Obama's Enforcement: What Now for Immigration?

By Preston, Julia | Americas Quarterly, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Obama's Enforcement: What Now for Immigration?


Preston, Julia, Americas Quarterly


Last December, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published an end-of-the-year fact sheet in which it listed its successes under then-President George W. Bush in advancing a number of strategic goals, the first of which was entitled "Protecting Our Nation from Dangerous People." The first achievement cited under this rubric was that it had "turned the tide against illegal migration to the United States," by building fencing along the southern border, expanding the Border Patrol and carrying out "unprecedented" immigration enforcement operations.

Also under the "Dangerous People" heading, the department reported that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had "completed more than 1.1 million naturalization applications," and that customs and border agents had "apprehended more than 1,020,438 people [sic], including 200 people with serious criminal records."

This summation of the Bush administration's accomplishments concisely expresses the transformation since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks of the federal government's paradigm for immigration. U.S. immigration authorities no longer employ any terms invoking the American Dream, that narrative of striving newcomers who bring unique talents and boundless enterprise to the national mix. Instead, even successful naturalization applicants now come under the category of "dangerous people," who presumably have been neutralized as threats to national security by being converted into U.S. citizens.

After September 11, Bush subsumed immigration under his counter- terrorism strategy and, in his final two years, adopted an approach that rested primarily on enforcement against illegal immigration. The crackdown started in 2006, but it became the leading edge of the Bush policy after his bill for comprehensive immigration reform crashed in Congress in June 2007. With at least 323,000 foreigners deported last year, according to official figures, the crackdown became the most intense immigration enforcement since the mass expulsions of Operation Wetback in 1954.

Yet despite the counterterrorism emphasis and the enforcement campaign, the number of undocumented immigrants in the country did not substantially decline. According to DHS's estimate, in January 2007 there were about 11.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States.* Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, reached almost exactly the same estimate.

Now come four books, written or edited by scholars, that provide a wealth of history about the ups and downs of U.S. immigration enforcement; about the brisk evolution of the terms used to demonize immigrants in political debates over reform; and about Mexico's largely ineffective efforts to manage the northward rush of its workers.

A Nation of Emigrants, by David Fitzgerald, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego, is a broadly researched but tightly argued account of the Mexican side of the immigration cycle, too often overlooked in debate on the U.S. side. Mexico is the behemoth in the current crisis: about 11.7 million Mexicans make up 31 percent of the foreign-born people now living in the United States, overwhelming other national groups. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about seven million Mexicans lack legal status and more than 80 percent of Mexicans who arrived in the last decade are here unlawfully. Yet discussion of the crackdown has been dominated by the assumptions of neo-nativist proponents like Pat Buchanan and former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who say that Mexico has always been pleased to see its workers depart through a border escape valve. For them the flow of migrants serves only to relieve social pressure on the Mexican government and to save political leaders from the responsibility of development.

Starting with field work in a Mexican village, Fitzgerald examines Mexico's attempts to exert control over the mass exodus of many of its best workers. …

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