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Journalist and immigration rights activist David Bacon discusses the possible political consequences of waiting to reform immigration policy until after the mid-term elections

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

President Obama has announced he will not take executive action on immigration reform until after the midterm elections. This is a serious blow to people waiting for action, particularly concerning the unprecedented number of deportations. The New York Times quoted an unnamed White House official by saying, “Because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the president believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections”.

Now joining us to give his response to President Obama’s decision is David Bacon. David is an award-winning photojournalist and author and immigrant-rights activist who spent over two decades as a labor organizer. His most recent book is The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration.

David, thank you for joining us.


PERIES: So, David, what do you think of President Obama’s inaction and the White House’s argument here?

BACON: I think the president is running scared in front of the Tea Party, to begin with. This is really a kind of a cynical move that is oriented strictly towards this coming election and actually not a very–I don’t think it’s going to be very successful one, because the president is really again hurting the people who have supported him historically and trying to please people who will never support him. You know, the president says that this has to be done in order to–for two reasons, first, in order to ensure that the issue of migration isn’t used against Democrats in the November elections, and secondly, kind of in order to supposedly prepare the ground for an effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform next year. I don’t think either one of these things are really going to work.

The current controversy around the arrival of unaccompanied minors, children and young adults, from Central America is that the controversy itself was something that was manipulated from the very beginning by very right-wing people. The story itself surfaced on a very right-wing website called There were photographs that were leaked by the border patrol, by guards in private detention centers, of young people who were sort of packed together like sardines and animals, and then this was used by right-wing politicians to say that the reason why young people are coming from Central America to the U.S. border is because they have heard somehow, mysteriously, that the U.S. is not enforcing immigration law any longer and that they’re going to be allowed to cross, and that their irresponsible mothers and parents in Central America are sending them up to the border.

I think that this was an opportunity for the president to do some truthtelling here about really, first of all, why we have immigration from Central America going all the way back to the wars in Central America, the fact that we have 2 million people from El Salvador living in the United States because of wars in which President Reagan in particular armed some of the most right-wing violent regimes in Central America, who made war on their own people in order to stop any kind of progressive social change, as a result of which literally millions of people fled El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, coming to the United States. The young people who are arriving today are trying to find their families, who really came here before as a result of that. Plus you put on top of that the fact that the U.S. forced to those governments to agree to free trade agreements that had a devastating impact on the livelihoods of working people and farmers in those countries. And so between those two things, you know, the uprooting of people by war, people’s desire to reunite their families, the fact that people can’t survive economically, that’s why people are coming here.

Unfortunately, I think, for the president, acknowledging that would be a little difficult because the president is a free trader. And so, consequently, these are in some ways policies that he supports. So he kind of bought into the rhetoric and the logic of the Tea Party and these very right-wing forces who were saying, well, our problem is is that we’re not enforcing the law enough on the border and that this is why people are coming here.

PERIES: David, besides this being a very painful experience for the children, as well as for family reunification purposes, you can see the number of young families that are not united. And so this is very painful. But on top of that, this seems to be somehow a election calculation on the part of this administration, perhaps a wrong one, given that there’s over 45 million Latinos living in this country that supports the Democratic Party at that.

BACON: Yes. Well, obviously, the president’s decision is going to antagonize a very large number of those people who have been depending on the president to keep his word on his promises that he was going to put the brakes on this enormous detention and deportation policy. You know, the idea, for instance, that we’re somehow not enforcing the law in the United States is really ridiculous on the face of it, because this administration is deporting about 400,000 people a year. We have over 20,000 border patrol agents on the border, the largest number of border patrol agents in our history. And we are spending more money on immigration enforcement than all the other law enforcement programs of the federal government combined. So that’s the reality. That’s what people have looked to the president to put the brakes on is this policy here. And he’s promised to do it. And yet, by breaking that promise, first of all, he’s–that’s why I say he’s really antagonizing the people who voted for him, you know, Latino families, families of color, Asian-American families, union families, all of whom want the president to take action to restrain what is really a very brutal and inhuman policy here.

