By ALAN BENJAMIN
Speaking in San Francisco’s Chinatown district on November 25 on the issue of immigration reform, President Barack Obama was heckled by Ju Hong, a young student originally from South Korea who demanded that Obama stop the deportations of undocumented immigrants.
Obama interrupted his speech to tell the Korean youth that he doesn’t have the authority to stop the deportations; to do so would be to violate the law. Only Congress could put the wheels in motion by adopting a Comprehensive Immigration Reform law that offered an “earned path to citizenship,” Obama insisted.
But Ju Hung actually got it right: The president does have the power and authority to halt the deportations. It is not true, as Obama affirmed, that if a president takes action without Congress, he violates the law. There’s such a thing as the executive order.
Obama has issued 164 executive orders on such things as climate change, deferred action, and student debt. It’s a well-worn presidential tool — George W. Bush issued 287; Bill Clinton issued 308.
On October 26, 2011, at the University of Colorado-Denver, Obama said this when talking to students about using an executive order to reduce student-loan debt: “We’re not going to wait for Congress. I’m going to act with or without Congress. Where they won’t act, I will, through a series of executive orders. … We’re going to look every day to see what we can do without Congress.”
One year later, while facing re-election and eager to bolster his support among Latino voters, Obama announced that his administration was offering Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to allow undocumented young people to temporarily avoid deportation and apply for a two-year work permit. He did this without Congressional approval.
And on November 15, 2013 — just 10 days before he spoke in Chinatown on the issue of immigration — Obama, without Congressional approval, extended the deferred action, or stay on deportations to all undocumented members of the Armed Forces and their families.
Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, a youth organization, noted correctly that Obama’s action extending DACA to military families clearly shows that the president can use his power to stop the pain in our communities and grant relief to our families.”
This why other people in the Chinatown crowd sided with Ju Hong and began to shout: “Stop deportations! Yes, we can!”
Call for Nationwide Day of Action on December 12
To advance the struggle around the demands that Obama stop the deportations and grant deferred action to the millions of undocumented immigrants awaiting a solution to their intolerable situation, the United Front for Justice and Dignity, a new coalition of labor, community and immigrant rights’ organizations and activists, has issued a nationwide call to take action around these central demands on December 12.
The United Front’s call states, in part:
“Immigration reform legislation has definitively stalled in Congress as both political parties jockey in favor of their respective positions and point fingers of blame at each other. The needs and desires of immigrant families take second place to the electoral political agendas of Washington, D.C. belt-way lobbyists and corporations. However, deportations and separation of families continue at break-neck speed and at historic highs. Approximately 1,200 deportations occur every day and the threshold of 2 million removals under President Barack Obama will be reached any day now.
“Our families require and deserve immediate relief. …
“Join thousands of organizations throughout the nation in a December 12th National Day of Action to demand that President Obama STOP DEPORTATIONS AND SEPARATION OF FAMILIES AND DEFERRED ACTON FOR ALL the eligible undocumented members of our families.
“December 12th is a day of Veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is considered the patroness and protector of the indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. We raise this banner demanding protection in public actions which your organization or coalition sees fit, according to your capacity and inclination — a press conference, rally, vigil, non-violent civil disobedience, forum, picket in front of ICE facility, pilgrimage with the local church parish, or however you wish to express the urgency to stop the bleeding of our families and communities.
“Let President Obama hear the millions of voices of our families united and living the change we want to see.”
The United Front’s Call has been endorsed by scores of immigrant rights’ coalitions and labor organizations across the country.
Big Potential to Build Mass Movement for Immigrant Rights
The potential exists today to build a powerful movement in the streets to demand justice for immigrants and their families.
An illustration of this potential can be seen in a joint statement issued on November 28 by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Catholic Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif. The statement, published in the Sacramento Bee, reads in part:
“We now stand together … to urge President Obama to halt the deportations of immigrants who would achieve legal status and eventual citizenship under the Senate bill. It is inconsistent to advocate on behalf of immigrants and their families on one hand — including giving them an opportunity for citizenship — and devastate and separate their families through enforcement actions on the other. …
“Despite our optimism that Congress will eventually do the right thing, we remain deeply troubled that the number of undocumented immigrants deported since Obama took office five years ago will soon surpass 2 million people. This represents a moral and political failure. Simply put, tearing apart tens of thousands of children from parents is morally unacceptable. …
“A strictly punitive approach to immigration is an imprudent and impractical response that ignores the root causes driving migration, such as trade policies that benefit multinational corporations over workers. Global poverty and unstable governments all contribute to complex challenges that will not be solved by higher walls or tough rhetoric.”
Another illustration of the openings that exist to build a mass movement around these two central demands upon President Obama — Stop the Deportations, Grant Deferred Action to All Undocumented Immigrants! — is the “Dear Colleagues” Letter initiated in mid-October by Congresspersons Raul Grijalva and Yvette Clarke (and co-sponsored by 24 other Members of Congress). This letter to their congressional colleagues states, in part:
“Dear Colleague: We ask that you join us in signing the letter below asking President Obama to expand the successful deferred action program and suspend any further deportations of those who would be potential citizens under immigration reform.
“The civil disobedience action on Tuesday, October 8th has shown our commitment to making sure immigration reform is brought to the floor and families stop being separated. Thousands of people, including labor unions and faith groups, joined our effort on Tuesday. … Those affected by deportations spoke at the rally, including Angel Aguilar, an eleven-year-old boy whose father was deported. Support Angel and children just like him by urging the President to stop deportations while the House works on a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
“Some of our colleagues worked with representatives from 543 organizations across the nation making this request to the President, and we are pleased to formalize it in this letter.”
Our Actions in the Streets Will Make the Difference!
Obama and the White House have rejected the call by labor and immigrant rights’ groups to unilaterally stop deportations and extend Deferred Action to the millions awaiting legalization. But as Gabriel Camacho, an organizer with the Campaign for a Humane Immigration Policy (CHIP), noted in a commentary on Sept. 20, what Obama does or does not do can change very quickly depending on political circumstances and, above all, on what masses of people are able to do in the streets to press for their demands.
“The second-term president said that he does not have the authority to grant Deferred Action, nor to stop the deportations,” Camacho stated. “But this is the same president who miraculously discovered that he had the authority to grant temporary legal status to undocumented youth under DACA during his re-election campaign.”
And Camacho concluded:
“As long as legislative advocacy is framed on one end, on how to get Republican votes, and on the other end, on how do we curry favor with the Democratic Party, humane immigration reform will never be achieved. As in every successful social movement, the most affected must lead the struggle — not the Beltway experts and strategists.”
– – – – –
Alan Benjamin, a long-time immigrant rights activist and member of the Executive Committee of the San Francisco Labor Council (AFL-CIO), is a member of the United Front for Justice and Dignity.