Immigration Reform Must Consider Why People Migrate in the First Place

The following is a transcript originally published in The Real News Network

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted to begin debate on its version of the comprehensive immigration reform bill currently before Congress. Now joining us to discuss this bill is Professor Alfonso Gonzales. He's at Lehman College at the City University of New York and the author of the upcoming book Reform without Justice: Latino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State.

Thank you for joining us, Professor Gonzales.


NOOR: So, Professor Gonzales, President Obama said on Tuesday there's no reason why we can't have comprehensive immigration reform by the end of the summer. What's your reaction to this push to get comprehensive immigration reform passed and the current versions of the bill in the Senate and the House?

GONZALES: Well, the efforts to pass immigration reform today are a product of the last, really, decade of Latino migrant activism. In 2000, there was negotiations between President Fox of Mexico and President Bush, and they were going to broker an immigration reform deal that was going to basically militarize the border, seal the border, and create a guest worker program. That bill fell apart because of 9/11. Certain groups in civil society, anti-immigrants groups, nativist groups in Washington, D.C., were able to use the security concerns around 9/11 to sabotage immigration reform bills. And really there's been about--at least five--and it depends how you count it--at least five immigration reform proposals that have been on the table since 2000. And this particular bill is the latest manifestation of these proposals.

And essentially what all these proposals seek to do is what I call state-managed migration. And it's not just immigration enforcement, because when people say immigration enforcement, that assumes that the state is only concerned about preventing people from coming in and regulating the conditions for them coming in. But what we really see going on, not just in the United States but in Europe and other parts of the world, is that states are trying to manage migrant flows. And this bill and the many bills that have been proposed like it essentially seek to create a long-term, temporary [inaud.]


So what the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, or S 744, is trying to do is trying to do what the last five or six immigration reform proposals have sought to do since 2000, and that's secure a temporary, independent, a temporary and flexible, meaning highly exploitable labor force that can come in and serve the interests of capital but at the same time not give these folks their [inaud.] temporary status, essentially what you're doing is you're securing cheap labor but preventing those in these different types of temporary status from having the same rights as U.S. citizens. And that makes these workers extra exploitable, super exploitable, or what academics like to say, like to call it turns these undocumented workers into--they already are flexible workers, but it secures a stable, flexible labor force over the long run.

NOOR: And can you talk about the aspects of this bill that you support and the aspects that you oppose?

GONZALES: Well, there's many important things to recognize here. Obviously, this is a bill that a lot of us are critical of, and if someone's undocumented, they face the fear of deportation every day. They face the possibility of going out to get a gallon of milk for their kids and not coming back if the police stop them with all the enforcement stuff in place. So I understand that having some type of relief from deportation, at least in the immediate--through this registered provisional status--.


So what this bill's going to do: it's going to give undocumented people registered professional immigration status, RPI status. And RPI status is a temporary status for people who have no history with the law. Basically you have to have almost a perfect record to qualify for the RPI status. And if you qualify for RPI status, you're basically going to be in a temporary status for ten years. So I can understand if someone's undocumented how this is an important step forward, because it prevents them from being deported in the short run. Okay?

So that's the best thing about this bill and the worst thing at the same time, because it's not--I mean, it's good because it prevents people from getting deported, but over the long run this RPI status is linked to border militarization. In fact, this is the first time that we've seen an immigration reform bill that makes the legalization process, the path towards getting a green card--from green card to citizenship status, it makes that dependent on the border being secure. And this concept of the border being secured is such a subjective concept that we're in a situation where the DHS and, depending on what amendments go through, possibly border civil society groups that can be anti-immigrant, governors such as Jan Brewer [incompr.] of governors from the border states, it might be up to them to say when the border's secure. So when you allow border security to be defined by such subjective forces and you link legalization to border security, essentially what you're doing is [incompr.] people in a temporary status for a very long time. And that is one of the most problematic aspects of this bill.

In addition to the RPI status and border militarization, this bill is going to result in 3,500 new agents working for ICE and the DHS in customs and border enforcement. So we have 3,500 new, basically, agents of the Homeland Security state. We're going to have more drones in the air. We're going to have the continued use of National Park troops at the border to continue building walls, to install seismic sensors. We're going to continue to see the expansion of programs like E-Verify.

