A new civil rights movement is emerging in the US. This time, however, its participants are defined chiefly by their immigration status. A formidable political force of angry, articulate and class-conscious migrants is demanding to be heard. It has sent the issue of migrants’ rights to the fore of mainstream political debate.
With the US government back up and running, President Obama has resumed his push for immigration reform, among the main priorities of his second term. The Democrat-majority Senate passed a bill earlier this year that would provide millions of migrants with a path towards eventual citizenship. However, the legislation has proven highly contentious in the Republican-led House of Representatives, where it has been stalled ever since.
The political divides are clear. The majority of undocumented migrants in the US are from Latin America, predominantly Mexico, and those who have become US citizens overwhelmingly vote Democrat. Aside from the alarmism which typifies much of the Republican Party’s contribution to the debate on immigration, it is not difficult to see why the right opposes a reform which empowers America’s fastest growing minority.
Earlier this year, two Republican senators added an amendment to Obama’s bill which doubles the number of Border Patrol agents on the US/Mexico border from 20,000 to 40,000, making it the largest law enforcement agency in the country. It also promises 700 more miles of fences and walls on an already highly militarised and dangerous border.
Obama’s push for reform appears to be a welcome development for the country’s 11.7m undocumented migrants. However, only a fraction of these millions will be eligible for the bill’s measures and the more progressive elements of Obama’s “pathways to citizenship” will in any case be compromised by existing incarceration and deportation policies.
It is not only Republican hostility to migrant rights which spells bad news for those who entered the country “illegally”. Obama’s policies towards migrants are equally punitive and harsh.
Obama has deported more undocumented migrants than any other president in US history. In October this year, despite the government shutdown, border patrol agents set a record by deporting the two-millionth undocumented migrant since he took office. This has had the devastating effect of separating hundreds of thousands of families which include an undocumented parent and a child with US citizenship.
Immigrants play a vital role in the US economy, making up 14% of the total workforce and 20% of those on low wages. The largest immigrant group is the Mexicans, which also comprises the highest number of underpaid workers.
Many underpaid and undocumented workers are in the agricultural sector, where legislation relating to child labour is very weak. There is no minimum age requirement in the sector, the legacy of legislation from an era when most food production relied on small-scale farms where children provided occasional labour to help their parents.
In the era of industrial agribusiness, however, this lack of worker rights has proved favourable to growers who exploit the loophole. The poverty rate for farm workers is more than double that of other sectors, and at least six out of every ten agricultural workers are unauthorised migrants. America’s 400,000 child labourers often begin work aged 11 or 12 – in some cases even younger. They are exposed to extreme weather and harmful pesticides, and often work ten hour days without attending school.
Similar vulnerabilities apply to undocumented women. Their status as “non”-citizens deprives them of the rights enjoyed by US citizens. This often means sexual harassment and assault by supervisors and co-workers goes unreported (and therefore unpunished) for fear of deportation and separation from their US-born children.
Lock ’em up
Obama’s contradictory policy on unauthorised immigration also extends to the justice system. For example, a quarter of those in federal prisons are non-US citizens, a trend which has intensified significantly under the present government. Of these, 68% are Mexicans, mostly jailed for immigration offences.
Drivers and pedestrians that police think look like undocumented “aliens” are regularly stopped and searched, often resulting in incarceration. In addition to the 2m already deported under Obama, a further 300,000 individuals are currently stranded in deportation proceedings waiting to be removed.
Ironically, the same politicians and pundits who demand strong immigration controls are often those who tout the same free-market economic policies in other countries which exacerbate poverty and inequality, thereby making emigration to the US an unattractive, but viable, economic alternative.
If passed into law, Obama’s reform will be a small step in the right direction. But so long as there exists an impoverished underclass of Latin American migrants who are desperate for work, and so long as corporations and agribusiness constantly push for low wages and handsome profits, no amount of border patrol agents and prisons will halt the flow of those migrating north.