Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Good work by Obama?

As the great grandson of an immigrant from a group that until recently faced xenophobic backlashes and because of my recent life circumstances, I am somewhat nauseated by the political construction of the recent immigration debate. Immigrants frequently become dehumanicized, functioning as mere representations of their connection to a legal document.

As many other politicians, Barack Obama has utilized some of this recent xenophobia throughout his campaign and presidency. His advocacy utilizes a wider notion of security (more than armies that threaten the country) to be resolved by a more narrow security method (traditional ways of securing objects of the country) for the traditional security object (the country or nation). The actual White House policy suggests:

President Obama will remove incentives to enter the country illegally by preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers and enforcing the law.

The web site also tells us that he will fix the dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy and address the problem holistically within its economic context:

President Obama believes that our broken immigration system can only be fixed by putting politics aside and offering a complete solution that secures our border, enforces our laws, and reaffirms our heritage as a nation of immigrants. He believes our immigration policy should be driven by our best judgment of what is in the economic interest of the United States and what is in the best interest of the American worker. President Obama recognizes that an orderly, controlled border and an immigration system designed to meet our economic needs are important pillars of a healthy and robust economy.

Of course Obama remains extremely political in this instance. As Gramsci suggested some time ago, the very notion of common sense remains a political object, constructed by intra- and inter-class struggle. The notion of the immigration "problem" and the means of addressing it seem natural to many people: Too many people are not following the rules (immigrant and citizen) so we need more and better legal enforcement for the good of everyone. This problem, then, becomes a threat to our nation-state (our ability to regulate people flows across borders and remain cultural homogeneity) and way of life (standards of living brought down by an influx of labor), according to many people within the debate. While these formulations get articulated in slightly different ways and levels of urgency, their speakers make appeals to everyone's common sense, suggesting the problems and solutions are simply natural, thus limiting the scope of rhetoric and semantics.

Against common sense, let me suggest that labor remains the main problem, though not in the way one might think. People without legal work place protections and the ability to organize are threatening those with such protections. The solution should not be top down (enforce regulation of employment and punish employees and employers). The solution should be bottom up. It should enable employees. People who work in sweatshops, without workplace protections, or the ability to organize -- especially in the case of recent immigrants -- are not criminals, but victims.

Rather than dictate reality from the center like the Politburo, let's take a page from the rational choice handbook that suggests institutional design fosters individual behavior. Let's reform our labor institutions to allow greater and easier organizing by workers (and thus let workers take problems into their own hands). On the civil side let's support groups that are organizing workers in spite of the law (for a great example see http://www.ciw-online.org/). On a common sense level let's aide those undermining the hegemonic common sense.

It may be too early to tell, but Obama may be taking small steps on the issue of common sense (from Border Action Network:)

[The] Department of Homeland Security has canceled Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s 287g Agreement, revoking his deputies’ authority to make immigration arrests in the field. Though Arpaio wanted to renew an agreement with DHS to allow both field arrests and immigration checks at his jails, a DHS official recently gave him a document allowing only jail checks.

It seems too early to tell if this is random act, something in contradiction to public policy, a preview to centralizing raids entirely in ICE, or something else. Our common sense will dictate where we stand on these interpretations.

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