Monday, May 2, 2016

Martha D. Escobar on Immigration Reform

Today the United States leads the world in incarceration rates. The country increasingly relies on the prison system as a “fix” for the regulation of societal issues. Captivity Beyond Prisons: Criminalization Experiences of Latina (Im)migrants by Martha D. Escobar is the first full-length book to explicitly link prisons and incarceration to the criminalization of Latina
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(im)migrants. Accessible to both academics and those in the justice and social service sectors, Escobar’s book pushes readers to consider how, even in radical spaces, unequal power relations can be reproduced by the very entities that attempt to undo them.

We asked Professor Escobar to give her take on the complicated problem of immigration policy, reform, and enforcement in light of the prominence of this issue during the current presidential race.

Recent Enforcement Practices Against Central American Migrants/Refugees and Limitations of Immigrant Rights Discourse
By Martha D. Escobar

Since the mid-1990s the U.S. has witnessed an intense build up of the immigration enforcement infrastructure, and along with this, an increase in the number of detained and deported migrants. Critics note that no other administration has detained and deported more migrants than President Barack Obama’s.

The current administration adopted a two-pronged approach to the issue of immigration. On the one hand, it dramatically intensified the targeting of migrants, both at the border and within the U.S. This strategy is allegedly intended to show the GOP that this administration is serious about enforcing the border and provide them with an incentive to approach the negotiation table for immigration reform, which has proven to be ineffective. On the other hand, beginning in June of 2012, the Obama administration has enacted Executive Actions on Immigration, including temporary relief from deportation for early childhood arrivals (DACA) and parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (DAPA). This is in part intended to address the concerns of migrant rights advocates and activists who argue that most undocumented migrants have established roots in the U.S. and are contributing members of society. The Executive Actions are being legally contested by the State of Texas and the Supreme Court will rule on their constitutionality by June of this year.

Although the Executive Actions on Immigration appeared to be a shift in immigration enforcement policies, the Obama administration continued to intensify policing in migrant communities, with deportations reaching the highest record in 2013. Most recently, Central American migrants/refugees, many of whom fled because of the violence and danger in their countries of origin, have been targeted for deportation. This includes many children who crossed unaccompanied during the summer of 2014. The response of the administration to critics of these actions is to argue that enforcement is focused on people who have already been given orders of removal. These practices highlight some of the challenges facing migrants and their advocates.

Obama’s Executive Actions on Immigration drew from much of the dominant migrant rights discourse that maintains that the majority of undocumented migrants have established strong roots in the U.S. and are contributing members of society who are less likely to engage in criminalized activities and access social welfare. This discourse works to draw lines between migrants that deserve belonging and protection and migrants that can be policed, detained, and deported. On November 20, 2014, when he announced an expansion of DACA and implementation of DAPA, President Obama gave an address to the nation. Drawing from migrant rights discourse, Obama marked the lines between deserving and undeserving migrants. He notes that his administration’s policies are to concentrate on migrant “criminals” and maintains that the focus of immigration enforcement will be on “actual threats to our security,” “Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” Together, the discourse used to rationalize his Executive Actions and the requirements for DACA and DAPA work to exclude millions of migrants.

In relation to the recent enforcement mobilizations against Central American migrants, particularly migrants who arrived as unaccompanied minors in 2014, one of the requirements to qualify for DACA and DAPA is that the individual have continuous residency in the U.S. beginning January 1, 2010. This means that for the thousands of migrants and refugees that entered the U.S. after this date, Obama’s Executive Actions on Immigration do not offer any relief. Instead, the main option is to apply for asylum. However, applying for asylum is an extremely complicated process. One hurdle that applicants face is that they are not guaranteed an attorney and there are not enough pro-bono lawyers that are able to represent people in these cases. This translates to increased orders of removal and deportations.

The current moment of immigration enforcement, particularly the targeting of Central Americans that entered as unaccompanied minors in 2014, provides important lessons for migrant rights activists and advocates. When advocating for policy changes, advocates have to be reflective in the discourse that is used since it can be appropriated to implement policies that result in significant disruption and violence for those that are considered less deserving. In this case, the notion that migrants who have established roots in the U.S. are more deserving than recent arrivals contributes to the Obama administration’s rationalization that the recent enforcement practices waged against Central Americans are legitimate. The logic employed is that these are not people that have established roots in the U.S. or contributed to society, and thus, merit deportation. 

Martha D. Escobar is an assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge.

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