US President Barack Obama recently announced that he will not take any action to suspend the deportation of undocumented migrants until after the November election.
On 6 September 2014, a White House official told the New York Times: “Because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the President believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections.”
The President has been under pressure from Latino and Asian communities as well as unions to stop the wave of deportations that have totalled more than two million people during his administration, or about 400,000 per year.
He has made repeated promises to provide provisional legal status to some portion of the 11 million people living undocumented in the US.
The latest was a promise this spring that he would act on his own if Congress didn’t pass immigration reform legislation by the end of the summer.
Pressure from conservative Democrats campaigning against right-wing Republicans convinced him to abandon that pledge.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, told the Times that “the White House’s decision to delay executive action forces countless families to continue to wait in the shadows of fear.”
President Obama has been in retreat from a conservative offensive on immigration since June, when the right-wing website Breitbart.com kicked off a campaign of hysteria about the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Central America at the US/Mexico border.
Breitbart.com published photographs leaked from the Border Patrol and guards in detention centres, showing immigrant children packed together like animals.
The Tea Party used hysteria whipped up by the photographs to kill any possibility of an immigration reform bill with legalisation, to attack President Obama’s 2009 executive action deferring the deportation of some young people (and any possibility he might expand it), and to push for more resources for the Border Patrol and expanded detention facilities.
This narrative, repeated by the mainstream press, was picked up by conservative governors Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who said the children should be kept in detention, not released to find relatives, as a law passed in 2008 currently requires.
Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert claimed the children were “putting lives of Border Patrol agents at risk.”
Instead of rejecting this narrative, the White House announced it intended to abrogate the 2008 law, and deport those minors picked up on the border more quickly.
A White House factsheet said: “Additional steps to enhance enforcement and removal proceedings [and] surging government enforcement resources ... will allow ICE to return unlawful migrants from Central America to their home countries more quickly.”
In August, President Obama asked Congress for US$3.7 billion, almost entirely for more enforcement.
The US currently spends more money on immigration enforcement than all other federal law enforcement programmes combined, and deploys over 20,000 agents along the border – more than at any other time in its history.
A look at history
Media coverage has focused on gang violence in Central America as the cause of migration, as though it was spontaneous and unrelated to a history of US-promoted regional conflicts and a policy of mass deportations.
In fact, US foreign and immigration policy is responsible for much of the pressure causing this flow of people from Central America.
The tide of Central American migration began during wars promoted by US president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, in which he armed regimes and contra armies opposed to progressive social change.
Two million Salvadorans alone came to the US during the late 1970s and 1980s, along with tens of thousands of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. Whole families fled, leaving loved ones behind in the hope that some day they would be reunited.
Subsequently, the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements and structural adjustment policies required wholesale privatisation in these countries, the forced displacement of communities by foreign mining projects and cuts in the social budget.
Huge US corporations dumped corn and other agricultural products in Mexico and Central America, driving rural families off their lands when they could not compete.
Young people from Central America arriving in Los Angeles and big US cities were recruited into gangs.
US law enforcement and immigration authorities then targeted Central American youth with a huge program of deportations. In Central America, this policy led to the growth of gang violence.
El Salvador, which today has a left-wing government, is committed to a policy of job-creation and economic development to provide an alternative to migration.
But in Guatemala and Honduras, the US is supporting very right-wing governments who only use a heavy enforcement approach, supported by US funding and assistance.
New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez has called for increasing funding for the US military’s Southern Command and the State Department’s Central American Security Initiative, giving millions of dollars to the army and police in right-wing regimes.
President Obama’s request for US$3.7 billion included that funding.
President Obama additionally justified delaying action on deportations because “it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform.”
Many unions and immigrant rights groups, however, have opposed the comprehensive immigration reform bill backed by the administration and Democrats because it would have increased deportations, the firing of workers who lack immigration status, and new contract labour, or “guest worker,” programs.
Republicans blocked this bill throughout the past two years, and they are not going to allow it to pass after November.
Postponing executive action to stop deportations will not make this bill more palatable to them or increase its chances. Grassroots groups, meanwhile, accuse lobbyists and politicians close to the administration of undermining the pressure to stop deportations, by accepting them as the price for reform.
And while retreating on promises, the administration has begun implementing a fast deportation policy for Central American youth, despite its dubious legality.
“He has stabbed us in the back,” said Veronica Noriega, currently undertaking a hunger strike to demand the release of her husband from detention.
“The Republicans openly said ‘no’ to us, but the President deceived us.”
Maru Mora Villapando, of Latino Advocacy, added: “We know our long-term prospects better than anyone – the President has made us experts in our own suffering by unrolling policy after devastating policy targeting our families and communities. We know what needs to happen. The President has failed to listen to us, and now he has failed to act.”