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Obama Offers Hope on Immigration Reform, But Emphasis on Enforcement Portends More Criminalization

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President Obama has kicked off his second term with a major push for comprehensive immigration reform, backing a bipartisan Senate plan that includes a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. But Obama’s call for tougher border enforcement and a system for tracking those who overstay visas has sparked concerns he will continue with a pro-criminalization and militarization approach that saw a record number of deportations in his first term. We host a roundtable with three guests: Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy at the United We Dream Coalition; Fernando Garcia, the founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights; and Mae Ngai, professor of history and Asian-American studies at Columbia University. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue to look at immigration now, as we turn to news this week that President Obama will kick off his second term with a major push for comprehensive immigration reform. Obama made the announcement during a speech Tuesday in Nevada, a battleground state whose growing Latino vote helped him win the November election.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have to deal with the 11 million individuals who are here illegally. Now, we all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship. But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship. It’s easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of “us” versus “them.” And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of “us” used to be “them.” We forget that. The foundation for bipartisan action is already in place. And if Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During his address, Obama backed a bipartisan Senate plan announced Monday that includes a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. He also called for tougher border enforcement and a system for tracking those who overstay visas.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to discuss what’s known about the details of the plans called for this week by the president and the so-called “Gang of 8” bipartisan senators, we’re joined by three guests.

In Washington, D.C., Lorella Praeli is with us, director of advocacy and policy at the United We Dream Coalition, just back from attending President Obama’s speech in person on Tuesday.

In El Paso, Texas, we’re joined by Fernando Garcia, the founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, to get a perspective on the border.

And here in New York, Mae Ngai is with us, professor of history and Asian-American studies at Columbia University. Her op-ed piece, “Reforming Immigration for Good,” was published in The New York Times yesterday.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Lorella, I’d like to begin with you. You were at the—you were at the presentation, the speech by President Obama, and you were tweeting during his speech. Could you talk about some of your tweets?

LORELLA PRAELI: Sure. I mean, I think, through my tweets, I was expressing mixed emotions. I was expressing tremendous amount of excitement to hear the president, you know, just a week after his inauguration come out and talk about wanting to reform immigration and to have a clear pathway to citizenship for our community. At the same time, you—as an advocate and an activist, you understand what’s happening in your community right now, and you understand that you can’t really wait for the legislative timeline to move, because there is a real sense of urgency now. So it was—it was an expression of both happiness, disappointment, and knowing the truth, knowing that while the president is speaking, people are being deported and ripped apart from their families and their communities, but again, very privileged to have been there and excited for this year.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Mae Ngai, one of the things that interested me was the president didn’t just give a speech about policy, he also tried to remind people about the history of immigration battles in the United States—

MAE NGAI: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —when he said that remark, “Most of 'us' used to be 'them.'” And you’ve looked extensively at the immigration history of the country. And one of the points that you have raised, that most people have overlooked, is this whole issue of the defining of who is legal and illegal—

MAE NGAI: That’s right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and how that has been used to target specific populations.

MAE NGAI: Right. Well, I think, in a way, that was the best part of the president’s speech, when he spoke to the values of what it means to be a nation of immigrants. And as he pointed out, most of “us” used to be “them.” And he also said that this country was built by the hard work of immigrants.

I’m reminded a lot of the difference between immigration at the turn of the last century and immigration at the turn of this century. In many ways, they’re similar: It’s a mass migration, it’s a labor migration, it contributed to a dynamic growth of the country’s economy and culture. The main difference, though, was, a hundred years ago, there were no numerical restrictions. So when people say, “My ancestors came legally; they didn’t break the law; they didn’t cut to the front of the line,” well, there wasn’t any line. Ninety-eight percent of the people who showed up at Ellis Island got in. And that’s a big difference.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you specifically target the visa situation, because the way that the numerical quotas work right now, those countries that normally supply a lot of immigrants automatically hit their visa limits very quickly.

MAE NGAI: That’s right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then everyone else ends up being illegal, whereas other countries, it’s very easy to get in.

