The Case for Critical Support

Against the Current, No. 166, September/October 2013

Milton Fisk

WHILE I NEVER approved of the for-profit health insurance industry, I eventually supported the Affordable Care Act. Nor do I now support buying 400 miles of border fencing or the long waits for legal status which the recently passed Senate immigration bill requires, even though I would now support that bill. Not all support need be unqualified, and mine in these cases is critical support.

Giving critical support is not an outcome of summing up our evaluations of what we think are the positive and negative features of a proposal. We get a more reliable sense of the outcome of a proposal by asking how its various features are likely to interact. A key element in the immigration reform interaction will be the struggles sparked in implementing the proposal. Will the positive features open enough space for those whom they benefit and their allies to begin struggles against the negative features?

The core of the Senate bill, which deals with undocumented immigrants arriving before 2012, is a process with three stages. The first is provisional residency with the right to work and travel without fear of deportation. The second is permanent residency with the right to means-tested benefits — like Medicaid and subsidies for private health insurance — after five years as permanent resident.

The third is citizenship, which, with some exceptions, is available only 13 years after receiving provisional residency. Each step is subject to income, work, and fee requirements that many may fail to satisfy.

Each stage provides more protection for exercising rights. Even as provisional residents, immigrant workers would be less vulnerable. They could protest unfair treatment without an employer’s threat to expose them as undocumented. Support groups and unions could defend them on grounds of worker rights. The Senate bill provides immigrant workers protection from wrongful termination and withholding back pay.

Of course, employers will continue to use threats of dismissal, which if carried out could ruin employees’ chances to advance to permanent residency or citizenship. But such threats will not be as threatening to workers with legal status.

This aspect of the Senate bill should encourage a trend toward organizing for greater equality not just for labor but also for oppressed communities, principally in the cities. Organizing around transportation, schools, neighborhoods and law enforcement should integrate new voices when legal residency is not the issue.

Over time, this trend should give the immigrant community, working with its allies, the strength it needs to begin to challenge the Senate bill’s worst features.

The immigrant community will need this strength to ensure decent treatment for immigrants arriving without documents after 2011. The more heavily militarized border will still be porous. The Senate bill simply kicks the can down the road. Those who came before 2012 and acquire legal status will become a force for weakening restrictions on crossing the border for those who come later.

Partial Reforms

Legal steps toward justice for African Americans, taken over the course of more than a century, were always partial. But each step opened the way to a movement for greater equality at the next step. Despite their limitations, those steps warranted critical support.

In a parallel way, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 advanced the trend toward health care justice despite its negative features. The most striking way it did this was by expanding the single-payer domain beyond Medicare to all those earning up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level. This now sets the stage for a movement to close the remaining gap in single-payer coverage between 138% of FPL and eligibility for Medicare.

It’s certainly true that under the Senate bill, affluent immigrants will find it easier than those less affluent  to satisfy many of the requirements for residency and citizenship. Requirements for fees, income, language, education and employment favor the better off. Those who entered the United States before age 16, and have finished high school and either two years of college or four years of the military — the DREAMers — can get citizenship in less than half the time of others. Yet they are more likely to come from more affluent backgrounds.

Do these class biases make the bill unsupportable?  In capitalist society, a bias favoring the more affluent enters into most major legislative proposals. Despite this, passing the Senate immigration bill can lead to movements that remedy its limitations, thereby significantly lightening the burden of oppression on national minorities.

Without actionable alternatives, failure to support proposals like the Senate bill because of their negative features, and in spite of their potential for encouraging positive movements, leads in the direction of a total abstention from legislative politics.

In sum, the Senate bill deserves critical support for opening up several forms of legal status to undocumented immigrants. It deserves criticism for the numerous high hurdles it puts in the way of these forms of legal status. Many features of this comprehensive bill would, as stand-alone measures, deserve rejection. But those who can get over the hurdles could, with their allies, use their new rights to lower those hurdles.

September/October 2013, ATC 166