This bill will expand E-Verify. Within five years E-Verify will become a program that has been expanded nationally to all employers in the United States. And what that's essentially going to do is going to--if you're undocumented, it's going to make it impossible for undocumented folks to find any work. Essentially, E-Verify is institutionalizing the immigration enforcement through attrition strategy developed by the nativist right in think tanks in Washington, D.C.

So the bill has a lot of problems.

And, you know, we have to look at this bill and say not everyone's going to qualify for RPI status. I mean, we're--just right now with DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, I know a lot of young people who haven't qualified for DACA or a lot of folks that didn't qualify for really mundane things, like their--some of their paperwork not being--not necessarily having the same--a discrepancy in the paperwork. You know, maybe they have a certain birthday on their birth certificate in Mexico, they came over here and they applied for a green card and were rejected and there is a discrepancy on the birth date on the birth certificate in Mexico and the birth certificate here--they don't qualify. I've had students who've been beat up and falsely arrested by the NYPD because of the criminal record that's wrongfully on their--this wrongful criminal record that was imposed on them through police abuse. They don't qualify for DACA. Or students that turn 31 that don't qualify for DACA.

We're going to see the same type of stuff happen with this RPI status. We're going to see a lot of folks not qualify for RPI status. And again, that's problematic, because there's still going to be a large sector that's going to be outside of this RPI status and this so-called path to citizenship. In fact, I'm really doubtful that the RPI status will lead to citizenship as long as it's linked to border security.

NOOR: So, Professor Gonzales, you've mentioned how many young people will not be included in this bill, will not benefit from it, yet it's been the work of DREAM activists and another young activists that have--many have argued have led to the point where this bill is now being pushed forward in Congress.

GONZALES: Absolutely. Let's get one thing straight. If it wasn't for the immigrant rights social movement that developed over the last ten years, we wouldn't even have this bill. As problematic as this bill is, we would not have this bill.

To understand the contemporary immigrant rights movement, we have to go to 2005, when the 109th Congress proposed HR 4437, the Sensenbrenner bill. The Sensenbrenner bill was going to turn 11 million people into felons, and it was going to--it was basically going to be the worst immigration reform bill proposed in 100 years. And HR 4437 passed in the House of Representatives, and the Democrats were on the defensive trying to defeat HR 4437.

What happened in January and February 2006: the immigrant rights movement got organized, and in ways that it hadn't been organized before. Previous to 2006, the immigrant rights movement was basically comprised of select nonprofits and unions, and after 2006, the immigrant rights movement gets popularized, and it becomes a multisector movement, where it's not just major nonprofits located in Washington, D.C., and unions; it's also small church groups, it's also small youth organizations, student organizations, hometown associations, independent activists, day laborers. These groups come together in early 2006, actually, in Riverside, California, in February--I think it was February 11, 2006. These groups come together in Riverside California at a national conference, and they plan a series of mass mobilizations to defeat HR 4437. They defeated HR 4437, folks. If it wasn't for the immigrant rights movement, HR 4437 would have moved forward, and it probably would have passed in the House because the Democrats didn't have the audacity to really stand up against this bill. In fact, it was during the mass mobilizations of 2006 that the Senate got the courage to propose an alternative bill that would actually cancel out with HR 4437.

But the immigrant rights movement was demanding full legalization for the--back then it was 12 million, 'cause they departed actually--they've deported at least 2 million people since 2006. I would actually say it's probably about 3 million. In 2006, we had 12 million people here. Now they're saying that there's 11 million undocumented people. Okay? The demand 2006 was the full and immediate legalization of the undocumented. The demand in 2006, at least in Los Angeles, where I was active in studying the immigrant rights movement, immigrant rights activists were saying, we want to see an end to border militarization, we want to see an end to police and immigration authorities collaborating in our county jails and in our prisons. The immigrant rights movement in 2006 had much more radical demands.

Now our demands have been watered down. And the watering down of these demands has resulted in something like this bill that we have in the Senate today, S 744, which, although it would give contemporary legal relief in the long run, it's not going to dismantle the structures of state violence that have resulted in the deportation of at least 2 million people.


--largest mass expulsions that we've seen in the history of humankind. We've seen 4 million people being deported--.


The United States, at least since the 1990s, has deported 4 million people. The deportation of 4 million people, the physical removal of 4 million people, is a monumental feat in state violence. I can't think of a--very few countries have got rid of 4 million people, and at least in the 21st century, and the United States is one of them. We've deported millions of people to Latin America, to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, to the Philippines, to Cambodia. In these mass deportations we're deporting--.