MAE NGAI: Right. I think that’s the big elephant in the room that none of the plans on the table in the Senate or in the White House actually have taken up. And that elephant is the visa system. Right now, no country can have more than 7 percent of the total. And that 7 percent, that maximum for every country, is about 25,000. So four countries every year max out. And you can guess which four countries they are: Mexico, India, China and the Philippines. So, the wait, when people say, “Get at the end of the line,” that line could be 20 years; it could actually be 40 years long. So it’s a cruel joke.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. In the case of Mexicans, it’s closer to 40 years long, right?

MAE NGAI: Yeah, yeah. It’s so—you know, to tell someone to get to the end of the line is really—I think it’s a cruel joke.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about workers, the situation for workers, and the studies that have been done around them, in Virginia, in North Carolina.

MAE NGAI: Well, you know, immigrants today work in all kinds of jobs. They don’t only work in agriculture anymore. They work in cities in our restaurants, in hotels and buildings, but they also work in the food-processing industry. And the poultry industry really relies on undocumented labor. There was a case in South Carolina where an ICE raid ended up in the deportation of all the workers, and the company resorted to prison labor to replace them. These are the kinds of jobs that businesses are—have on offer today. So I think part of the problem also is—

AMY GOODMAN: They couldn’t get local residents to take the jobs.

MAE NGAI: Not right away. I mean, they actually ended up having to raise wages to attract local African Americans to work there. So, part of our problem is also the fact that business wants undocumented labor, right? Because the undocumented worker also has fewer opportunities to complain, because if you complain, you can get deported.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Fernando Garcia, you’re with the Border Network for Human Rights, and clearly one of the big issues—and actually, some of the differences between the Senate proposal and President Obama’s presentation—and the devil in this is going to be in the details of how—what is actually decided in Congress. But the Senate version would require the certification that the border is secure before anybody could pass from being temporarily in the United States to being able to apply for permanent residency. But, you know—but I’ve been struck by the enormous expenditures already that the government is spending. As I noted in my column in the Daily News this week, the federal government spent $18 billion last year on border security, which is more than the combined budgets of the FBI, the Marshals Service, the Secret Service, the DEA, the ATF. All of these other federal law enforcement agencies, their total budgets were only $14 billion. So we’re already spending a huge amount on border security. Your sense, where the president is saying, on the other hand, that he doesn’t want to have this kind of certification, that he’s already secured or done a lot to secure the borders in the last—in his first term?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Yes, yes. Let’s just remember that we had already [inaudible] for—most of the border enforcement benchmark that we discussed in 2006 was—which was the previous effort on immigration reform. At the border, we have seen a buildup on enforcement. I mean, if we remember now, today, that we have 400 miles of fencing and walls already in place, have doubled the Border Patrol agents on the ground to up to 22,000. We had deployed the National Guard, military units at the border. And as you say, we have [inaudible] billions of dollars. So I think it seems that never it’s going to be enough for some people. I mean, it seems that border enforcement will always be a political tool, you know, to advance—either to oppose citizenship or access to citizenship, or not to—essentially, destroy the process on comprehensive immigration reform. So, we believe that that is going to be unworkable. I mean, who knows who’s going to certify this process? Governor Perry, that actually had been saying that there were bombs exploding in El Paso? Or Governor Brewer, that actually—she presented the chaos and beheadings in Tucson or at the border would never happen? So I think it is really concerning that they are linking more punitive policies, more criminalization for immigrants, more deportation and militarization, to access citizenship.

AMY GOODMAN: And on the issue of militarization of the border, Fernando Garcia, the issue, for example, of drones, talk about what’s happening.

