamber of Commerce is going to have to abandon its insistence on the creation of a new temporary worker program and embrace a solution based on real employment needs,” said Trumka on Friday.

On Saturday, the Chamber’s Randel K. Johnson struck back. “The AFL-CIO tells the Chamber to ‘abandon its insistence’ on a new temporary worker program when they know that this is a pivotal area that must be discussed and negotiated. By taking this position, the AFL-CIO ends any realistic chance of legislation this year,” said Johnson in his statement. “The new program must also give the U.S. labor market, not a commission, the primary say in how many workers enter the country annually through workable legal programs.”

The White House meetings and the public disputes come just ahead of a planned rally for Sunday, March 21 on the national mall in Washington, D.C. Organizers hope that their “March for America” will bring pressure to bear on wavering politicians and will remind them of pledges to reform the immigration system. A chief focus of the Washington demonstration, according to planners, will be a system of legalization that seeks to end deportations and prevent families from being torn apart. For much of the American public, the battle over “amnesty” proposals represent the most controversial aspects of immigration reform. But for business, keeping the immigration valve open so as to allow a supply of foreign labor flowing in has always been a key requirement for immigration policy.

“From the business perspective the most important element of immigration reform is a program to supply the U.S. economy with the workers it needs to recover from the downturn and grow in years ahead, replacing the current unlawful influx with a legal flow,” said the Chamber of Commerce’s Johnson.

Keeping workers mobile and available to stoke the fires of industry has been a perennial requirement of organized business. After all, imported slaves and indentured servants helped build the United States. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce proposes a pernicious return to bondage; I’m just pointing out the self-interest of business groups which promote immigration reform. A more pertinent analogy might compare modern day immigration advocates from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to factory owners during the times of the Industrial Revolution in Germany. Nineteenth century urban industrialists actively campaigned to have serfs freed from agrarian estates so they would be able move to cities. That way, peasants would be available for industrial labor and not tied to farms.

Organized labor’s advocacy on behalf of immigrant workers in the U.S. and its qualified support for temporary worker programs represents a sea change, made haltingly over the past decade. Taken at face value, the AFL-CIO’s support of a plan that, as Trumka puts it, “ties the number of new foreign workers coming into the US labor market to established labor shortages” would have old-time labor leaders turning over in their union-dug graves. The AFL-CIO’s goal of first protecting U.S. workers while seeking protections for migrants is a logical step for a labor movement that has only gradually and recently come to terms with the reality of migrant workers. But it is no surprise that its position on “future flow” puts it at odds with business interests.

Although any immigration reform legislation will have a hard slog this year, to the extent that a bill will have any viability may be determined by the capacity of labor and business to work out their differences. Immigration reform is going nowhere without Republican support in the Senate, and the chief GOP advocate on the issue is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). After meeting with President Obama, Graham who with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) is hashing out the details of the bill, made clear where he stands on the issue of temporary workers. “I … encouraged the Administration to become engaged with the unions on the creation of a temporary worker program which meets the needs of business community,” said Graham.

Forcing concessions from labor is only one part of Graham’s strategy around immigration reform. Another arrow in his quiver is the seemingly unconnected issue of health care. “I expressed [to President Obama], in no uncertain terms, my belief that immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if health care reconciliation goes forward,” said Graham. “For more than a year, health care has sucked most of the energy out of the room. Using reconciliation to push health care through will make it much harder for Congress to come together on a topic as important as immigration.”

Will Republicans really tie an immigration bill to an up or down vote on health care? Will labor withhold support for immigration reform if business prevails on a temporary worker program? Might opponents of immigration reform watch its prospects implode without lifting a finger? Stay tuned.

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Short Memories: Jews and Immigration

Even though attitudes in the Jewish community towards illegal immigration appear to have hardened, a February report published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) suggests that the Jewish immigration experience over the past century has more in common with present-day migrants than many Jews recognize or fully appreciate.

Each year, the DHS’ Office of Immigration Statistics gamely puts out “Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States.” Even the government statisticians acknowledge the limitations of their data collection: keeping an accurate count of immigrants, particularly those here illegally, is far from an exact science. The experts assume that their estimate of illegal immigrants may be 10 percent lower than the actual numbers. Nonetheless, using the same methodology from year to year provides at the very least a good indication of trends. They show that between 2007 and 2009, the U.S. illegal immigrant population dropped by 8.5 percent–from 11.8 million to 10.8 million.