But I think it also requires the president to have some political courage here. He has to talk about what the real reasons for migration are. If it’s not true that the reason why people are coming here is because somehow they think they have a free pass to cross the border, then what is the truth? Why are people coming here? And I think that this is how the president and the Democrats could fight an election campaign that would tell the truth and win support, including raising the morale of the people who have voted for them in the past. And instead, this is kind of an appeal to the right wing. It’s kind of like saying to the right wing, well, we’re going to throw you a bone. You know, we won’t do anything about the deportation wave for the next two months, in the hopes that you won’t vote against us. And in the meantime, what about the people who have voted for the president in the past? It’s as though he is saying to this base of his, he’s saying, well, who else are you going to vote for? Are you going to vote for Republicans? The trouble is is that what happens is that when people get angry and cynical about this kind of political realpolitik, they stay at home. They don’t vote for anybody. You drive people out of [crosstalk]

PERIES: Well, I think the Latin community, Latin and immigrant communities here actually have a choice. They could actually withdraw their support, stay at home. Has that been factored into this electoral decision obviously? And if not, who does benefit from this kind of a decision?

BACON: That’s right. You know, driving people out of the process is a choice. You know, people can choose to stay home. The consequences of that are devastating, though, really, because what it means is that those people who have the most interest in civil rights, who have most interest in raising the minimum wage, who have the most interest in a health care program that’s going to cover everybody, who have the most interest in ending the wars that the U.S. is involved in, that group of people are the ones that you are discouraging from voting. So that doesn’t sound to me like a survival strategy for the Democratic Party or for the president. It sounds to me as though they’re doing exactly the opposite. They are restricting their own voting base. They are discouraging people from being part of the process by this kind of realpolitik.

And at the same time, it energizes, I think, the nativist base and the right-wing base of the Republican Party, because they look at this and they say, hey, this is just a cynical ploy to gain votes, and who knows what he’s going to do after the election. So I don’t think that it really de-mobilizes the right-wing in this country at all.

In fact, I think if anything it gives them a shot in the arm, because what it’s doing is it is validating the lies that have been propagated for the last several months about young people from Central America, about whether we’re enforcing the border, and about immigration in this country. It demonizes immigrants as people. And it also does not tell the truth about why it is that people are coming here, what our responsibility is for that, and what we could do about it, what we can do about it.

You know, an enlightened and a progressive policy by this government would include, for instance, renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, renegotiating the Central American Free Trade Agreement, so that instead of depressing living standards in Mexico and Central America so that big corporations can make more money, or privatizing things, or treating those countries as if they were dumping ground for corn and agricultural products, instead what we did was try to raise the living standards of people so that they had some choice, so that they could decide to come to the United States, if migration was something that they wanted to do, and if they could also decide to stay at home if in fact they felt that there was a future with dignity that they could have a part of by doing so.

PERIES: David, this is, and yet, another loss for the progressive and left communities who’s been organizing on this front. What do you think the next step should be? What should movements, social movements that are organizing on the immigration front do at this point?

BACON: I don’t think it’s really a loss, actually. I think this is sort of more of the same. This is not really much different than what we’ve been having to deal with since the Obama administration came into office, really. We have one bright point, which was we won DACA, we won deferred action for young people. But other than that, it’s been deportations, firings, detentions, enforcement, and so forth. And I think, actually, that we have a large grassroots movement all throughout the United States by people who are objecting to and protesting over those policies. You know, we have hunger strikes at the detention center in Tacoma. We have people sitting down in buses taking people to deportation hearings in Tucson. I think all over this country we have a movement that is protesting that. And that’s who’s angry at President Obama more than anybody are the people who are organizing this movement on the ground.

But I believe that in this country that’s where social change comes from. I look back and civil rights movement and what it took to get the Civil Rights Act. It wasn’t a gift somehow from Dixiecrats in Congress who somehow magically changed their minds. It was the product of people out in the streets who were determined to make a change. And I think that that’s what’s taking place in this country now, and if President Obama doesn’t recognize that, so much the worse for him, really.

PERIES: Well, David, I thank you so much for joining us today.

BACON: My pleasure.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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David Bacon is an award-winning photojournalist, author, and immigrant rights activist who has spent over twenty years as a labor organizer. He is an associate editor at Pacific News Service, and writes for TruthOut, The Nation, The American Prospect, The Progressive, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Bacon covers issues of labor, immigration and international politics. He is the author of The Children of NAFTA, Communities without Borders, Illegal People and Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. His most recent book is The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration.