Obama’s hopeful rhetoric in new immigration proposal fails to hide dark history of deportation

This post first appeared on The Protest.

Last Tuesday President Obama gave a much anticipated speech on immigration reform. His words were typical of what we’ve come to expect of his post-2008 persona; uninspired calls for “compromise” and “bipartisanship,” increased deportations for the many, and a “path to citizenship” for the few.

He began the speech with a cliché, feel-good story about United States history. “We define ourselves as a nation of immigrants. That’s who we are—in our bones.” Apparently that’s what they call white supremacist settler-colonial projects nowadays: “nations of immigrants.” I’m guessing the millions of Native Americans who died to make room for this country might call it something different, as highlighted by the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance’s campaign to get Northwestern to recognize the genocidal legacy of our university’s founder. As would likely the slaves who were forced into nation-building to the service of America’s master race.

But I suppose a little factual inaccuracy isn’t too bad, so long as it’s part of an attempt to build a political movement to bring positive change to this country. If there’s one thing Obama got right in his speech is that the US immigration system is “badly broken,” and this change cannot come soon enough. The real problem is that Obama has no intention of fixing it, as made clear by the ‘accomplishments’ he touted and his proposals for the future.

Among his “steps to patch up some of the worst cracks in our system” he cites increased border security, record deportations of “criminals,” and “[taking] up the cause of the DREAMers.” Of course, he doesn’t mention that there were also record deportations of non-criminals. In fact, “about 45 per cent of the roughly 410,000 people the United States deported in 2012 had not been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.” And while his concessions to the DREAMers are a welcome step, they only help a small proportion of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Obama’s great promise from the years to come is, basically, more of the same. He says “we need to stay focused on enforcement.” More border security, more background checks, “cracking down more forcefully on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers.” He even wants a draconian national system to allow businesses to identify anyone’s employment status. And for a select few, the nice middle class immigrants, the people who can survive “a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English, and then going to the back of the line, behind all the folks who are trying to come here legally,” maybe they’ll get to stick around.

Someone who’s still trying to believe in Obama’s message might ask, “If they’ll crack down on businesses that employ undocumented immigrants, and the path to citizenship will be long and arduous, what will undocumented immigrants do to survive in the meantime?” Perhaps the hope is that they’ll just leave: self-deportation, Democrat-style. But really, his comments were so vague that anyone’s guess is as good as mine as to how he really thinks the process will look like. Only one thing is clear: enforcement comes first, we’ll worry about human rights when all the baddies are deported and the border is hermetically sealed.

Obama’s combination of pretty stories about immigrants and cute phrases on how much they contribute to society, juxtaposed with his harsh rhetoric of enforcement and deportation, tells a particularly dark tale of Obama’s views on immigrants. We can only conclude from his words that those who can’t go through his careful process of sieving do not contribute to society, that they’re somehow a burden on the rest of us, making our lives harder by the mere fact that they lack a piece of paper.

It’s become quite clear by now that we cannot count on Obama to come from on high to save the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free right here in the US of A. Only a broad movement for immigrant rights, independent of the Democratic Party’s chains, can bring about the change we really need: a moratorium on deportations, and a path to citizenship for all peoples who have built their lives in thiscountry, even when they aren’t “foreign entrepreneurs” coming to join America’s great multicultural ruling class. Whether that movement will materialize is up to us.