What Are the Candidates Saying About Immigration Reform? Senator Barack Obama
By now we all now that Senator Obama is poised to officially enter the race for the Democratic nomination in February after announcing the formation of an exploratory committee this month.
So where does he stand on immigration?
Last Spring Senator Obama (D-Ill) supported the immigration reform bill that was passed in the Senate, stating that it would enforce immigration laws and also address the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country. While Obama supported the enforcement provisions of the bill he also was clear on his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform. "[w]hile security might start at our borders, it doesn't end there. Millions of undocumented immigrants live and work here...they must pay a penalty, and abide by all of our laws going forward...we must allow undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows...In fact, I will not support any bill that does not provide this earned path to citizenship for the undocumented population."
Senator Obama has also stated his support for a guest worker program. "[W]e must also replace the flow of undocumented immigrants coming to work here with a new flow of guestworkers. Illegal immigration is bad for illegal immigrants and bad for the workers against whom they compete. Replacing the flood of illegals with a regulated stream of legal immigrants who enter the United States after background checks and who are provided labor rights would enhance our security, raise wages, and improve working conditions for all Americans".
Senator Obama has acknowledged some concerns about temporary workers programs. "There are legitimate concerns on the part of some, including myself, that this is a way for corporations to avoid a unionized workforce, or a workforce that has the ability to demand proper wages and benefits. Nevertheless, there is a feeling that if we can at least provide for some of these guest workers to come in, they may not want citizenship; they may simply want the opportunity to work here, and then go home."
Senator Obama's answer to such concerns about guest worker programs was to offer an amendment to the Senate bill that focused on preventing employers from undercutting American workers' wages by hiring immigrants. His amendment would have extended the Davis-Bacon "prevailing wage" requirements under federal law (which currently require the payment of prevailing wages on the construction of federally-funded projects for certain professions) to guest workers. His amendment would have required the payment of "prevailing wages" (significantly higher than the minimum wage) to guest workers, but not just in federally-funded projects, in all jobs. His amendment was criticized because in some cases, the same protections would not have extended to American workers on the very same jobs.
Senator Obama seems to understand the role that employers often play in maintaining our current system to the detriment of immigrant and native-born workers alike. "Too often illegal immigrants are lured here with a promise of a job, only to receive unconscionably low wages. In the interest of cheap labor, unscrupulous employers look the other way when employees provide fraudulent U.S. citizenship documents". His answer to this problem is "a simple, foolproof, and mandatory mechanism for all employers to check the legal status of new hires."
In December, Senator Obama supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006, a move that angered many Mexican-Americans in his home state of Illinois as well as other opponents of an enforcement-only approach. Although many Democrats (including potential Democratic Presidential nominees Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd and Joseph Biden) voted for this enforcement-focused bill, it could cost him dearly. Furthermore, by supporting the Secure Fence Act, Obama broke a promise he made to voters never to support an enforcement-focused bill if it did not include a legalization component as well.
Senator Obama has been an important spokesperson for immigration laws that would reform our current system to better meet the demands of our economy, to regularize the status of undocumented workers thereby eliminating the downward pressure on wages for Americans workers and once reformed, to enforce our laws appropriately. His support for guest worker programs and increased border security, however, undercut his own statements concerning American workers and their current position in a two-tiered labor system. Guest worker programs would prolong the existence our current two-tiered labor system by providing a constantly renewable underclass of immigrant workers available for corporate profit. And increasing border security has only made the journey across more dangerous, increased smuggler fees and made apprehensions more expensive for American taxpayers, all while failing to reduce the population of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.