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Obama’s Immigration Mandate: What the President Got Wrong

By Aviva Chomsky


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.

It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a plan that begins with: “First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do cross over.”

Obama then claims that “Amnesty is the immigration system we have today. Millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.” Surely the president knows that it’s simply false to say that people who are undocumented do not pay taxes. Everyone who makes purchases, pays rent, or drives a car pays taxes. It’s true that many undocumented people are relegated to work in the informal economy, where they do not have payroll taxes deducted. But this is also true of many citizens and permanent residents. And it means that their employers are also evading paying taxes. And informal workers receive none of the workplace protections that workers in the formal economy enjoy. So it’s not exactly like these workers are getting something for nothing.

Moreover, under Obama’s plan, millions of people will still be undocumented. He intends to grant temporary relief from deportation to fewer than half of those who are in the country without documents.

He sounds tough by proclaiming that “If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported.” Does he mean to imply that all of the six million undocumented people who do not meet his criteria are criminals?

Finally, he asks rhetorically: “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?”

Well actually, President Obama, your plan does not give most of the workers who pick our fruit and make our beds the chance to get right with the law.

Of course I am happy for the minority of the undocumented who will qualify for temporary relief from deportation. Working with DACA students over the past years, I’ve been moved and inspired by how much it has meant to them to gain even a minimal acknowledgement of their existence and their value. I hope that some of the undocumented parents that I know will experience at least a temporary relief from fear and uncertainty. I just wish Obama could have done it without further criminalizing and punishing other undocumented people who are no more criminals than the ones who are lucky enough to fit into the precise categories he has designed.


Avi head shot (3)Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State College. The author of several books, most recently Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Chomsky has been active in Latin American solidarity and immigrants' rights issues for over twenty-five years. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts.