em Ozdel / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

It’s time to legalize all undocumented immigrants

Legalization for all will make the United States safer and improve wages and working conditions for everyone

August 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

On July 27, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush vowed to make comprehensive immigration reform a top priority if he’s elected. President Barack Obama has made similar pledges in the past. However, immigration reform has remained at a standstill during his administration.

Congress’ failure to pass immigration reform and thereby create a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants has led to a variety of piecemeal reforms, mostly outside of the legislative process.

In 2012 Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which granted work permits and temporary relief from deportation for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors. In November 2014, Obama signed an executive action, which established deportation priorities and sought to expand DACA to the parents of children brought to the United States as minors.

But even these limited efforts have faced stiff resistance. Earlier this year, a federal court issued a temporary injunction on Obama’s program. In a move more favorable to migrants, another federal court has recently ruled that the administration’s policy of detaining migrant families is untenable.

About 300 U.S. cities and counties have refused to comply with requests to detain people on immigration charges. However, on July 23, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Enforce the Law for Sanctuary Cities Act, which aims to block federal funding for these localities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement laws. (Obama has vowed to veto this law if it makes it through Congress.)

Despite his administration’s failure to shepherd comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, Obama’s executive action has provided temporary deportation relief for a select group of undocumented migrants. The president’s executive action created a priority enforcement program, which according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a think tank in Washington, “targets enforcement to noncitizens who have been convicted of serious crimes, are threats to public safety, are recent illegal entrants, or have violated recent deportation orders.” The program offers “a degree of protection” from deportation to 87 percent of undocumented immigrants living in the United States, according to the MPI report. In other words, if an undocumented immigrant is apprehended but does not fall into a priority category, he or she is unlikely to be held for a subsequent deportation.

There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who continue to live in a state of fear and vulnerability. Many of these individuals have lived as second-class members of our society for decades. That a vast majority of them are no longer an enforcement priority may bring a temporary respite, but these priorities could change at anytime with a stroke of the bureaucratic pen.

Legalization for all will go a long way in meeting the United States’ domestic and international obligations in protecting immigrants and refugees.

Protection from detention and deportation is one of the most basic rights for undocumented immigrants. As such, the decision to prioritize immigration enforcement and provide relief for DACA recipients is laudable. However, the ability to stay in the United States without an imminent fear of deportation is a minor victory for the immigrant rights movement.

Furthermore, under the banner of deporting “felons not families,” the priority program creates a false binary by drawing a dividing line between deserving and undeserving immigrants, a stance that has long been decried by immigration advocates. For example, the priority enforcement program singles out undocumented immigrants with DUI convictions for deportation. True, drinking and driving puts people’s lives at risk, but deportation and permanent separation from one’s family is a high price to pay for this relatively minor infraction.  

Congress has failed to pass immigration reform. The piecemeal changes the White House has pushed are unsustainable and have run into legal challenges. Time is running out on his historic presidency but Obama still has a chance to do right by undocumented immigrants. For example, he could use his executive authority to grant “parole in place” to all undocumented immigrants. This would offer them work permits and protection from deportation. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have granted parole in place to thousands of undocumented immigrants. A parole in place would be significant for many undocumented immigrants, but legalization for all should be the primary goal. Obama should use parole in place as a bargaining chip to force Congress’s hand on immigration reform, which could create a real path to legalization and citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The alternative for the Obama administration is to stay the course and continue deporting 1,000 immigrants each day. Even if Congress passes immigration reform, Obama will still be remembered as the deporter-in-chief, having overseen 3 million deportations, more than any other U.S. president.

Legalization for all will end the threat of mass deportations. It would also improve wages and working conditions for everyone, since unscrupulous employers would not be able to take advantage of migrants’ undocumented status. It would also make the U.S. safer by allowing all undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and obtain proper work permits, driving licenses and to participate in U.S. society.

Legalization for all will allow U.S. citizens to remain with their families without the daily threat of removal. That will go a long way in meeting the United States’ domestic and international obligations in protecting immigrants and refugees. 

Tanya Golash-Boza is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her latest book, “Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism,” will be published in November 2015.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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