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, we already have deployed some drones. And I think it is—it just only shows, I mean, the level of militarization. But now, with this new proposal, they want to deploy a serious—increase the number of drones and have all of these unmanned flying vehicles along the U.S.-Mexico border. And again, I mean, each of those drones are going to be extremely expensive. Obviously, they would not be engaging with communities directly, but it’s a show of how we’re moving towards the—a full militarization of the border.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Lorella Praeli about this whole issue of some of, again, the details of the proposals as they’ve come forth so far, as the president said and as the Senate proposal says that those who want to be legalized would have to learn English. But in the past, only someone who wanted to become a U.S. citizen, as a requirement of citizenship, had to learn English and pass a civics exams. Now the talk is of anybody who wants to get a green card or permanent residency would first have to learn English and pass a civics exam. And the Migration Policy Institute estimates that there would be, by that process, as many as 3.6 to five million of the 11 million undocumented who would not be able to pass that English exam. So your—could you talk about some of the specifics, like the English-language requirement, and how it’s being applied?

LORELLA PRAELI: Yeah. So I think—I mean, again, I think that what we’ve seen is a bipartisan framework, and we’ve also seen a fact sheet that the administration released after the president spoke yesterday—the day before yesterday, sorry. But I think a lot of the—the devil is in the details, like you said earlier. So, I think we have to question the motive behind some of these principles or proposals. To me, it’s unacceptable that for someone to get a green card, it is a requirement that they speak the English language. That has never been a requirement. That’s a requirement if you want to naturalize and become a U.S. citizen. But, I mean, you have to begin to wonder how long are people going to be in some temporary line, and really this line means being in legal limbo for an indefinite amount of time. And what are going to be the triggers or the bars that will trap people in this provisional status as they wait to become green card holders, that will then remove them from the United States?

And I just—I also want to add something to this conversation on enforcement, because I think it’s—it’s disappointing to hear that both the Senate and the president want to lead with making or kind of uplifting this myth that our borders are not secure and that enforcement has to be the number one priority. And I think that comes from a place of fear. It comes from a place of fear because America knows undocumented immigrants. America shares both neighborhoods and schools and many public spaces with undocumented immigrants. So, there is this notion that, you know, undocumented immigrants are criminals and they’re dangerous, and so we have to lead with enforcement first. But really that’s not the problem here. You’ve said the border is more secure than it has ever been before. Eighteen billion dollars have been spent last year. So I think it’s disappointing to hear that.

I do think that there are some key differences between the plan that the president has outlined and the Senate bipartisan framework. And I think a lot of that has to do with the different politics, you know, on the Senate side, needing to secure 60 votes and making sure that this is bipartisan and that Republicans can feel like they can spend political capital on this, and that this is the right thing to do for Democrats and Republicans, especially if they consider the changing demographics in this country and the mandate out of the elections. But some of the key principles that are worth underscoring are that the president does not make—does not—the president’s plan does not say that one has to meet—that the border triggers have to be met in order for one to go from a provisional status or temporary legal status to a green card holder status or a legal permanent resident. And I think that’s—that’s key, because I would be curious to hear more from the senators working on this plan what these triggers are going to be and how they’re going to measure the success, because there’s a real concern in our community that we’re going to wait to see—for this border to be secure, a border that is already secure, before one can become a green card holder.

I think another bold move, and something that our community is happy to see the president take leadership on, is making sure that LGBT families are included. There are about 40,000 binational couples, same-sex couples, who would benefit if there was an amendment as part of the comprehensive immigration reform that would make sure that individuals married to a same-sex—that are in same-sex relationships would also be able to adjust their status that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Lorella, in terms of the tweets you were doing during President Obama’s speech yesterday in Nevada, talking about the number of people who were being deported even as he spoke?

LORELLA PRAELI: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s—it’s balancing that, and I think it’s really uplifting and exposing the pain and the lies. You know, Viridiana said something earlier that I thought—it’s what we did before we received deferred action, right? before we forced the president to deliver on deferred action or this DREAM relief—DREAMer relief program. And it’s something that has to continue to happen. So we cannot expend all of our energy pushing for immigration reform while we know that our communities are continuing to be separated, and—and really, due to a flawed system.


LORELLA PRAELI: I don’t know if you—

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, can you tell us your own story, how you came to be in the United States, and how you came to be a DREAMer activist?

