On June 15, 2012, Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security announced that effective immediately that the group of young immigrants known as the “Dreamers” will be eligible to be considered for an interim legal status, “deferred action.”  

Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner. But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case.  Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language.  Discretion which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here.

The group of young people affected by the June 15th announcement are referred to as “Dreamers,” pursuant to consistently failed attempts by Congress to pass the DREAM Act, [the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act], introduced May 11, 2011, in the Senate by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and 32 fellow senators, and in the House of Representatives by (H.R. 1842) by Reps. Howard Berman (D-CA), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA).  

Had it been passed, the DREAM Act would have allowed young people who entered the U.S. as children without visas or other entry documents, usually brought by their parents who were bypassing U.S. ports of entry, also without documents, to apply for a temporary legal status, and eventually permanent legal status, after which they would become eligible for U.S. citizenship, if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military.  The DREAM Act also would have eliminated a federal statute penalizing states that provide in-state tuition for students without regard to their immigration status.

Bills similar to the DREAM Act were introduced in April of 2001, re-introduced in 2009, and again in 2010 and 2011, without action by Congress.  In July of 2011 the State of California enacted a California DREAM Act and the State of Illinois authorized a scholarship plan for “Dreamers.”  But, not only has Congress not approved the DREAM Act, it has taken no action towards any kind of comprehensive immigration reform legislation.  Instead, several states have tried to pass radical anti-immigration laws of their own.

After years of inaction and failure, President Obama introduced the most recent version; not a new statute, but a “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, or DACA.

While DACA will primarily benefit the undocumented children of Mexican immigrants, the Southwestern border with Mexico has been the locus of a long history of undocumented immigration and related political and labor strife.  Early in the 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World (“IWW”) actively organized Mexican-American farm workers in Arizona, Southern California and Colorado, to the dismay of local communities.  The “Bisbee Deportation” in July, 1917 in Bisbee, Arizona, was fueled by hostility towards union workers, the majority of whom were from eastern and southern Europe and Mexico.  The Western Federation of Miners, later the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter, enrolled 1800 miners in 1916 to work in the great copper mines of the Southwest.  In July, 1917, in opposition to the unions, organizations like the Citizens Protective League of Bisbee and the Workmen’s Loyalty League in Globe, Arizona, led by Sheriff Harry Wheeler in Bisbee, rounded up over 1,000 men, loaded them in boxcars surrounded by armed guards and machine guns, and sent the train from Bisbee into New Mexico, to be eventually rescued on July 14 by U.S. troops.  

In the same period, similar labor unrest in opposition to Mexican workers occurred in southern California and Colorado.  It is important to note, compared to the way the issue is framed today, that the strife was not completely due to the presence of foreign workers, but arose out of labor issues and unionization.  Foreign labor was welcome, if well-behaved with respect to company wage and work rules requirements.  Much of the history of immigration in the barely populated states of the Western U.S. is related to the shortage of U.S.-born labor for expansion and economic growth, especially with respect to transportation, mining, and agriculture.

Between 1942 and 1964, the issue of labor supply in agriculture resulted in the Mexican Farm Labor Program a complicated solution for seasonal agricultural labor needs.  Referred to as the “Bracero” program, its legacy was a mixed bag of successes and failures.  Even so, the end of the program left a vacuum not filled by U.S. labor, and agricultural jobs were then filled by undocumented workers.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed by President Johnson, set strict quotas on the number of persons who could legally enter the United States from Latin American nations.  The result was that most legal migration to the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s was temporary and short-term.  In the 1980s undocumented Mexican migration increased dramatically, due to the quota restrictions for legal migration and the need in  the U.S. for construction and agricultural workers or, more accurately, for low-wage workers.  When the U.S. economy was prosperous, migrants from Mexico entered without documents, making them subject to deportation, but invaluable to the construction and agriculture industries, and generally invisible.  There were no penalties to employers who hired undocumented workers.  Instead, the worker in the U.S. who was “out of status” was subject to deportation.

In 1986 the Immigration Reform and Control Act (“IRCA”) was passed to regularize the status of those undocumented immigrants who resided in the United States prior to 1982.  It also instituted a system of penalties on employers who thereafter hired undocumented workers, immigrants who entered the U.S. without visas, which pursuant to the statute meant “without work authorization status.”  Even so, financial reversals, a debt crisis, and the 1994 Mexican Peso crisis increased the number of undocumented entries from Mexican workers searching for work in the U.S.  The 1980s were a prosperous period for the U.S., including increased home building, and an extremely low unemployment rate, and thus the need for construction workers, even if undocumented.  As always, farm labor was filled to some extent by undocumented Mexican workers, even though IRCA included a work authorization category for farm labor, the H-2A.  

The passing of the NAFTA treaty with Mexico and Canada in January of 1994 allowed the U.S. to export subsidized U.S. corn into the Mexican market, which lowered grain prices in Mexico and hundreds of thousands of rural Mexican farm workers migrated to the U.S. in search of work.  The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, however, provided only limited opportunities for legal immigration, and the H-2A program was complicated and expensive.  

Even so, the U.S. Census in 2000 counted an increase of 11.3 million foreign-born residents in the 1990s, of which Mexican immigrants accounted for 43%.  The largest increase in the population of immigrant workers was in the Southeast, where Mexicans worked not only in construction, but as migrant agricultural laborers and in textile mills and chicken processing plants.  The Latino populations of Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Arkansas increased 300%-400% in the decade between 1990 and 2000.

So in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, periods of prosperity, the United States was without sufficient labor to meet its needs.  During some of those years, Mexico was subject to massive financial stress and internal changes.  In 1991, Mexico dismantled the communally owned farmland “ejidos,” just as the NAFTA treaty allowed the importation of cheap grain into the Mexican market.  The elimination of the ejidos led to privatization of the large landholdings and marginalized the agricultural populations of Mexico, because small farmers no longer controlled land.  They looked elsewhere for work, including opportunities in the U.S.

The U.S./Mexico borderland stretches for nearly 2,000 miles.  Large stretches are uninhabited, desolate, and deadly.  Much has been written about the routes for crossing into the U.S. without documents, and there is no sugar coating available to describe that journey.  The foolishly unexpected aspect of migration to seek employment is that it does not allow trips home for the weekend, so eventually families come along with.  Wives, children, mothers-in-law also carry the burdens of non-existent visas, perhaps most tragically for the children.  The children grow up in a new culture with a different language, a protective constitution, free education, but isolated from the key legal aspects of residence and citizenship, all because, well almost all because, the United States needs the labor provided by their parents.

We can argue about unions, we can argue about labor laws, we can discuss the value of documents and the need to seal borders, not to mention how and when the word “illegal” is appropriate to describe a human.  But we cannot properly believe that only one of those topics should be considered with respect to the President’s decision to provide relief to the million-plus children brought to the U.S. by their parents without visas or entry documentation.  A grant of “deferred action,” a temporary sort of status offers relief from the imminent threat of deportation, but it is not a final solution, not even a future solution; it is more “the thing without feathers,” Hope.  

There is always context, and there is never just one context in which to place the discussion of the President’s action allowing relief, limited and temporary, for children brought to the United States within the warring contexts of the labor needs of the United States, the political winds of Mexico, the economic needs of individual families, business requirements for cheap labor, and a border that is nearly 2,000 miles long between two adjoining great nations.