The Speech Heard ‘Round the Subcontinent

Photo source: US News & World Report

It took months for President Obama to honor his word of doing something on his own to reform American immigration policy, but he did do something in the end. In what is unquestionably the “make or break” moment of his last two years in office, he announced that he will issue executive orders that not only are considerably broad, but also skip congressional input. One of them will benefit up to 4 million undocumented/illegal immigrants whose children are permanent residents or citizens of the US by granting the former work permits and deferring deportation for up to three years, conditional on passing a background check and paying a fee. Another will benefit DREAMers by easing the eligibility requirements for deportation delay under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) of 2012. A third one will change current deportation guidelines, shifting the focus to criminals and recent immigrants.

In Washington, at the same time the incoming GOP congressional majority swore Obama would come to regret his move, the Organization of American States, through Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, welcomed the announcement, saying that “this is the fruit of the struggle they [undocumented/illegal immigrants] have carried forward for years to achieve a migratory status that distances them from illegality and brings them closer to a life of dignity in this country” and calling Obama’s action as an act of courage. In Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto declared that the measures sanctioned by the executive orders were “an act of justice” and the most important in three decades, and instructed all Mexican consulates in the US to assist any Mexican who wants to take advantage. The Salvadoran Foreign Ministry declared that there was a “humanistic motive behind Obama’s move and also announced that all Salvadoran consulates will assist any Salvadoran immigrant who also want to benefit from the executive orders. Honduran president Juan Hernández said the measures were “a step in the right direction” and “will send a powerful message of solidarity with Latin America”. His Guatemalan counterpart, Otto Pérez, also expressed his approval. All in all, in those Latin American countries that have a stake in the immigration debate in the US, the reaction was positive.

There was also room for asking the US to go beyond. Specifically, the Salvadoran and Honduran presidents urged Congress to pass a more comprehensive immigration reform bill, unknowingly joining Obama in his now famous (or infamous, if you are a Republican) “pass a bill” dare. Wishful thinking without a doubt, because the likeliest scenario is that the GOP, more concerned with exacting revenge on “Emperor” Obama, will not spend a second to draft an actual immigration policy that would make unilateral executive action unnecessary or, at least, redundant. Adding insult to injury, Michele Bachmann, in one of her last major statements before retiring from the House next year, declared that Obama’s move will create a wave of illiterate Democratic voters (yes, she really said that). Bottom line: no long term policy change.

But the most important question for our purposes is if Obama’s executive orders are really a show of solidarity with Latin America. In his book chapter written for the third edition of Domínguez and Shifter’s Constructing Democratic Governance, Laurence Whitehead posits that the kind of democracy defended by the US in the post-9/11 world insists on the control of borders – something not envisioned by the optimistically liberal Miami Summit of 1994. He also hints that it makes sense for the US to export liberal democracy to make sure that the citizens of certain countries stay where they are and do not come rushing to the US, but also that for a part of the world less concerned with the same existential threat that now afflicts the US, like Latin America, such democracy can only be a disappointment because the region strongly supported the idea of easier continental immigration that came out of the Miami Summit. DACA, the DREAM Act, and these executive orders could be seen not only as humane, but as serious attempts to resuscitate that idea and return to the optimism of 1994, but within the context of the American constitutional system and in today’s hyper-partisan political climate in the US, these actions can only be seen as representative of one part of the government, at best. The other half of it (that is, the GOP) will never acquiesce to the liberalization of immigration procedures if it does not come hand in hand with “protecting the border” because it fears that drug mules from Mexico, swine flu-infected kids, or some ISIS operative may be taking advantage of how porous that border is. That, and its constant concern with granting amnesty for “illegals” is what has stalled so many immigration bills over the years, including the one Obama said in his speech that the GOP-controlled House did not put for a full vote. For that reason, Latin America can hope for, ask, or urge Congress to pass a permanent and comprehensive immigration bill, but until everybody in the US is on the same page (and they must), it should not hold its breath. In any case, days after Obama’s announcement, the Honduran Commissioner for Human Rights – who also welcomed the executive orders – announced that he received information that the US government would deport recently-migrated Honduran minors allegedly without due process, adding to the 8,432 who have been deported so far.

There are also some situations that cast a shadow of reasonable doubt on whether the US does show solidarity with Latin America, because they demonstrate that it shows solidarity with itself first. First, the US might have signed free-trade agreements with individual Latin America countries, such as NAFTA (with Mexico) or CAFTA-DR (with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), but that cannot be seen outside the larger concern on the part of the US to maintain a sphere of influence that would shield it from extrinsic threats to its hegemony (not that Russian hegemony is any better). Second, the US still insists on isolating Cuba until it democratizes while the rest of the region wants to do the opposite by voting in favor of its return to the OAS and attending the Second CELAC Summit in Havana. And by actually joining CELAC (a brainchild of Hugo Chávez), it also wants to deal with Bolivarian Venezuela rather than chastise it, as the US does. (None of that lets Cuba and Venezuela off the hook, though.) Third, the US and Latin America agree that drug trafficking is a fundamental and shared problem, but the most recent Summit of the Americas (the one that had those Secret Service agents hanging out with prostitutes) demonstrated that both sides disagree on how to deal with it.

The most critical point has been advanced in an op-ed published in the Salvadoran daily El Mundo, which I translate here, two days before the speech:

This region [the Northern Triangle], overcome by lack of education and culture, needs a new vision of development, and that is at least what the United States could contribute with if it really assumes the responsibility that it has, by abandoning it after signing peace agreements, established military bases and financing wars in these territories, trying to contain the communist advance in Latin America. Yes, the United States has responsibility in what happens to us – not in whole but in a large measure, by promoting with its money economic and political systems that failed in development.

In the words of my friend and colleague Tom Walker, there is a “reverse Midas touch” that explains the push factors for Northern Triangle migration to the US, especially by unaccompanied minors. The El Mundo op-ed is categorical in how the US should fix it:

The United States, after seeing that 40 or 60 thousand children reached its borders, was moved – not only because of the human drama, but because numbers like these each year may signify an influence in American life that it is not capable of assimilating. Apparently, it [the US] was finally convinced that the problem cannot be stopped by investing in border patrols, checkpoint technology, walls, or pursuing illegals, but only with jobs for these families in their countries of origin.

There certainly has to be a vigorous and superbly-argued push for real immigration reform in the US, but it should not occur without practical and effective development initiatives that directly address the reasons why people migrate en masse from the Northern Triangle, which the op-ed puts quite succinctly: “our people migrate because there are no jobs here. Because there are no opportunities and the democratic system has not been good enough to generate them.” This is where the inability, or unwillingness, of the US to see eye to eye with Latin America becomes a liability. It does not mean that the US is not doing anything whatsoever (the USAID is working on meaningful projects in the area). It means that it must consider bolder ideas, such as not thinking of markets as the cure-all for everything and realizing that the region wants to distance itself from the “war on drugs” approach. It entails that the US should start working on ideas it considers unacceptable, such as the same nationwide legalization of marijuana Uruguay is currently implementing. It calls for the US to recognize that education is not just a public good and that an honest job cannot be secured by the invisible hand of the market. Both of them should be considered basic human rights, indispensable for a dignified life. And for carrying out all that, it will also require courageous policymakers and diplomats and that US policy toward Latin America be permanently detached from the twists and turns of hyper-partisanship.

Something will always be better than nothing, and in that regard Obama’s move fulfills that premise. Yet is more reasonable to say that it will take more than a handful of executive orders on immigration for the US to actually demonstrate that it is willing to show solidarity with Latin America.

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