Dreams and Nightmares: Immigration Policy, Youth, and Families / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Dreams and Nightmares
Immigration Policy, Youth, and Families
By Marjorie S. Zatz, Nancy Rodriguez
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Introduction and Historical Context
For the president, I think his legacy is at stake here.... We consider him the deportation president, or the deporter-in-chief. —Janet Murguía, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of La Raza (Epstein 2014)
I think politicians, in particular, have envisioned the immigration system as something that simply can be contained by building a high enough wall or keeping enough people out. What they rarely think about is all of the fallout and all of the unintended consequences. It's ultimately the kids who are suffering because we can't get our act together up front to devise an immigration process that really works for America today. —Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center (interview October 10, 2012)
The lives of undocumented immigrants are filled with dreams and nightmares. Parents dream of better futures for themselves and their children. Young adults who were brought to the United States as children dream of finally becoming US citizens. Alongside these dreams, though, are nightmares. Children awaken from nightmares of immigration raids in which their undocumented parents or siblings are suddenly taken from them. And teenagers who always thought they were American find themselves "awakening to a nightmare" (Gonzales and Chavez 2012) when they discover they are undocumented, cannot get driver's licenses, obtain college loans, or legally work, and live under the threat of deportation.
Undocumented immigrant José Ángel N. (2014, 77) writes in his memoir of another immigrant who "left his hometown in search of the American Dream. Smuggling himself across the desert, he had walked right into a nightmare." The journey north is itself a nightmare for children who risk death, rape, and serious injury as they travel alone from Central America to the United States, hoping to escape violence and poverty and to reunite with parents they have not seen in years. Yet the number of children traveling to the United States by themselves, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, increases exponentially each year, reaching what in 2014 was called a "humanitarian crisis" by some and "an influx on top of the influx" by others.
An estimated 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants resided in the United States in March 2013 (Passel et al. 2014). Nearly two-thirds of these immigrants have lived in the United States for more than a decade, and almost half are parents of US-citizen children (Taylor et al. 2011; Passel et al. 2014). The law affects the lives and legal consciousness of undocumented immigrants and their families in multiple ways that are structured and nuanced by gender, age, race, ethnicity, and social position (Abrego 2011; Abrego and Gonzales 2010; Gonzales 2011; Gonzales and Chavez 2012; Kubrin, Zatz, and Martínez 2012; Menjívar and Kanstroom 2013). More than one-fifth of all children in the United States today have at least one parent who is an immigrant. A large subset of these children—4.5 million as of 2012—are US citizens who have at least one parent who is undocumented (Passel and Cohn 2011; Passel et al. 2014).
These families inhabit what Cecilia Menjívar (2006, 2011, 2012) has described as a state of liminal legality in which they are acknowledged but are legally nonexistent (Coutin 2000, 2003, 2007; DeGenova 2002). This liminality requires a hyper-awareness of the law, as their legal status may be uncertain and shifting.
CONTEMPORARY US IMMIGRATION POLICY AND PRACTICE IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Throughout its history, the United States has wrestled with its immigration policy and practice. Like law making more generally, immigration policy is characterized by temporary fixes aimed at resolving, at least for a time, conflicts and dilemmas resulting from larger social, political, and economic contradictions (Chambliss 1979; Chambliss and Zatz 1993). Since the country's founding, the politics of race, ethnicity, gender, and religion have been central to decisions about who should be included in the national fabric and who should be shut out (Calavita 1984, 2007; FitzGerald and Cook-Martín 2014; Gardner 2005; Hing 2004; Johnson 2003; Kanstroom 2012; Kubrin et al. 2012; Ngai 2004). The needs of agribusiness and other economic sectors for cheap labor have competed with nativist fears that the United States will be overrun by people who look and sound different (Calavita 1992; Chavez 2008; Newton 2008). These debates play out on national and local stages in the form of moral panics about immigration and crime, fear of loss of jobs and other economic woes due to immigration, and concerns about national security and public safety (Longazel 2013; Varsanyi 2010; Zatz and Smith 2012).
