For years now, I have devoted my Thanksgiving Day column to immigration – and the failure of Congress to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform. After all, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of immigration to these shores.
Especially at the turn of the century when immigrants were welcomed in massive numbers to man factories, pave streets, construct buildings, build railroads, and clean houses, Thanksgiving was used politically as the theme to acculturate immigrants into the American melting pot.
That all changed in the 1920s when the national mood changed to hostility against immigrants who were associated with socialists and communists (and not surprisingly, was linked with anti-Semitism since it was mainly Jews like Emma Goldman who were rounded up and deported.
But as much as I am sympathetic to what Obama wanted to achieve, I am really furious that he timed it so early in this lame duck session.
He couldn’t wait five weeks? a month? He couldn’t dare the Republicans to make good on their hint of some kind of working order for the last few weeks of Democratic control of the Senate in order to get his judicial nominees, the Surgeon General and the Attorney General confirmed? To get the budget passed December 11 without a government shutdown or some poison pill (like repealing Obamacare or rescinding this executive order)? He couldn’t have dared the Republicans to follow up on their wishy-washy acknowledgement that the 2014 election was about voters wanting an end to Washington’s dysfunction so that something could actually be accomplished?
He still could have done issued his executive order on immigration in the lame duck, before the Republicans take over on January 6.
And it wasn’t as if just about anything Obama does would not trigger the exact same threats of lawsuits, government shutdown and even impeachment.
I can only think that the calculation was that it would force the House to take up the Senate’s bill -passed with 14 or 15 Republicans – before the lame duck ended, so that the process wouldn’t have to start all over from scratch in the next Congress.
The Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill that passed the Senate has languished for more than 500 days in the House – never put to debate, never even out of committee, and certainly never voted on – so Boehner’s sneer that that Obama is disrespecting “Democracy” is bogus to say the least, considering that 75% of Americans favor immigration reform.
Indeed, Obama’s executive action is a gift to Boehner, who has said for years now that he wants immigration reform but was getting push back from the Tea Party. He could have taken up the Senate Bill for a vote. Now the ball is firmly in the Republicans’ court. They are solely responsible for the completely dysfunctional immigration system.
As Obama made clear over and over (though I’m not sure it registers on Fox News or conservative media): as soon as Congress passes comprehensive immigration bill, his executive order is moot.
But perhaps Thanksgiving is the reason that Obama has chosen this time to make his bold executive action on immigration – the time of the year when there is hypothetically at least, the greatest empathy and appreciation for immigrants and America’s long tradition of immigration.
As President Obama said in his address to the nation last week, “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too….
“What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal -– that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.
“That’s the country our parents and grandparents and generations before them built for us. That’s the tradition we must uphold. That’s the legacy we must leave for those who are yet to come.”
That’s the message we like to tell ourselves as we gather around the Thanksgiving table, congratulating us on living in a country we consider “Exceptional”.
And what is it that Obama actually did with his executive order? He made it possible for families to stay together, which is something that the Family Values crowd professes (but doesn’t actually practice).
Perhaps Obama was also calculating that Thanksgiving begins the season of faux “good will toward men” when everyone is feeling most charitable.
After all, on Wednesday, the President continued a 67 year old tradition of pardoning the National Thanksgiving Turkey in a ceremony in the Rose Garden, as a demonstration of kindness and charity.
Why not show that same demonstration of kindness and charity to people? taking 5 million people out of the shadows, out of the fear of being snatched up and deported away from their children while they are still in school and come home to an empty house?
Why are five million people not worthy of the same kindness as a turkey?
But the fact is the reason there are so many undocumented immigrants – by some calculations 11 million – is that the system is completely broken, and has been for decades.
That’s why when George H. W. Bush issued a similar executive order that also affected about 40% of the undocumented people in the country at that time, it impacted 1.5 million – still a large number – but today, Obama’s order also affects 41%, but that amounts to 5 million people.
And the argument is stupid – Obama has already deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president; the number of people coming across the southern border has dwindled to a trickle – and even with the onslaught of children from Central America this summer, those people didn’t sneak in – they surrendered to authorities and are now in the judicial process as they should be.
The larger number of “undocumenteds” today are coming from South Asia – people who come by air and overstay their visas, not by sneaking across the Rio Grande.
But that is not the focus of the Tea Party ire. They are crazed about brown people coming from the South.
I am not in favor of wholesale amnesty and I am only in favor of a path to citizenship that does not automatically bestow citizenship on everyone – I think that people who have come in illegally should be given some sort of strike against them when their turn for review comes up.
But there should be a review process. That’s what has been lacking and isn’t fixed by the President’s executive order. Congress must do that.
Most critically, there has to be some kind of legalization so that, as Obama points out, we know who is in the country, people have fulfilled their obligations to pay fines and back taxes (many of these people actually pay into Social Security without any hope of getting the money back), and then get some kind of a work permit.
I am not thrilled that this order is only for a three-year period – I would imagine that out of the five million people who might be eligible, millions will be too fearful of revealing their identities, only to have Congress launch a widespread roundup, or the next President (most probably a Republican judging by the voter suppression, campaign finance and election tactics so successfully implemented) rescind the order. Even if Congress does come up with some kind of comprehensive immigration reform, it could prove more punitive and target the people who have come out of the shadows.
I am furious that Obama has been forced into this impossible situation – that the rest of his agenda will be undermined (climate change, nuclear treaty with Iran, minimum wage) largely because Hispanics were pissed that he delayed his action (to give the Blue Dog Democrats a fighting chance – it didn’t work), so didn’t come out and vote, and that is a big reason why Republicans could take over the Senate. Instead of punishing Republicans, they empowered them.
