Deporter-In-Chief Will Keep Deporting. So What Happens Next?
With his announcement Saturday morning that he would delay any administrative reform measures on immigration until after the 2014 midterm elections, President Obama has once again refused to stop or slow the mass deportations which have become the hallmark of his administration. He and his supporters claim he will take action after the elections. I don't know why anyone would believe that at this point. Whatever pressure the president is facing now to delay action would only increase were the Democrats to lose the Senate, as is now predicted by most observers. If Obama's poll numbers would crater if he implemented administrative reforms, dragging down the entire party, Democrats in Congress could persuade him to continue forestalling reforms after the elections. There will always be something more urgent on the president's agenda, some new reason to excuse another broken promise in November.
After the 2012 general election, I had begun to subscribe to the Democrats' prediction that demographic changes in the electorate would inevitably lead to broad legalization relatively soon. Given the demands of the two-year election cycle, House Republicans might succumb to the temptation to demagogue immigrants. But more reasonable voices in the GOP would prevail as the party looked ahead to 2016 and the prospect of failing to win the White House and the Senate. I read with interest Tim Dickinson's analysis of Karl Rove's political strategy in 2010 of winning state legislatures in order to reshape House districts more favorably for Republicans. Dickinson and others predicted that the strategy of spreading GOP voters among a larger number of districts--turning more districts red, but a lighter shade of red--would eventually backfire as the proportion of Democratic voters grew and turned the districts blue again. However, Nate Cohn this weekend presented a rebuttal to this theory, arguing that the concentration of Democratic voters in urban districts, combined with the increased polarization of the electorate, provides Republicans with a structural advantage in the House that could forestall demographic benefits to Democrats for many years. The influx of refugee children from Central America inflamed xenophobic elements in the GOP and made transparent the flimsiness of the Democrats' commitment to immigrant rights. Immigration policy, which Democrats had believed was a strength, was now seen as a threat to the Democratic policy agenda and control of the Senate.
Legislative amnesty and reform will depend either on the Democrats having both houses of Congress and the White House, or on the GOP supporting reform legislation. As the GOP proportionately becomes older and whiter, and as the nation comes closer to the demographic tipping point to a majority nonwhite population, I believe that Republicans will fight against immigration reform just as hard as they are now, if not harder. The GOP's conservative base--which drives the party's policy platform--views the demographic changes brought on by the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965 as an existential threat to the party and to the nation. In other words, administrative reform implemented by a Democratic president will be the only viable way to legalize significant numbers of undocumented immigrants for the foreseeable future.
So in light of the president's announcement that he does not intend to implement such reform, how can activists, advocates, and community members respond?
I believe that Democrats will only respond to the demands of the immigrant community when they have an electoral incentive to do so. Democratic party leadership appears to believe that voters for whom immigration policy is a top issue will continue to vote for Democrats regardless of how many people the president deports. One way to break the cycle would be to inflict electoral pain on Democrats. Another would be to change political conditions through external action on the deportation system. Threats only carry force if you can back them up with action. Some possible courses of action are:
- Boycott the vote this November. Democrats assume they have our vote. Let's learn from how the Tea Party has come to drive Congressional action and executive policy on immigration by adopting their strategies: primary candidates we don't like and threaten to stay home on election day or vote third party. The perennial argument against this plan is that we have to stick with Democrats since they are all we've got, Republicans would be worse, just be patient and change will come, etc. The president's announcement over the weekend should be sufficient rebuttal to that strategy. When politicians don't respect you, they will walk all over you, and it is clear that President Obama and Senate Democrats do not respect the immigrant community and their allies. Showing Democrats that they cannot take the pro-immigrant vote for granted would help put political pressure on the president.
Efforts could be focused on key states with a nontrivial number of pro-immigrant votes: Colorado, Georgia, and North Carolina. The pro-immigrant vote in those states could make the difference in a close race. If instead of hearing from Senate Dems "don't take action," Obama heard from Kay Hagan, Mark Udall, and Michelle Nunn "do take action," he would have an incentive to change course.
- Occupy Democratic campaign offices in key states, just as undocumented activists did in the summer of 2012 just before the president made his DACA announcement.
- Escalate actions to incapacitate immigration enforcement agencies. NDLON's series of actions over the past year to block ICE offices and stop buses carrying people to be deported is a good template. Occupying or otherwise shutting down more ICE facilities at once, or over a longer period of time, would both hinder ICE's ability to deport people and increase the visibility of families under threat of deportation, pushing mainstream Democrats to choose between party loyalty and the interests of the immigrant community.
- Churches can offer sanctuary to families facing imminent deportation, just as they opened their doors to Central American refugees during the 1980s. Other institutions and organizations could follow suit, including universities, nonprofits that provide services to immigrants, and even private individuals.
- Select a few cases currently in immigration court to put the government on trial, as the Chicago 7 did in the 1960s. Look for creative ways to refuse to cooperate in one's own deportation by gumming up the works.
- Explore new or underutilized forms of protest, such as publicly hiring undocumented workers, bringing people back after they have been deported (as in the Bring Them Home actions, with which I assisted), unlicensed drivers driving in caravans to state capitals to demand licenses, self-presenting to ICE en masse demanding to be placed in removal proceedings, or taking action to overwhelm the immigration bureaucracies to slow or stop the machinery of deportation. More and more people are acknowledging that current U.S. immigration laws are unjust and morally illegitimate. In some cases, disobeying unjust laws becomes a moral duty. Breaking these unjust laws could be one of the most effective ways to further delegitimize and ultimately repeal them.
- Undocumented people who are facially eligible for the defense from deportation called "cancellation of removal" could trigger removal proceedings by turning themselves in at ICE offices or applying for asylum. This group would include undocumented people who: have U.S. citizen or permanent resident parents, children, or spouses; have lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years with only short departures; and who do not have a serious criminal record. While most such applications are ultimately unsuccessful due to the unreasonably strict "exceptional and extremely unusual" standard of hardship that must be shown to the qualifying U.S. citizen or permanent resident relative, this plan could have many benefits. It would have a similar effect in the near term to administrative reform, as it would make applicants eligible for work permits, social security numbers, and, in most states, driver's licenses. There is substantial overlap between the group of people eligible for admin reform and the group of people prima facie eligible for cancellation of removal. Triggering removal proceedings would allow people to stop looking over their shoulder for immigration, since they could not be deported while the cases were pending, a period of 2-5 years or more, depending on the court. Those with weaker cases who met existing prosecutorial discretion guidelines might be eligible to have their cases closed while preserving the ability to renew their work permits each year. This plan could substantially increase the court backlog, ultimately slowing the pace of overall deportations. It would be a visible form of protest, allowing people to be proactive instead of reactive. It could give Congress or the White House a backdoor way to let people legalize by formally or informally relaxing the stringent hardship standard. Part of the campaign could involve motions to swap hearings with people with more immediate forms of relief to avoid delays in those cases. If legal services and advocacy organizations assisted, it would help lend the effort legitimacy and provide applicants with the guidance they would need to manage their cases at a reasonable cost.
These are a few ideas, please share others in comments. It is becoming more clear to me that we cannot assume that relief will come even in the near term without a significant escalation in activism and organizing.