LORELLA PRAELI: I came to the United States—actually, I’m an above-the-knee amputee, so I lost my right leg when I was two and a half in Peru. And because of medical reasons, my medical treatment was in the United States at Shriners Hospital. And so, my parents decided to move when I was 10 years old. And I found out I was undocumented when I was graduating from high school and wanting to pursue higher education.

And I really got involved in the DREAM movement by—I mean, I think it’s a miracle. I really do think that I consider myself to be very privileged for being able to speak out on these issues, but also to be a part of such a beautiful and powerful community. So what the DREAMer community did for me is it allowed me to reclaim my identity. And it reminded me that being undocumented is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be proud of, and that we ultimately define our identity and our ability to effect change.

And so, you know, I was just—I eventually, in 2010, was very frustrated by the lack of congressional action on DREAM, the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, and I called a friend, activist, in Connecticut, and I said, “I’m ready to share my story. Can you connect me to someone who can help me come out and share my story?” And I was connected to the United We Dream Network, and I became a part of this family very quickly. Carlos Saavedra, then our national coordinator, invited me to the Kentucky field planning meeting and said, “You can only come if you promise to go back to Connecticut and build something.” And, of course, at that moment I didn’t know what that commitment really meant. But that field planning meeting with 200 undocumented youth changed my life, for the better, and it really gave me the tools and the understanding that we define our present and we define our future, and that it is through organizing, more than anything, more than anything else, that we achieve change. So, by really empowering the community and by creating the spaces for people to come out, which is what we’re doing now with the parents, our parents, and our other community members, and in really uplifting other deportation cases.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mae Ngai, I’d like to ask you, in terms—going back to some of the details of immigration reform, there are two very powerful sectors in American society that have a big interest, that haven’t gotten as much of attention in this immigration reform. One is obviously the technology corporations in Silicon Valley, who have a big interest in expanding the number of technical workers, and even, from what I understand now, essentially speeding up the legalization process of any foreign student who graduates with a master’s or Ph.D. in science or technology, and agribusiness, which is still lobbying to get another form of the guest worker agricultural workers portion—admission into the bill. Could you talk about those forces and what we should be watching as the debate continues over the next few months on immigration reform?

MAE NGAI: Well, those are two sectors of the economy that depend a lot on foreign labor and, in the case of technology, professional labor. And, you know, there was a saying in the 1950s when proposals went out for immigration legislation that emphasized the recruitment of professionals—you know, it’s no longer “Give me your tired and poor and huddled masses.” It’s “Give me your Ph.D.s.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your entrepreneurs.

MAE NGAI: And the entrepreneurs, you know. So I think that, you know, that addresses—I mean, in many ways, it addresses the failures of public education in this country and the needs of business. And the same with agriculture. I mean, agriculture could be a living that many people could make in this country. It’s not necessarily something that Americans won’t do. It’s because the wages are so low and the conditions are so poor. And growers shy away from mechanization, because it’s cheaper for them to use immigrant labor, and especially undocumented labor. So these are all issues that should be on the table.

But I think one of the things that it suggests to us is that: Should immigration only be about what business wants? So, the rush to the forefront of these particular sectors is part of that phenomenon. And people think, well, immigration should be something that serves America. Well, it is something that serves America, but it’s also something that serves the immigrants themselves. And I think as long as we look at it from only the vantage point of business, we are going to be in a lot of trouble, because business only cares about one thing, and that’s their bottom line. And they don’t really care about the other social and economic costs that come with the kinds of immigration plans that they want.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the protection issues for both of these sectors? Obviously a lot of workers who come here on—professional workers who come here on guest visas come with a visa to one company.

MAE NGAI: That’s right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And therefore, they are really—their ability to be able to raise issues in the workplace or to defend their rights becomes a lot more difficult if the company controls their visa into the country.