In short, the numbers show what anyone who is basically sentient could guess. American jobs started drying up in 2007 when the housing bubble burst and the construction industry fell apart. As the Great Recession hit and employment prospects plunged, the population of illegal immigrants, most of whom come here to work, naturally shrank. The contraction reversed a trend. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of illegal immigrants had climbed by nearly 39 percent, virtually tracking the growth rate of the U.S. economy, and defying the massive buildup of the nation’s immigration and border enforcement.

What’s all that got to do with the Jewish experience? Most American Jews are Ashkenazi descendants of Eastern Europeans who immigrated between 1881 and 1914, the beginning of World War I. Jews in the Russian Empire had been forced to live inside the Pale of Settlement, which included parts of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. They were forbidden from living in certain cities within the Pale and from holding certain occupations. Pogroms, anti-Jewish riots that occurred during the period, raged in hundreds of towns. Mobs killed more than 2,000 people, destroyed homes, and injured scores. The three decades saw a mass departure of Russian Jews. Two million of them–nearly one in two residents of the Pale–went abroad, 1.5 million to the United States.

And that’s where, in the minds of many Jews, the modern day exodus story often ends. The common wisdom engrained in popular Jewish consciousness is that Eastern European Jews immigrated because of persecution. This Twitter version of history is summarized, for instance, in the online Beginner’s Guide to Jewish Genealogy: “The majority of these Jewish immigrants were from Russia and Russian-held portions of Poland, escaping discrimination and pogroms (extreme persecutions).”

The reality is more complicated. As the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg put it in The Jews in America, “In fact, pogroms (physical attacks on Jews) played a minor role as a cause of the emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. The dominant cause of mass migration was poverty.” Hertzberg suggested that the widely accepted persecution explanation is a sort of mythologized vision of the past. “[I]t is much better to imagine that one’s grandparents were already the ‘better people’ in Russia and that America was the haven of refuge from anti-Semitism,” he wrote. “The truth is starker and more heroic. The Jews from Russia arrived in the United States penniless and largely uneducated…”

In a 2007 book chapter, “Were Jews Political Refugees or Economic Migrants?,” UCLA economics professor Leah Platt Boustan provides a painstakingly thorough debunking of the “common belief that the exodus from Russia was a uniquely Jewish event and thus cannot be incorporated into a general model of migration.” Boustan compares migration flows of Russian Jews and of Austro-Hungarians and Italians during the same period, showing that the “timing of Jewish migration, like that of other migrations to the New World, responded to economic conditions.” Boustan doesn’t discount the push of anti-Semitism and political hardship, but does make the case that persecution along with the combination of economic adversity in Russia and promise in the United States spurred the move to what the predominantly Yiddish-speaking immigrants called die goldene medina, the “golden land.”

That view directly contradicts the perspective of Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington, D.C., who has emerged as a leading Jewish voice in favor of more restrictionist immigration policies. “Jews during the Great Wave fled pogroms, oppression, and discrimination,” he wrote recently. “There’s no commonality between the Jewish refugees of that era and today’s economic migrants.” He concluded, “[A] growing majority of American Jews opposes illegal immigration because a confident American identity makes them empathize with fellow Americans first, not immigrants.”

It’s a potent argument, one that essentially calls on assimilated American Jews, blinded by the fog of historical memory, to disregard their own ancestral experiences and draw an artificial line between us and them. Steinlight rightly assumes that identity breeds empathy. If we can somehow disassociate our own experiences from those of more recent border crossers, we can try to convince ourselves that those people are not like us. Empathy does loom large in the Jewish experience, and public opinion surveys show that Jews tend to be comparatively tolerant of illegal immigrants. But attitudes may be changing. A 2007 poll by the American Jewish Committee showed that 67 percent of Jews backed some form of legalization program for illegal immigrants. By December 2009, according to a CIS survey, the percentage of Jews supporting a path to legalization was down to 60 percent.

In this regard, the changing Jewish opinion is in line with historic patterns of attitudes towards immigration. Namely, depressed economies are often accompanied by anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation. But Jews would do well to draw a lesson from our own history and resist the temptation to scapegoat and demonize those whose crimes consist mainly of crossing political boundaries in search of better lives. Immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were viewed not only as “hereditary defectives,” they were considered dirty, depraved, disease ridden, crime prone, a burden on society, and incapable of assimilation. If anything, the Jewish experience points to the need to address root causes of immigration, and to avoid the folly of treating immigrants as occupying invaders. And if the lessons of the last century aren’t sufficient, in dealing with illegal immigrants, Jews of conscience can benefit from the guidance of Hillel some 2,000 years ago: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”


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Immigration Reform: The Time is Now! Meets Legislative Reality

Hundreds of people who jammed into a Los Angeles union hall for a town hall meeting about immigration reform on Saturday morning got a bargain. Expecting to hear from just one influential member of the House of Representatives, audience members ended up getting two messages for the price of one.

