Clear the Smokescreen from Immigration Policy

Image by Metin Ozer.

Tommy Esquivel had a lot to celebrate when he graduated this past June from LA’s Hollywood High School. He had done well academically, played on the baseball team, and rendered valuable service to his school, including work as a mentor to at-risk incoming freshmen. But when his friends planned a road trip to San Diego, he opted not to go, fearful as an undocumented person of being stopped at border checkpoints.

Mr. Esquivel is one of about 100,000 young people now coming of age without the temporary protections offered by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). President Barack Obama created the program by executive order a decade ago, allowing 800,000 young people to work legally, obtain drivers licenses, and attain such other benefits as college scholarships. But when a federal judge in Texas ruled the program “unlawful” last year, only current DACA recipients could renew their protected status, and new applications could not be approved. The case has since moved to an appeals court and may go the Supreme Court next year.

For now, Tommy Esquivel, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was nine years old, will continue his studies in community college. But without the kind of protections that DACA can offer, he will face significant challenges, unable to get a Social Security number that would allow him to work legally, and confined to a precarious, deportable status as an undocumented individual.

When I recently wrote a column criticizing the federal judge’s ruling and lauding DACA’s benefits for its participants and the nation, I received critical feedback from several readers. One reader declared, “If we cheat and lie OR someone else does it for us . . . we do not get rewarded. Back to square one and get in line with the rest of us.”

Get in line with the rest of us. The reader’s metaphor powerfully evoked the image of a zero-sum America, where fairness mandates that limited resources and benefits be apportioned to those who abide by laws. This image conveys a great deal – if only it were true.

To see why it’s not, consider two stories: one about the growing inequality in America, the other about the scapegoating of immigrants. The first story has been documented in many accounts, but one of the most thorough is the landmark study by political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson: “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.”

In granular detail, Hacker and Pierson document how, from the late 1970’s on, corporations increased their power in Washington, using business associations, corporate PACs, and armies of lobbyists to help change the political and legal landscape in “ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many.”

As a result of these changes, executive compensation skyrocketed, taxes for the wealthiest were cut, and a climate more hostile to organized labor took hold. Noting that labor is the only major organized group “focused on the broad economic concerns of those with modest incomes,” Hacker and Pierson see this last development, and the decline of labor membership over several decades, as particularly concerning.

When viewed in relation to this growing inequality, the second story – about the scapegoating of immigrants – explains why phrases like “cutting in line” and “line-cutters” constitute more than misperceptions; they are, instead, emanations of a smokescreen used by politicians to falsely blame the immigrant for economic and cultural dispossession. Another name for this smokescreen is xenophobia, and it’s been used by demagogues throughout the nation’s history.

Evidence points to the nation’s need for immigrants and to the value of opening a path to citizenship to individuals who have lived in the U.S. for many years. The opening of such a pathway, an early commitment made by the Biden administration, should be strongly reaffirmed and implemented.

Until a path to citizenship is opened, and until someone like Tommy Esquivel can fully and freely contribute to his community, every effort must be made to dispel the smokescreen – and to affirm that economic justice and justice for immigrants are inextricably linked. Such work has been done by visionaries like Cesar Chavez and LA labor leaders Miguel Contreras and Maria Elena Durazo, and it continues to be done by labor and immigrant rights activists across the country. This work must be supported by educationalcultural, and political institutions.

There is nothing fixed or inevitable about xenophobia, no matter how pervasive and toxic the miasma may appear. A smokescreen, after all, is ultimately only smoke.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.