MAE NGAI: Well, there are many restrictions. They can bring a spouse, but the spouse cannot work. That’s another constraint on them. They can’t quit, really. It’s not even that they can’t complain, they can’t quit. And this is a problem that will come up, I think, in this discussion on the issue of temporary work visas, even separate from these two sectors. That’s another plan that Republicans have floated. It’s unclear if the White House really supports this or not. We have a lot of experience in this country with guest worker programs, and I think that it should really give us pause. The problem with temporary labor visas is that if the employer holds the visa, as in the case of the H1s, then the worker really has no rights at all. If you say, “You didn’t pay me” — and this is what happens a lot in the lower end of the H2 program — “I didn’t get paid. I was forced to do overtime, all these things,” you’re just sent home. You have no rights, and you can’t quit, you know. And we all understand in this country that the quintessential thing of being a free labor—of free labor, is the right to quit, as well as the right to organize. And those are things that you can’t get with a temporary labor visa.

AMY GOODMAN: Fernando Garcia, how are you being consulted on the border about what you want and what you feel would be a rational policy? Now, the border governors, as they’re known, are given tremendous power.

FERNANDO GARCIA: Yes. We’ve actually been engaged in multiple conversations, both with the White House and also with members of the Senate. And some of them are members of the Gang of 8. And actually, we had this protest, this concern of, like—we believe that no more border enforcement is needed. Much less, we need the border triggers. I think what we believe is that when you work and live at the border, I mean, you see the consequences of militarization. In the last few years, we have had like eight shootings, lethal shootings, by Border Patrol, and immigrants had been killed. I mean, we have also multiple civil and human rights violations, things that are not only affecting immigrants, but border residents and citizens.

So, what we have proposed, though, is that—just that we welcome this discussion, we welcome this historic announcement on citizenship, which didn’t happen before, but at the same time we are saying that we need to refocus and change our approach on enforcement. We need to have a different vision on enforcement. We need to go from this idea of quantity to quality. We need to actually make enforcement accountable, making it balanced. As you know, I mean, we have the largest enforcement operations in the nation, which is immigration enforcement, not only on the border but also in the interior, with no independent oversight mechanisms.

So I think that there’s been some progress right now, even in the principles that were released by these senators and also by the president. But there are some sections there that actually talk about more training for Border Patrol, issues about limiting the use of lethal force or racial profiling issues. There’s going to be the creation of a border liaison office. So there are positive things, somewhat. We had work in the past few years. But I think more needs to be done in terms of making enforce—holding enforcement accountable, having oversight processes, having more training, having complaint processes established, as a priority of this comprehensive immigration reform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Fernando, you mentioned that you’ve been in—that you’ve had discussions with people in the White House. The Obama administration is well known for trying to whip activists into line behind their policies and basically tolerating very little dissent or pressure from the activist community. I’m wondering what your sense is of how they’re dealing on the immigration issue.

FERNANDO GARCIA: We don’t—we don’t know what is going to be the details. We don’t know the details yet of what is the proposal coming from the president. We had actually expressed many concerns about this idea of having more enforcement. We have questioned even the president putting on the table more enforcement, not only on the border, but actually also in the interior and in the workplace. I mean, that is one of the major elements on the proposed legislation, both by the president and the White House, where everybody is going to be check—if you go look for a job, you’re going to be run through a database. It’s very close to how [inaudible] ID. So I think we’ll be very critical, not only now, but also in the past, about actually staying away from this idea that we have not controlled the—we have not controlled the borders, that we need to have a tougher criminalization policy against immigrants. So I think we are making progress. I mean, we’re having that dialogue with the White House and with the Senate. But also we’re really putting pressure on some decisions that are not going to work. I mean, at the end of the day, I think we’re not willing—some of us, some of our organizations, some of our communities, are not willing to trade off border enforcement, for example, or have legalization at any cost.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all very much for being with us, Fernando Garcia, with the Border Network for Human Rights, speaking to us from El Paso, Texas; Lorella Praeli, with United We Dream Coalition, was at President Obama’s speech yesterday, now in Washington, D.C.; and thanks to Professor Mae Ngai, who teaches Asian-American studies at Columbia University here in New York City. Of course, this is an ongoing conversation. When we come back, an Oscar-nominated short documentary called Redemption about redeeming bottles. Stay with us.

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