Rep. Xavier Becerra

Rep. Xavier Becerra. Photo by Jeffrey Kaye.

An idealistic Democratic Congressman, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, shared a podium with the more pragmatic version of himself. One person embodying two realities: a longtime proponent of immigration reform and a realist experienced in vote counting.

The rally was called “2010: The Year of Immigration Reform Town Hall.” Sponsored by community and labor advocates of immigration reform, the meeting was held at the offices of the Long Term Care Workers Union, a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States.

As the gathering got underway, the multi-ethnic crowd was pumped. Organizers distributed special headsets so that audience members could hear interpreters providing simultaneous translations into Spanish, English, Armenian, and Chinese. Close to where I was sitting, students, mostly girls, from the Social Justice Academy at Hollywood High School wearing “Legalize L.A.” t-shirts, applauded as speakers were introduced.

But, from the beginning, calls to action, announcements about forthcoming rallies and marches, and passionate pleas about the pressing need for immigration reform seemed tempered by reality. The town hall’s moderator, Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), announced that two of the invited guests whose pictures had graced the event poster – Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) – had scheduling conflicts and so would not be appearing (Waxman has a safe seat, but Boxer may face a serious challenge from whoever wins the GOP primary). And before Becerra showed up, Salas, clearly anticipating that the Congressman might deliver a somber caution, coached the packed room on how to respond if Becerra demonstrated any inclination to extend the battle for immigration reform beyond 2010.

“I want to hear from you guys: ‘The time is now!’” The audience chanted responsively. Salas repeated the instruction. “What are you going to say? ‘The time is now!’” And again, for emphasis: “If someone says, ‘We have to wait,’ what are you going to say?” The students near me along with the rest of the crowd got the point: “The time is now!” they yelled.

Becerra took the stage after other speakers pressed the point. A tearful 15 year old named Beatríz told of her suicide attempt after immigration agents came to deport her mother. UCLA’s Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda summarized a report he recently released arguing that the United States could gain from legalizing illegal immigrants. “We are on the side, not only of justice, but economic benefit,” he declared. CHIRLA organizer Rey Barrera enthusiastically described the work of Reform Immigration for America in generating support for an immigration reform bill.

By contrast, Becerra seemed ready to downplay expectations. The son of immigrants (“every day my father helped build America,” he said) and the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, spoke forthrightly about the chances for immigration reform. “We don’t yet have the momentum,” he explained. As if on cue, the girls from Hollywood High chanted almost in a stage whisper, “The time is now!”

Becerra continued his theme, comparing the quest for immigration reform to the civil rights movement. “It didn’t happen overnight,” he explained, providing his view of what he called “the naked truth.”

“It will not be easy, but it will come,” he said. “In the House of Representatives, I firmly believe that we will have the votes to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he continued. As the crowd applauded, Becerra described a more complete picture of reality. “But there’s always a ‘but,’” he said. “In the Senate, I can’t guarantee you that there are the votes. And principally I can’t guarantee you that there are the votes because in the Senate, a dysfunctional Senate, we need a super-majority to get anything done…The Republicans in the Senate have decided to make every vote in the Senate a supermajority vote. You can’t sneeze in the Senate without asking for 60 votes. That’s why health care reform hasn’t become law.”

Becerra, a co-sponsor of the immigration reform bill recently introduced in the House, explained that while some members of Congress are receptive to the idea of immigration reform, “they don’t feel it in Washington, D.C. the way you feel it. They don’t feel this in some parts of this country the way you and Beatríz feel this,” he repeated, referring to the teenager who had preceded him at the podium.

Frustrated questioners asked him about the delays and about whether the President’s election promise to bring illegal immigrants in from the shadows was still in play. Becerra cited other domestic priorities – health care reform and jobs.
“He hears a lot from people who say we need immigration reform,” Becerra said, “but I don’t believe –” At that point, I couldn’t hear the rest of his sentence. It was interrupted as the girls of Hollywood High started a chorus that, as it was picked up by others throughout the room, drowned out Becerra’s words: “The time is now! The time is now!” It lasted for 50 seconds, and Becerra stood quietly.

“I agree,” he finally said as the chanting ended with applause. “I agree. Now, we just have to convince a majority of the House and Senate that the time is now. That’s the problem. We have to convince a majority.”

