Light and Darkness at the End of the Tunnel: Immigrants in the Aftermath of Obama’s Reelection

January 28, 2013

Immigration U-Turn Has Hispanics Seeing ‘Light at End of Tunnel,’ ” asserts a Reuters headline.1 Published eight days after the recently concluded U.S. presidential election, the article suggests favorable implications for those championing immigration reform due to the drubbing suffered by Republicans at the polls.

Part of the reason for such expressions of hope is not only the Democratic victory, but a seeming resulting openness among some leading Republicans to reassess the wisdom of their hyper-restrictionist ways after a strong majority of Latino voters cast their ballots for the Democratic ticket.

Strong evidence of such a reassessment emerged only two days after the vote, when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) voiced support for broad immigration reform—something he had opposed—saying that “a comprehensive approach is long overdue.”2


And Boehner is not alone on this question among the GOP’s leading lights. “Haley Barbour, a Republican elder statesman and former governor of Mississippi, echoed Mr. Boehner,” The New York Times reported, “and Sean Hannity, the conservative talk show host—in a startling turnaround—joined calls for measures opening pathways to legal status for illegal immigrants.”3 As another Times piece explained, some Republican leaders are now arguing “that basic mathematics dictates that the party must find new ways to talk about issues like immigration.”4

These “new ways to talk” appear to bode favorably for many of the millions of unauthorized immigrants, the majority of whom are Latino, living and working in the United States. Many in the immigrant rights community were concerned about what a Romney victory might mean. At one point during the Republican primary, the former Massachusetts governor advocated “self-deportation.”5 And late in the presidential campaign he suggested that he would overturn the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (while promising not to engage in mass deportations and to seek a “real, permanent immigration reform”).6

In this regard, the outcome of the national election seems to indicate that, at the very least, the hundreds of thousands of youth who will benefit from DACA will likely see a four-year extension of their deferrals. There is also a strong possibility that something more far-reaching, more “comprehensive,” to use Boehner’s term, will emerge.

If this is a result of the election, so, too, is something less obvious, but perhaps more significant: an endorsement of what already exists. In other words, whether voters like it or not, or are even conscious of it, a vote for the incumbent amounts to a vote for the status quo, given the narrow set of viable options available on a national level and the Democratic-Republican consensus on the fundamentals. And it is in this area where there seems to be little “light at the end of tunnel.”


Obama asserted a couple of weeks before the vote that he was “confident” that immigration reform would “get done next year” were he to win. In doing so, he suggested that Republicans would have an interest in bringing this about as his victory would speak to the growing clout of “the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community,” a demographic with which the GOP would need to curry favor.7 With the comments of Boehner and his fellow Republicans shortly after the election, Obama appears to have been clairvoyant.

Five days after the vote, Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-NY) appeared on the Sunday talk show Meet the Press and gave further proof of Obama’s prescience. He told host David Gregory that he and Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) were resurrecting talks broken off two years earlier to finalize a broad reform plan that will win bipartisan support.

The question is, what might such a plan look like?

While “comprehensive immigration reform” signifies many things to many people, in Washington circles its range of meanings is pretty narrow—what Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano, in representing the Obama administration’s vision, has referred to as the “three-legged stool”: (1) more “security” and policing—along the country’s perimeter and within, (2) an expansion of employment-related (temporary) immigration, and (3) a long path to the regularization of status and, eventually, citizenship for many, but far from all, of the millions of unauthorized migrants living in the United States.8 Thus, as Schumer explained, his and Graham’s “detailed blueprint” has these components:

First of all, close the border, make sure that’s shut. Second, make sure that there is a non-forgeable document so that employers can tell who was legal and who was illegal. And once they hire someone illegally, throw the book at them. . . . [T]hat will stop illegal immigration in its tracks. Third, on legal immigration, let in the people we need, whether they be engineers from our universities, foreign, or people to pick the crops. And fourth, a path to citizenship that’s fair, which says you have to learn English, you have to go to the back of the line, you’ve got to have a job, and you can’t commit crimes.9

What “closing the border” might mean is unclear given the massive growth in the enforcement apparatus—in terms of infrastructure and personnel—that has already taken place over the last two decades. But it certainly doesn’t bode well for the civil and human rights of many in the border region given the myriad abuses perpetrated by U.S. border authorities, a number of which have resulted in the deaths of migrants (at least 15 since 2010)—including unarmed and non-resisting migrants in federal custody.10 This is on top of the hundreds of migrant remains now recovered in the border region every year, the deadly results of the structural violence embodied by the regime of exclusion and the nature of the relations between the United States and migrant-sending countries “south of the border.”11

As for the “path to citizenship,” it is certainly not imagined in as expansive a fashion as that signed into law in November 1986 by President Ronald Reagan as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which made unauthorized migrants who had lived in the United States continuously since at least January 1, 1982, as well as those who had labored as agricultural workers for at least 90 days in a one-year period beginning on May 1, 1985, eligible for permanent residency (and eventual citizenship). An estimated 3 million people eventually benefited from this program.

Today, almost three decades later, what appears to be on offer for those living and laboring in the United States without legal status is far more limited. By invoking crime, Schumer and Graham are undoubtedly casting aside large numbers of unauthorized migrants who might otherwise be eligible to walk down that “path to citizenship.” (Like Obama’s record-setting deportation regime, this delimitation of eligibility sets the stage for ever more divided families.12)

What percentage of people would be denied is unclear. However, given the ever expansive category of crime and its highly elastic nature, Schumer’s qualifications are certainly cause for great worry, not least because the very “illegal” status of unauthorized immigrants often compels them to violate the law—by using false documents to secure employment, for example, or to participate in the “underground” or illicit economy to survive. They also often live in low-income, heavily policed communities where the likelihood of arrest for all sorts of activities that many people in the United States regularly engage in is greatly heightened. In other words, the percentage of unauthorized immigrants disqualified from the would-be regularization process is likely to be significant.