The most recent attempt to comprehensively address the political, social, and economic dilemmas underlying US immigration policy was in 1986, with passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Though IRCA resolved some immediate problems, legalizing the status of large numbers of immigrants while simultaneously creating an enforcement mechanism that was supposed to deter employers from hiring undocumented workers, it was not a fundamental rethinking of immigration policy, and as a result the underlying contradictions remained (Calavita 1989). At least in part as a backlash against the legalization elements in IRCA, a decade later the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) were passed. As a set, these two 1996 laws provided local and state police with unprecedented authority to enforce civil immigration laws, expanded the number of offenses for which immigration detention is mandatory, and severely restricted the discretion of immigration judges.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Immigration and Naturalization Services, which had previously been situated in the Department of Justice, was disbanded, and immigration enforcement and integration were separated into three distinct agencies within DHS: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS, or more typically USCIS). Each agency director reports to the secretary of DHS, which was created as a cabinet position.
The move from DOJ to DHS marked a conceptual shift in immigration policy and practice. The Department of Justice was always very aware of due process and equal protection requirements. As a result, immigration enforcement and immigrant integration took place within a context of checks and balances framed by constitutional law protections. In contrast, DHS's mandate is national security and law enforcement is its primary mission. Placing all immigration services under that umbrella legitimizes a focus on enforcement over all other aspects of immigration policy and risks a collapse of constitutional concerns. In combination with the 1996 laws and massive congressional appropriations for border enforcement, this restructuring has led to increasingly restrictive policies and practices, and to a dramatic increase in deportations.
Efforts by the George W. Bush administration to pass comprehensive immigration legislation in 2006 and 2007 failed. A wave of state and local anti-immigrant bills, ordinances, and ballot initiatives followed, beginning about 2005 and peaking in 2011 with introduction of 1,607 bills and resolutions, 306 of which were enacted into law (National Conference of State Legislatures 2012).
Tens of thousands of immigrants were picked up and deported in immigration raids on meatpacking factories and other worksites across the country, yet these raids also brought attention to the plight of immigrants' children and families. Churches, schools, and other local institutions were forced to confront the sudden arrest, detention, and deportation of parents of young children, many of whom were US citizens (Capps et al. 2007; Chaudry et al. 2010; Human Rights Watch 2007). In some communities the sentiment began to shift, as sympathetic media depicted nursing mothers separated from their babies and families unable to locate loved ones who had disappeared into the detention and deportation apparatus. The vulnerability of young people who came to the United States as children and grew up calling America home also became more visible, and demands to regularize the status of these "Dreamers," as they came to be called, grew more insistent.
Immigration Policy under the Obama Administration
President Barack Obama swept into office in 2008 with the support of 67 percent of the Latino voters and 66 percent of voters under age thirty. The nation's immigration policy was a key election issue, and the newly formed Obama administration anticipated passage of comprehensive immigration reform early in its first term. Once in office, however, the administration determined that the dire economic situation had to be its primary focus. All other domestic policies, with the exception of health care reform, were placed on hold for the first two years of Obama's presidency. As the recession bottomed out and the country slowly started to recover, congressional gridlock set in, with increasingly chilly relations between the White House and House Republicans making passage of any major domestic legislation unlikely. By 2010, it was clear that comprehensive immigration reform would not be enacted anytime soon, and the Latino and immigrant advocate communities became increasingly frustrated and disappointed by President Obama's unwillingness to follow through with what they saw as a key campaign promise.
Within this highly polarized context, the Obama administration needed to identify some options that could ease the plight of unauthorized immigrants living in the shadows while simultaneously addressing fears of uncontrolled immigration. Prosecutorial discretion emerged as a central mechanism in this balancing act and was initially understood by many as a down payment to Latino voters. Prosecutorial discretion offered a means of prioritizing who should be placed in removal hearings and deported and who should be given at least a temporary reprieve. Cases were prioritized based on assessments of a set of positive factors, such as strong family ties in the United States, including US-citizen children, and negative factors, such as criminal history or security threat.