As he cautioned patience, Becerra asked the crowd to encourage friends and co-workers elsewhere in the country to contact their legislators, saying lawmakers need to know that support for immigration reform exists in places “where they’re not expecting it.”

After he finished, one of the students behind me, Leslie, explained her own frustration. Although she is a citizen, her sister and brother are in the country illegally. Brought here by their parents, her sibling and many of her friends can’t attend college, and so they perform menial jobs for cash. Feeling vulnerable, they can’t complain, she said, so they get paid less than other workers. Her aunt was arrested by immigration authorities and is under house arrest as her case moves through the immigration court. Leslie’s family typifies the precarious existence faced by millions of people living in the shadows who also feel, “The time is now!”

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Police Chief to Immigrants: May the Force Be With You

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck listens as Cap. Rigoberto Romero translates his remarks. Photo courtesy CHIRLA

Activists at political rallies are accustomed to the sight of police officers, uniformed and plainclothes, observing their actions. But rarely are cops featured as invited guests and welcomed participants. So it came as somewhat as a surprise last night when the new Los Angeles police chief, Charlie Beck, decked out in uniform, stood before an immigrants’ rights rally at La Placita church downturn to declare to a crowd of about 1,000 that “a person’s immigration status alone is not the business of the Los Angeles Police Department!”

Although there were some boos and catcalls, the hostile reaction to Beck was, for the most part drowned out as the audience roared its appreciation, with a standing ovation and chants of “Si se peude!” the immigrant’s rights and labor slogan, appropriated in an English-language version by Barack Obama as: “Yes we can!”

The sight of a room packed with Latino activists, many likely at risk for deportation, cheering for a police chief at a rally with the theme “La Lucha Continúa” (The Struggle Continues) seemed discordant. But the chief’s brief remarks were only the reiteration of a 30-year-old policy–known as Special Order 40–which prohibits Los Angeles police officers from “initiat(ing) police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person.” Previous police chiefs have also emphasized their desire to work with the immigrant community rather than alienate them. But such declarations generally came in official statements, closed-door meetings, or press interviews. This was the first time, according to Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights, who organized the gathering along with labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, that a police chief actually attended a political rally to take the stage with leading immigrants’ rights advocates.

“I think it was important,” said Salas. “You saw the standing ovation. That combination of applauding and booing is where people are. There’s distrust of the police in general, but if people are questioned about their immigration status, they can say ‘that’s not in line with what the police chief has said.'”

The police department’s standing in the Los Angeles immigrant community has been particularly tentative since May Day 2007, when police officers beat up marchers and journalists at a pro-immigrant rights demonstration. The melee cost the city about $13 million in legal settlements. Payments are still going out to participants who were assaulted by police. Last night Beck apologized for not addressing the crowd in Spanish. His statements were translated by Captain Rigoberto Romero, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Michoacán who is in line to be Beck’s liaison to the Los Angeles Latino community. “This is your police department,” said Beck. “Everyone deserves the same level of service, regardless of immigration status… Public safety is not based on where you were born.”

After he finished speaking, the police chief shook hands with the featured speaker, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), then left the room. Gutierrez addressed the rally to pump up support for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, or “CIR ASAP” for short. Admitting his disappointment that immigration reform was not more of a priority in Washington, Gutierrez reminded his appreciative audience of the growing power of the Latino electorate and of the promises made by Obama and others to bring illegal immigrants in from the shadows. “We say to those seeking our vote as the president sought, that if you’re Democrat or Republican, if you are supporting justice for immigrants, you can count on our support.”

In addition to other provisions which include a route for the legalization of illegal immigrants, the CIR ASAP bill would repeal the so-called 287 (g) program, which allows state and local police who have received training to essentially enforce federal immigration laws. Approximately 75 police departments (not including the Los Angeles Police Department) around the country have signed formal agreements to do so with the Department of Homeland Security. Although it is used primarily in jail settings, the program is controversial because in some cases–most notoriously in Maricopa County, Arizona–police officers have been accused of racial profiling and using their powers to arrest people suspected of being illegal immigrants. And while activists predictably have opposed the program, many top officials in law enforcement have also questioned the program’s effectiveness. A report issued last year by the Police Foundation concluded “The costs of participating in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) 287(g) program outweigh the benefits.” It quoted an anonymous police chief asking: “How do you police a community that will not talk to you?'”

Before leaving office late last year, Chief Beck’s predecessor, Bill Bratton declared, “I will encourage my successor to adopt the same rigid attitude toward keeping Special Order 40 and keeping the mission of the men and women of the department focused on community cooperation instead of community alienation.” If last night’s very public pronouncement was any indication, the City of L.A.’s top cop got the message.


