Beyond “Comprehensive Immigration Reform”: The Case for an Open Border Policy

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On May 26, the US Court of Appeals refused to lift the injunction against the Obama administration’s executive plan on immigration. Republican-appointed Judge Andrew Hanen ordered an injunction against the executive action on February 16 under procedural grounds, not because of the legitimacy of the action itself. In fact, President Obama is following a long tradition of presidents issuing executive actions on immigration.

Nonetheless, this ruling conveyed two things. First, the Republican Party will continue to obstruct any immigration measure by any means, to appease their anxious and anti-immigrant white base. Second, the Obama administration’s refusal to take the case to the Supreme Court shows the unwillingness of this administration and the Democratic Party to fight for immigrant communities. Under these circumstances, it is time for the immigrant rights movement to reevaluate and seek an alternative strategy.

For years, mainstream immigrant rights organizations only sought comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) to solve the country’s dysfunctional immigration problem. In this approach, mainstream organizations collaborated heavily with the Democratic Party to craft legislation providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Under the CIR framework, undocumented immigrants qualifying for certain categories “earn” their pathway to citizenship. According to the most recent version of CIR, undocumented immigrants must wait 13 years, undergo thorough background checks and pay burdensome fees while being excluded from federal programs during the process. As Jon Stewart brilliantly pointed out, “It’s easy to get around background checks. All you gotta do is tell immigration you’re a gun.” The bill is designed to restrict immigrants from actually obtaining US citizenship.

But the biggest problem of CIR is not its obvious flaws or the Republican Party. It is the mainstream immigrant rights organizations’ failure to accept that their CIR plan is delusional.

In order for CIR to pass, two conditions must be met. First, we need a functional democratic government responding to the public’s concerns. Second, we need a stable, if not strong, economy to minimize anti-immigrant sentiment. But those two crucial conditions are nowhere to be found.

We are now living in the political system that political philosopher Sheldon Wolin described as inverted totalitarianism. Under the inverted totalitarian system, corporate forces completely subjugate government institutions and elected officials to their control. The recent Princeton University study clearly illuminated this point:

These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.

All the while, the general population is trained to believe in the electoral system and institutional reforms. “In reality, corporate forces supersede and subvert public concerns behind the scenes in systems that are ‘democracies’ in name only.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership fiasco further exemplifies elected officials’ unconditional loyalty to their corporate overlords.

Additionally, the US economy is far from recovering from the 2008 economic meltdown. Despite government officials’ claims about economic recovery, only the top 1% fully recovered. The United States has a long history of blaming immigrants and other vulnerable members of society during social and political instability. Without a functioning government representing the people and full economic recovery, no meaningful immigration reform legislation will ever be produced. We will continue to witness anti-immigrant legislation and rhetoric scapegoating immigrants and other vulnerable members of society.

In that case, what will be the alternative vision to replace the current CIR paradigm? It is quite simple. It is an open border policy similar to the European Union while tackling gross inequality favoring the rich.

For centuries, people around the world moved to different locations based on push and pull factors. It is because of the development of capitalism and the rise of nation-states that borders were artificially drawn: to protect the interests of a tiny number of elites. This process was exacerbated by free trade policies since the 1970s. In search of cheaper and less organized labor, corporations started to move their production base to less developed countries while people’s movements became severely restricted.

In the United States, the emphasis on the border in relation to immigration is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until the 1980s, the southern border was relatively open, and people in the region moved freely. But once the North American Free Trade Agreement passed under the Clinton administration, Mexico’s agriculture industry was completely devastated. In response, the Clinton administration began to militarize the border to hinder migration while the mainstream media spread irrational fear with thinly veiled racism. The unholy merger of fearmongering and the military-industrial complex thus became the driving force behind the current border hysteria.

Without a doubt, the unresolved immigration issue will be an intensely discussed subject during the 2016 presidential election. In an attempt to win votes from immigrant communities, politicians will promote well-crafted, but ultimately hollow messages tested on focus groups. They will relentlessly propagate what people want to hear without any intention of keeping their word, much like the Obama administration.

The Hillary Clinton campaign’s recent decision to select Lorella Praeli for Latino outreach director demonstrates an extension of this effort. Those with power always handpick and deploy the most complicit members in the movement to lead their cause in order to symbolize change without implementing actual change. The Clinton campaign is simply repeating the Obama administration’s performance from the very same playbook.

In order to solve any problem, root causes need to be addressed – not just the symptoms. The open border policy can address the root causes of the immigration issue. As we sever ourselves from mainstream groups’ delusion, we can gain more autonomy over our lives. More importantly, by focusing on systemic inequality, the immigrant rights movement can forge strong alliances with other movements and challenge the system.