Very quickly, however, the administration faced serious criticism from all sides. Political opponents calling for stronger immigration enforcement argued that ICE officials were not allowed to do their job, and that prosecutorial discretion amounted to an unofficial form of amnesty. The administration responded to this criticism by consistently filling immigration detention beds at the level appropriated by Congress. This had the effect of increasing the number of deportations, ultimately capping at just over four hundred thousand removals per year in fiscal year 2012. Immigrant communities and advocacy groups were angered by the unprecedented number of deportations. Rather than reducing the number of deportations, prosecutorial discretion just reshaped the population of deportees, and it did little to lessen the devastating effects on families. Parental detentions and deportations continued at high rates through 2012, though they decreased somewhat in 2013. In 2011 alone, more than five thousand children were placed in foster care when their parents were detained or deported (Wessler 2011b). In the face of this rising tide of detained and deported parents and fragmented families, many immigrants and their allies came to see prosecutorial discretion as an increasingly empty promise.
As the 2012 election approached, it became clear to Democrats that some major action was needed to convince Latino communities that they should bother to vote, and to vote for Obama. In this context, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was announced and quickly implemented in the summer of 2012. DACA is a form of prosecutorial discretion that offers eligible Dreamers relief from deportation and permission to legally work in the United States.
In return, the Latino community came out strongly in support for President Obama and other Democrats in the 2012 elections. Though they were still disappointed by his failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform and by the unprecedented numbers of deportations, they saw DACA as a significant step forward, and Barack Obama as a better bet than Mitt Romney, who had proposed "self-deportation" of Latinos living in the United States.
Following these elections, Senate Republicans realized they needed to act quickly to appease Latinos, and they joined with Senate Democrats to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill on June 27, 2013, with a strong bipartisan vote of 68–32.
Throughout, the Obama administration took a hard line on immigration enforcement, hoping that this would push open a window of opportunity to make comprehensive immigration reform possible. House Republicans and other opponents were not placated, however, saying that DACA was a de facto amnesty program in violation of the law, and President Obama could not be trusted. House Speaker John Boehner made the decision not to allow a vote on the full Senate bill, though for a while he left a door cracked slightly open to the possibility of piecemeal legislation.
Immigration advocates and the Latino community despaired. More than a thousand immigrants were still being deported each day, ripping families apart. Mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post regularly chastised the administration. For instance, the New York Times editorial board opined, "This enormously costly effort was meant to win Republican support for broader reform. But all it has done is add to the burden of fear, family disruption and lack of opportunity faced by 11 million people who cannot get right with the law" (New York Times Editorial Board 2014).
The Latino community called for President Obama to use his executive authority to take additional steps, expanding upon DACA. Yet immigration continues to be an area in which, to borrow from Washington Post reporters Phillip Rucker and Peter Wallsten, President Obama "has been skittish," first saying he did not have authority to halt deportations, then granting relief to those Dreamers qualifying for DACA but saying he could do nothing further (Rucker and Wallsten 2013). Former Principal Deputy General Counsel for the Department of Homeland Security David Martin concluded, "It would have been better for the administration to state its enforcement intentions clearly and stand by them, rather than being willing to lean whichever way seemed politically expedient at any given moment.... It was a pipe dream to think they could make everyone happy" (Thompson and Cohen 2014).
By 2011, another dilemma was unfolding in Central America that would propel thousands, and then tens of thousands, of children to undertake the perilous journey to the United States by themselves. Poverty and lack of economic opportunity have historically been important push factors, sending young men, and sometimes women, to the United States in search of jobs that would allow them to remit funds home to their families (Abrego 2014; Boehm 2012; Dreby 2010; Menjívar 2012; Menjívar and Abrego 2009). Two other factors, though, have altered this dynamic in recent years.
First, and of primary importance, violence and accompanying corruption have become widespread in Central America's northern triangle, and the governments appear incapable of ensuring the safety of their citizenry. Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world in 2012, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 population (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2014, 24). The history of US military interventions in the region, support for corrupt domestic governments, the drug wars, and trade agreements such as the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that favor the United States at the expense of Central Americans have resulted in widespread poverty, structural inequality, and powerful drug cartels throughout Mexico and northern Central America. Rather than protecting the populace, state actors are complicitous with the cartels, and those who are unwilling to pay homage to the gangs risk not only economic devastation but also their very lives. In many communities, children are no longer able to attend school, and they fear that if they stay at home, they will die. These are the structural causes of the migration.
Excerpted from Dreams and Nightmares by Marjorie S. Zatz, Nancy Rodriguez. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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