Such matters manifest the present-day power of the U.S. state—materially and ideologically—which, in regard to immigration and the borderlands, was dramatically less in 1986 than it is today. For example, there were about 3,700 U.S. Border Patrol agents at the end of Reagan’s second term in office. For fiscal year 2013, there are 21,370 Border Patrol agents, with another 21,186 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers stationed at ports of entry along the country’s perimeter.13 The Department of Homeland Security also now has 34,000 beds available on a daily basis to detain migrants—a doubling of capacity since 2004.14 Given the power and size of the enforcement that such growth embodies, the ability of the related bureaucracies to shape policy, and to ensure their own interests, is similarly heightened.15

Thus, when Schumer and Graham talk about “closing” the border, it is imperative to keep in mind how much the federal government’s capacity—and the institutional momentum to realize that capacity—has grown. Its legal and organizational power to police the country’s boundaries and interior, and to exclude, detain, deport, and divide families is vastly superior to what it was less than 30 years ago when IRCA came into being, far greater than Reagan could have probably even imagined.

As such, were “reform” to pass today, not only would it likely offer a program of legalization far more limited than that of IRCA, it would also build upon and strengthen a dramatically more formidable enforcement apparatus—at the border and within—than occurred as a result of the 1986 legislation.

It is for this reason and many more that the advocates of immigrant and border communities’ rights need to be extremely wary about talk of comprehensive immigration reform, given that it embraces the very enforcement buildup (and more of it) that has been so damaging to those whose well-being they champion.16 This necessitates exerting great caution to avoid sacrificing long-term changes for short-term gains. Imagining something far better than the old poison in Schumer and Graham’s new bottle—and posing the very question of whether a “comprehensive” approach is the way to go given that it would undoubtedly end up strengthening the very apparatus that has created the problems now in need of redress—is a key step in doing so.

The election and the Latino electorate’s growing power that it demonstrates provide an opportunity. The resulting question is not so much—as was put by one analyst—if Obama will be brave on the immigration front.17 Rather, it is how much immigrant and border community advocates, activists, and organizers will exploit this opening.18

Efforts to achieve far-reaching change no doubt should entail a push for policy that provides relief to those living in the United States without legal status as well as the rights that legal status embodies. It also should involve institutional changes that lead to de-escalation and de-militarization of the U.S. “war” in the borderlands writ large and a downsizing of the apparatus of repression. But, at the very least, it requires a set of initiatives that do not strengthen the institutions and mechanisms that have created the need for “comprehensive reform” in the first place.



Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Among his books are Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights, 2008); and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010).



1 Tim Gaynor, November 14, 2012.

2 John Parkinson, “Boehner: Raising Taxes ‘Unacceptable,’ ”, November 8, 2012.

3 Julia Preston, “Republicans Reconsider Positions on Immigration,” The New York Times, November 9, 2012.

4 Ken Sack and Sarah Wheaton, “G.O.P. Strains to Define How to Close Gap With Voters,” The New York Times, November 11, 2012.

5 David Boroff and Roque Planas, “Romney Says He Favors ‘Self-Deportation’,” New York Daily News, January 24, 2012.

6 See Joseph Nevins, “Obama’s Immigration Reform for Youth: A DREAM Deferred?” NACLA Report on the Americas 45, no. 3 (fall 2012): 4–5; Julia Preston, “A Romney Stance Causes Turmoil for Young Immigrants,” The New York Times, October 20, 2012.

7 Brian Montopoli, “Obama: I’ll Get Immigration Reform Done Next Year,”, October 24, 2012.

8 Janet Napolitano, “Speech on Immigration Reform,” November 13, 2009; text available at

9 Transcript available at

10 See Richard Marosi and Richard Fausset, “Border Patrol Shooting of Mexican Teen Draws Condemnation,” Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2012; Joseph Nevins, “On the Boundary of Abuse and Accountability?” NACLA Report on the Americas 45, no. 2 (summer 2012): 64–66; and No More Deaths, A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-term U.S. Border Patrol Custody (Tucson: No More Deaths, September 21, 2012).

11 See Carolina Moreno, “Border Crossing Deaths More Common as Illegal Immigration Declines,” The Huffington Post, August 17, 2012.

12 Suzy Khimm, “Obama Is Deporting Immigrants Faster Than Bush. Republicans Don’t Think That’s Enough,” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, August 27, 2012.

13 See the White House, “The Budget for Fiscal Year 2013” (section on the Department of Homeland Security), PDF available at

14 National Immigration Forum, “The Math of Immigration Detention: Runaway Costs for Immigration Detention Do Not Add Up to Sensible Policies,” August 2012, PDF available at

15 See, for example, Spencer S. Hsu and Andrew Becker, “ICE Officials Set Quotas to Deport More Illegal Immigrants,” The Washington Post, March 27, 2010.

16 See Seth Freed Wessler, “Dust Off Those Old Immigration Reform Deals? Not So Fast,”, November 13, 2012.

17 Jose de la Isla, “Will Obama Be Brave on Immigration?”, November 15, 2012.

18 See Arnoldo Torres, “Latinos, Be Careful What You Wish For,” New America Media, November 20, 2012.



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