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Mañana for Immigration Reform

A long-promised, bi-partisan U.S. Senate bill aimed at comprehensive immigration reform will be delayed until at least March, according to a lobbyist involved in negotiations over the content of the legislation. “The timeline originally was to have a bill by February,” said Sonia Ramirez, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO. “Now I think they’re shooting at having a detailed outline of the direction they’d like to go in the bill by the end of February.” Once the outline is agreed on, she explained, lawyers will draft the text.

The on-again, off again timetable has disappointed immigration reform advocates. Sen. Charles. E. Schumer (D-NY), Chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, who has been working on an immigration bill with South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, indicated during the summer that legislation would be introduced last year “I think we’ll have a good bill by Labor Day,” Schumer, told the Associated Press last July. But it never materialized.

Before and after the presidential election, Barack Obama also promised that he would move on immigration reform. But a one sentence mention of the subject towards the end of his state of the union speech on Wednesday seemed more like an obligatory item on a to-do list than a rousing call to action: “And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system,” said the President, “to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation.” End of subject.

The following day at a press conference, when a reporter asked Schumer about plans for immigration reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) jumped in with instructions for the New York Senator: “Chuck, let’s not get into any deadlines,” he cautioned. “”You get into trouble by setting deadlines. It is something we’re committed to do. And we’ll do it as soon as we can.” Schumer was obligingly vague about his plans. “We are making good progress,” he said, explaining that he was having difficulty enlisting support from Republican ranks. “Now, I’ve said all along, even before last Tuesday with the Massachusetts election, that we have to have this bill be a bipartisan bill, two Democrats, two Republicans to introduce it. We’re not there yet. We’re still working on getting our Republicans.” Schumer announced that he had met with former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, whom he said, without elaboration “is changing his views on immigration.” It was unclear what contribution, if any, Dobbs would make to the immigration debate.

The AFL-CIO’s Ramirez indicated that she and other labor leaders are trying to reach a compromise with business representatives on a complicated section of the bill that would set guidelines to regulate the use of migrant workers on either a temporary or permanent basis. Labor organizations have supported a plan for a new Presidential commission to help establish criteria and calculate labor needs. Business groups have said that they would not accept a commission that could be politicized and not suitably responsive to “market forces.” This issue may seem esoteric, but as legislative efforts to enact immigration reform move haltingly along, the ability of labor and business to agree on the fundamentals of migrant worker programs could make the difference between a viable bill and yet another failed effort to fix the broken system. The recently-introduced House immigration bill advocated most forcefully by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and championed by many reform advocates is widely seen as basically dead on arrival because of criticisms from the right that it is too migrant friendly.

Labor’s Ramirez suggested that the commission proposal would not be a deal breaker. “In terms of creating a system–let’s put the word ‘commission’ aside–that contemplates economic need and makes decisions on visas based on demonstrated need, that’s attractive to us both [business and labor]. So I think there is lots of agreement on how to move forward.” Ramirez said that labor would want to insist that migrant workers involved in “future flows” be assured worker protections and rights. Labor is also pushing to make sure that recruiters who bring in foreign workers are better regulated. But she made it clear that the commission idea was more of a subject for negotiation than a key demand. “It’s about crafting a system,” she said, “not calling it a ‘commission.'”

Time is not on the side of immigration reformers. As the 2010 midterm elections approach, politicians on the fence are likely to be seen as loathe to embrace such a controversial issue. One influential senator, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has suggested a more wary piecemeal approach to immigration reform, rather than one big package. Breaking off chunks and dealing separately with the contentious issues of legalization, enforcement, and “future flows” of migrants may seem like a pragmatic short term approach to immigration but is likely to result in once again postponing the issue. And, if it’s not going to be dealt with in 2010, it’s almost certain to be ignored later on as politicos prepare for the 2012 presidential election year.

After this article appeared, Sonia Ramirez wrote to clarify the position of the AFL-CIO. Ramirez explained that the AFL-CIO is committed to replacing the “current employment-based immigration system——that is currently arbitrarily set by Congress and is a product of political compromise, without regard to real labor shortages——with a system that assesses labor market needs on an ongoing basis and determines the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment based on demonstrated labor market needs.” Ramirez wrote that the AFL-CIO supports “a system that examines the impact of immigration on the economy, wages, the workforce and business. We would never negotiate away these principles,” she explained. “If we have to call this entity something else like a “board” or an “authority” we are willing to do that.”

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