To countries where they don't--where they're strangers to these countries. Yet somehow we are still considered the most democratic country on the planet. And that's really interesting. If any other country in the world deported 4 million people, expelled 4 million people from its country, I think we would begin to question the democratic credentials of the country.

NOOR: Professor Gonzales, what would a just immigration reform bill look like in your opinion?

GONZALES: Well, at the very least we should see a bill that gives people a quick, swift, and clear path to citizenship. The current path to citizenship is riddled with tripwires, it's riddled with conditions, which I'm scared that we'll never actually see people get citizenship with this bill as it stands. And it's only going to get worse as amendments come up from the Republicans and as a bill emerges from the House. So I would say that a just immigration reform bill would give people a quick path toward citizenship. In fact, IRCA, 1986, people had to wait 19 months to get a green card, and once they had a green card, they could apply for citizenship. I think 19 months should be the minimum that people should have to wait to get a green card and a path to citizenship.

A just immigration reform bill would actually result in a changing U.S. foreign-policy, because that's really the real issue here, folks. We've got to see the mass migration of people from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States as a direct product of the neoliberal economic policies that these countries adopted at the suggestion of the World Bank and the IMF under the so-called Washington consensus, which promoted the adoption of these policies throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the rest of the developing world. It's those policies that have led to the mass displacement of people from the developing world, from the Global South to the United States.

And these current immigration reform bills, they don't get to the heart of the matter. In fact, they assume that all we need to do is give people temporary status, turn them into guest workers, and build a border fence, that that's going to resolve the contradictions of globalization and migration. It's not, folks. What we have in front of us here with S 744 is a state-managed migration, where the state can bring people in as temporary workers and kick them out as soon as they're no longer needed. And that is an undemocratic process.

Historically this country has always wanted to have cheap flexible labor, a racialized labor force that they can treat different than the rest of the labor force but not give them the same rights of the majority of Americans. That is the ghost that haunts American political history, and this is something that we need to get over. And it's not going to be done simply through an immigration reform bill. That's going to take a mass movement of immigrants, of working-class people, especially people of color, to begin to question these historical policies, this historic tendency in this country to reduce people to simply workers and not giving them their rights as human beings.

NOOR: Alfonso Gonzales, thank you for joining us.

GONZALES: You're welcome.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


NOOR: What would a just immigration reform bill look like?

GONZALES: At a minimum, we should use IRCA as the bar. And IRCA made people wait 19 months before they can get a green card. So they were only in temporary status for 19 months. I would say that a just immigration reform bill would move people through this temporary status to a green card status and to a path to citizenship as quickly as possible, 19 months, maybe 20 months. I think that was--it would be fair if it was for 1986. With the technology back then, why can't it be done today with this knowledge that we have now?

A just immigration reform bill would reallocate resources from border enforcement and internal--interior enforcement, which we currently have too much of, and reinvest those dollars in developing programs in Latin America and the Caribbean and other developing countries, because currently we have to see that the main reason why people are migrating here is because of lack of jobs, the lack of economic opportunity in this countries.

A just immigration reform bill would not require these punitive fines and these punitive forced assimilation in making people--making LPR status, legal permanent resident status, dependent on speaking English. It would recognize that speaking English should not--it would recognize that people have a right to be in the United States, that we have a historic responsibility and obligation to countries throughout the world where they've adopted the policies that we recommended to them, that we have a historic responsibility to recognize the humanity of these workers and to allow them to have rights here regardless of what language they speak. I don't know. Since when does speaking English become a requirement for having human and civil, political rights? So I think a just immigration reform bill would start with that.

But I want to be clear on one thing. Justice for migrants cannot be reduced to any one immigration reform bill. We have to see that the reason why we have millions of people here is because the adoption of neoliberal policies over the last 30 years in Latin America and the Global South, unless there's an alternative to the neoliberal economic order, even if this bill goes through, in 15, 20 years we're going to have a similar debate about what to do with the undocumented people that are going to be here because of those policies.

And there has to also be a movement within the United States to question the racial politics of our immigration laws. We have to see that historically the United States has always wanted to secure a cheap labor force and secure a cheap racialized labor force, that it does not give the same rights that it gives to the rest of Americans. So what we need to do is basically recognize the humanity of these workers and allow them to not just work but to also have rights and be human beings, recognize their humanity. Thank you.

NOOR: Professor Gonzalez, thank you for joining us.

GONZALES: Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the The Real News Network.


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