The Blog

Obama Silent on Gutierrez's Landmark Immigration Legislation

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) has just introduced a landmark immigration reform bill, which ought to be the basis of any legislation in the current Congress:

This is the most important piece of domestic legislation advanced in many, many years. Interestingly, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post feature front page coverage; the news stories all note that this is just the opening salvo, and the bill as it is is dead on arrival because Republicans won't support it.

The silence from the White House is deafening--no public show of support from President Obama, who continues to maintain highly favorable ratings among Latinos (despite his having ignored, so far, all the promises he made to the Hispanic community during the election campaign).

The Democratic party, the establishment news media, and Obama himself are holding fire for the bill they do want to support, the draconian Schumer legislation which has already been drawn up (in conjunction with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, he of the military tribunals and impeachment), but which awaits an opportune moment early next year to be sprung upon the public. No doubt, as soon as Schumer releases his bill, Obama will declare that that's the kind of legislation he can get behind.

The Senate immigration legislation will bear the same resemblance to the House bill offered by Gutierrez and his cosponsors as their pathetic legislation (do a lot of harm, destroy even the nicer parts of the system) bears to the House health care legislation.

The silence tells us a lot about Obama (as we have learned again and again over the course of this year): his heart is where the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council once was (he is their true standard-bearer today), his true soulmate is really Joe Lieberman. Obama, deep down, loves Lieberman; that's who he really is, once you strip down the empty rhetoric and futile gestures. He cares not a bit for the working poor, immigrants, even entrepreneurs and innovators, those who make this country tick. He was brought in to preserve the privilege, segregation, and division among classes and races; that's what he has done with health care, and that's what he plans to do with the chaotic, utterly counterproductive immigration bill Schumer is holding back. Latinos, immigrants, take note!

One would have expected Janet Napolitano to say a few kind words about the House legislation; is it the kind of humane, non-punitive reform she had in mind when she promised recently that Congress would get it done next year?

What exactly is so terrible about the Gutierrez bill that has corporate-Democrats cowering in their shells? It is humane, it is flexible, it is rational, it is practical, it is optimistic, and it calls on our great traditions of welcome and openness--features which will be markedly absent from the legislation Obama is prepared to support. It is the kind of legislation Ted Kennedy would have been proud to support. Unfortunately, ours is not the era of the New New Deal; it is the era of the Bad to Worse Deal; any "comprehensive" legislation emanating from the Obama administration makes things worse than they already are, by sneaking in corporate-favored provisions.

Let's take a look at a few of the proposals in the Gutierrez bill.

It suspends Operation Streamline (an euphemism coined by Bush's Gestapo chief, Michael Chertoff, to describe a program that files criminal charges against all border-crossers).

It improves detention conditions, by preserving family unity, avoiding unnecessary separations, and ensuring humane treatment of detainees.

It strengthens protection during enforcement activities, by making such activities subject to court review, allowing legal access and other services to detained immigrants, and repealing the 287(g) program, making the federal government the only enforcer of federal immigration law.

It prohibits the creation of a national ID card in the proposed employment verification system.

It makes a number of proposals to reduce the massive backlog in family and employment visa issuance (itself the primary source of "illegal" immigration in the country), leaning toward making more visas available to skilled workers who ought to be welcome in the U.S.

It makes a number of provisions to strengthen family unity, by allowing judges greater discretion in removal proceedings, for instance when a U.S. citizen child is involved.

Its provision for legalization is outstanding, and the only general outline which can work (complicated Schumer-like provisions will not solve the problem of "illegality"). It establishes a broad criterion of contribution to U.S. society through education, employment, military service, or community/volunteer service, rather than some rigorous employment-only criterion. And it waives bars relating to undocumented status (such as fraudulent use of Social Security cards), again the only commonsensical principle that can work.

On the whole, it seeks to return the system to a position of flexibility, whereby employment and family needs start matching immigration visas again, so that the root cause of illegal presence is removed.

The most important legislation of the last half century was arguably the immigration act of 1965, which opened the doors to new kinds of immigrants--this, more than anything else that has happened since then, changed the face of America. Had it not been for that lucky crack of the doors, had America not been renewed by immigrants in such large numbers in the intervening years, we would today be a powerless, geriatric, hopeless society, in worse demographic shape than Western Europe and Japan. But in the last decade, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and the door has been all but closed. The most pernicious phenomenon of the Bush years--the one with the most irreversible consequences--is this reversal of the immigrant flow, this suspicion of the other that has found permanent place in the national imagination.

Obama has never tried to change the discourse with regard to immigration or any of the aspects of our true relationship with the world; the fundamental fear equation remains unchanged. In his West Point speech, Obama morphed completely into Bush, shedding all pretense of a nice guy image; he's in it to win it--win the wars of terror, suspicion, and resentment, which have no real source other than our own frustration at being unable to handle competitiveness from the rest of the world. Thus he committed us to a path of long-term self-destruction.

Today, the U.S. government is dedicating enormous resources to uprooting and deporting college graduates who came here as children--three or five or seven years old--and lack legal status; there is no way for them to fix their status, regardless of their potential to make contributions to American society. This is where we are today, at the end of Year One of Obama, as all our attention is diverted to a health care bill designed to further enrich providers and insurers. That's the kind of tyranny Obama hasn't said a word about--nor is he likely to.

Obama doesn't need to grandstand by inviting hot-shot bankers to the White House to lecture them and ask them to lend. Banks will lend money only if it makes sense for them; yet Obama has failed to address the underlying causes of the credit squeeze. Instead of talking to his beloved bankers, perhaps he should have shown yesterday that he stood with the working person by giving Representative Gutierrez his promise of support. But his already failed presidency doesn't allow any such act of imagination.

Instead of seeing human beings as so many units of labor Obama's favorite corporations can shamelessly exploit, Gutierrez's bill begins to return us to the rule of law operating in an environment of human dignity; and that is not something Obama can get behind. Now, weaken it with the Schumer bill--restrict the requirements for legalization, so that only a handful qualify; weaken family unification by narrowly redefining family and giving priority to certain skilled workers; bring in a temporary worker program, to drive wages down for everyone and open new loopholes for exploitation; and continue to invest DHS with draconian powers, deprive applicants of the right of appeal, and integrate paranoid discourse into every aspect of the law--and that's something Obama will say we have to get done next year, even in the midst of the recession--because his corporate masters hired him to do just that.