What is the difference between President Obama and President Bush when it comes to how we, as a nation, deal with the plight of undocumented immigrants? Unfortunately, there really is no difference.
If anything, an undocumented Latino or Latina under Obama is worse off than under Bush. The number of undocumented being arrested and deported is double what they were for the same period two years ago. They are still dying along our southern border, constituting a human-rights crisis. Families are still being separated. They continue to face abuse at the hands of the authorities. Children who have lived the majority of their lives in this country are still forced to live in the shadows in fear that they may be expatriated to a country where they have no connections.
As important as Latinos and Latinas were for the Obama electoral victory, the president’s failure to live up to his campaign promises of bringing about a more humane comprehensive immigration reform is making this Hispanic wonder if he should abstain from going to the polls in 2012.
Naming a few Latinas and Latinos to high political posts does not, and should not, pacify our community. Only dignity for our people will suffice. But rather than tackle the humiliations of being Hispanic today in this country, the president announced on Aug. 10 that legislation to overhaul immigration laws will need to be delayed until next year.
But didn’t Martin Luther King Jr. remind us that justice delayed is justice denied? If I could be so bold as to update and paraphrase the words from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of [unjust immigration laws]. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every [person of color] with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’.”
Obama is delaying justice while his Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, is denying it. Regardless as to what she claimed on Aug. 11 that the “overall approach is very, very different [from the Bush administration],” the fact remains that for the undocumented on the ground, the reality and terror of losing life, loved ones or livelihood is the same under Obama than it was under Bush.
Obama’s and Napolitano’s current strategy mainly relies on the programs started under Bush with an enforcement focus rather than a humanitarian one. Their constant usage of the term “illegal” betrays their true sentiments. These are not humans caught in the gears of an unjust system that is grinding them up; these are criminals.
Labeling them as criminals only gives credence to the likes of 2008 Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, who referred to those of us who are, or have been undocumented, as those who come to this country “to kill you, and you, and me, and my grandchildren.”
Napolitano plays into Tancredo’s xenophobia when during her speech she failed to make any reference to anything positive that the undocumented has contributed to society. Her strategy of taking a tough stance on the undocumented is supposed to convince the American public of the need for an immigration reform that would give legal status to millions. By increasing the misery of Hispanics today, maybe in some future date, the American public might do the right thing? Injustice today is supposed to lead to justice tomorrow?
If indeed this administration was interested in human dignity, why then does it continue to allow Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix, Ariz., to continue his racist practices. He has authorized his deputies to arrest undocumented immigrants (using questionable tactics), a responsibility normally reserved for federal agents. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has become so alarmed by the sheriff’s actions that he has asked the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to examine what he calls discriminatory harassment and improper stops, searches and arrests.
Arpaio’s jails are notorious for feeding Latino and Latina prisoners rotten (“green”) baloney and forcing male prisoners to wear pink underwear in an attempt to humiliate them. In early 2008, Arpaio unveiled a hot line for citizens to report those whom they suspect of being undocumented.
This raises the question: Exactly what does an undocumented person look like? Even members of Congress accused him of creating a “reign of terror” against Hispanics. On Feb. 4, Arpaio paraded undocumented immigrants who were in his custody in chains through the streets of Phoenix.
When moderate and liberal politicians join in solidarity with Hispanics to bring about immigration reform, they still refuse to place justice over social order. Let us not forget that it was the liberal progressive clergy’s criticism of Martin Luther King Jr.’s timing for his organized march that led King to write his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.
No doubt, the eight religious leaders to whom King formally addressed his famous letter were among the few white residents of Birmingham who publicly opposed Wallace. Still, King recognized that the greatest stumbling block to freedom was not the hooded Ku Klux Klan member, but the co-opting of any liberationist movement by well-meaning Euro-Americans who deradicalize the movement’s goals to make it more palatable to Euro-American sensibilities. Likewise, the greatest threat today in establishing justice for Hispanics is not Tancredo or Arpaio, but Obama and Napolitano.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.