Finally, the Democrats are beginning to think correctly about immigration.
During the Obama administration, the Democrats sought to work out bipartisan immigration reform with the Republican Party, only for their efforts to be rejected as too weak by the right. The original DREAM Act, which would have given legal status to undocumented youth, was scuttled, forcing Obama to issue the DACA executive order to fill the gap. During the same eight-year period, the United States deported more than 2.5 million people, surpassing the numbers of the Bush administration. Critics on the left began to refer to Obama as the “deporter-in-chief.”
Now though, following Trump’s Muslim ban and his decision to repeal DACA, many Democrats, under pressure from activists, have finally come to embrace a more uncompromising vision for a progressive immigration policy, and have started to call for the passage of a clean DREAM Act. A clean DREAM Act is the DREAM Act without harmful compromise measures such as increased border enforcement and immigration detention that the Democratic Party would have certainly accepted during the Obama years.
It can not be overemphasized that this sea-change in certain segments of the Democratic Party is not a result of a sudden upsurge of compassion for immigrants, but rather due to the work of tireless organizations like United We Dream, The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) and Make The Road New York.
For the Democratic Party to truly protect immigrants, however, it must go far beyond calling for a clean DREAM Act. The parents and other family members of the young people who would be given legal status under the DREAM Act could still be deported, in fact. Often, as was the case for the thousands of Central American refugees who fled from violence in their home countries, deportation places their lives further at risk.
One important way that the Democrats can start to become a party that represents the best interest of immigrants is by calling for the dismantlement of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an organization created in 2003 that has been at the forefront of the most draconian anti-immigrant measures in the United States.
I specify dismantlement and not total abolition because half of ICE actually has some practical use. That half, Homeland Security Investigations (HRI), confronts real problems like transnational drug cartels, human trafficking and arms trafficking. The same cannot be said of its other half, Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). HRI could continue to exist independently and be strictly kept to international operations, or it could be merged with another agency. ERO must end, and henceforth in this article when I refer to ICE, I primarily mean ERO.
ERO’s sole purpose is to detain and deport people. Although the Obama administration emphasized that it wanted to focus on deporting dangerous criminals, the bulk of deportees who committed crimes had only committed misdemeanor offenses like speeding, DUIs or not paying a fine. This led Obama to proudly state that they had “increased the removal of criminals by 70 percent” (Politifact, “Obama says deportation of criminals up 70 percent under his administration,” 05.11.11). To legitimize its existence, ICE wastes resources on deporting people who do not pose any threat to the United States because it produces misleading statistics that frame their efforts as ensuring public safety.
We have seen ICE (ERO) detaining protesters and entering work places, courts and hospitals. Undocumented immigrants are fearful to report crimes or seek medical assistance because they do not want to be ensnared by ICE, and ICE has been further emboldened to act with such cruelty after Trump’s election.
In reaction to these acts of state terror, a number of municipalities declared themselves to be sanctuary cities. ICE has responded to these efforts by specifically targeting sanctuary cities for deportation efforts.
By publicly taking a stand against draconian detention and deportation policies and calling for the dismantling of an agency that is deeply involved in enforcing them, the Democrats can gain the trust of the immigrant communities they have consistently alienated and make strides in building a progressive coalition that can advance a new and viable alternative to Trumpism.
To those who worry that this would alienate the white working class and “moderate” Republicans, I would say the following: These groups will think Democrats were weak on immigration no matter how many people they deport. Why should Democrats not go all in and actually pursue a radical immigration policy that the right wing has long imagined it to have? The right already believes that the Democrats want to give sanctuary to millions of undocumented immigrants. Why not realize their worst fears?
As with the white working class, and specifically white members of unions in the industrial sector, it’s time for Democrats to stop moderating policies to avoid alienating immigrants and instead actually offer them something concrete in the way of better wages, strengthened unions and an expanded social safety net that would incentivize them to vote for Democrats despite their misgivings on Democratic immigration policy.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those on the left who believe that the Democratic Party is beyond hope and that salvation only lies in grassroots organizing. This belief is justified. The Democrats have been terrible to immigrants, but community and municipal initiatives are not enough. The levers of federal power must be seized because ultimately there are constitutional limits to what can be accomplished within states. The only force that can conceivably wrestle this federal power from the Republican Party is the Democratic Party.
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