It enables the Republicans to foment fear by distorting what his executive action actually does (and even now, there are complaints from the immigrant community that Obama didn’t go far enough).
Here it is from his own speech:
First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over.
Second, I’ll make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed.
Third, we’ll take steps to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.
He emphasized, “I want to say more about this third issue, because it generates the most passion and controversy. Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we’re also a nation of laws. Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable -– especially those who may be dangerous. That’s why, over the past six years, deportations of criminals are up 80 percent. And that’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.
“But even as we focus on deporting criminals, the fact is, millions of immigrants in every state, of every race and nationality still live here illegally. And let’s be honest -– tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you. It’s also not who we are as Americans. After all, most of these immigrants have been here a long time. They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches. Many of their kids are American-born or spent most of their lives here, and their hopes, dreams, and patriotism are just like ours. As my predecessor, President Bush, once put it: ‘They are a part of American life.'”
Here’s the deal:
“If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes — you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. That’s what this deal is.
“Now, let’s be clear about what it isn’t. This deal does not apply to anyone who has come to this country recently. It does not apply to anyone who might come to America illegally in the future. It does not grant citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive -– only Congress can do that. All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you.”
Obama made a key point: “That’s the real amnesty –- leaving this broken system the way it is. Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability –- a common-sense, middle-ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.
“The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every single Democratic President for the past half century.
“And to those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.”
At Thanksgiving time, we like to trot out this mythology of America as the land of opportunity, a patchwork quilt of people from many cultures, Lady Liberty welcoming the downtrodden. In reality, our history with immigration has been shameful – as shameful as our history with how we treated the Native Americans, which was no less ethnic cleansing than what we see today in the conflicts we condemn.
This was starkly demonstrated in the hysterical reaction to the “invasion” of brown children fleeing violence in Central America this summer (the reason that Obama put off his executive action in the first place because Republicans were charging that his earlier Deferred Action for Dreamers spurred the exodus).
A few weeks ago, the Gold Coast International Film Festival premiered “A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald,” a documentary by Shuli Eshel about James G. McDonald, a U.S. diplomat who helped rescue Jewish refugees from the Nazis. McDonald told President Franklin Roosevelt as early as 1933 what Hitler was intending to do, because Hitler told him directly that his plan was to rid the world of this scourge (of the Jews), and the rest of the world would thank him. Instead, the State Department only tightened its restrictions on Jews seeking refuge – even sending back the ship, the St. Louis, whose passengers were most probably consumed in the Holocaust.
But even after the Holocaust was revealed and the hell of the concentration camps, the US refused to take survivors, despite McDonald’s pleas. Survivors languished for years in refugee camps not much better than the concentration camps. Regina Gil, the executive director of the Gold Coast Arts Center, was born in one of the camps.
The immigration policy we have in place today is founded in the same racial bigotry.
It certainly isn’t based on economics or the old meme, that immigrants would take jobs away from Americans. If anything, bringing these people out of the shadow economy, who are already working (in jobs Americans refuse to do), but are exploited by employers, by having some legal status will push up wages for everyone.
The fact is that immigrants have always been an engine for economic prosperity – as Obama noted, 30-40% of the Silicon Valley enterprises were started by immigrants.
No, the real fear is that immigrants will not just change American culture (and yet we still celebrate Thanksgiving!) but that it will change the landscape for political power.
So what do the rightwingers do? Foment fear.
Senator Tom Coburn declared, “The country’s going to go nuts, because they’re going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president, and it’s going to be a very serious situation..You’re going to see — hopefully not — but you could see instances of anarchy. … You could see violence.”
The hysteria fomented around this issue is the same tactic used against Obamacare (death panels!) – not founded on facts at all, because if there would be an actual debate, well then, Congress would actually act.
In fact, one part of Congress already did. Boehner can bring an end to this latest manufactured crisis by allowing a vote on the Senate bill in the lame duck. Indeed, Obama’s executive action would go away if the House voted.
But Boehner won’t, because this is the crisis that the Republicans were itching for in order to make sure Obama can’t function in his last two years in office. They were looking for any excuse – so they are using the same tactics they have used to prevent universal access to health care: they are threatening to shut down the government, not pass any legislation including budget resolutions, filing lawsuits and even impeaching the President for his “lawless” emperor-like action that basically mimics every president since Washington.
President Obama tried to put things into reasonable perspective. In his speech in Las Vegas, he gave what could have been a Thanksgiving message:
“This debate deserves more than the usual politics, because this is about something bigger. This is about who we are. Who do we want to be?
“We’re not a nation that kicks out strivers and dreamers who want to earn their piece of the American Dream. We’re a nation that finds a way to welcome them. We make them earn it, but we welcome them in as fellow human beings, fellow children of God. And we harness their talents to make the future brighter for everybody.
“We didn’t raise the Statue of Liberty with her back to the world, we did it with her light shining as a beacon to the world. And whether we were Irish or Italians or Germans crossing the Atlantic, or Japanese or Chinese crossing the Pacific; whether we crossed the Rio Grande or flew here from all over the world — generations of immigrants have made this country into what it is. It’s what makes us special.
“And whether we fled famine, or war, or persecution; whether we had the right documents, or connections, or skills; whether we were wealthy or poor — we all shared one thing, and that was hope that America would be the place where we could finally build a better life for ourselves and for our children, and for future generations. Hope that America is the place where we could make it.
“That’s what makes us Americans. It’s not what we look like. It’s not what our last name is. It’s not where we come from. It’s not how we pray. What makes us American is a shared commitment to an ideal that all of us are created equal, all of us have a chance to make our lives what we will.
“For generations, America — by choice and Americans by birth have come together to renew that common creed and move this country forward that brought us to this moment. That is the legacy that we now have to deliver to the next generation.”
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