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Not Field Tested

Uncertainty follows Obama's big-ticket immigration move

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WORKING FOR YOUR FOOD California's largely immigrant field workers would benefit from Obama's executive action—but only if they qualify. Many do not. - RICHARD THORNTON
  • Richard Thornton
  • WORKING FOR YOUR FOOD California's largely immigrant field workers would benefit from Obama's executive action—but only if they qualify. Many do not.

It is sad and bizarre that in this season of family and generosity—welcoming strangers into your house, sharing the wealth of a nation of immigrants brimming with abundance—the national outburst over Obama's immigration order last week would come with such unhinged xenophobic fixings.

Was it the message or the messenger?

On Sunday in the North Bay, it seemed as if an unofficial holiday had been called—Latinos "came out of the shadows" with a kind of holiday spirit that carried through the weekend. But if you expected a moment of weepy national unity over what amounted to a limited and long-overdue reform to the broken immigration system . . . pffffffft.

A week later, the national conversation had lurched from Mexicans and back to Ferguson, and the anti-immigrant commentariat was back to snickering about another dead black child-thug.

While the fuming over Obama's order may have had more to do with the man signing it than the millions who will benefit from it, there's a long way to go for millions of immigrants before they, too, might be able to "come out of the shadows."

Critically, Obama's order didn't cover the bulk of the California ag workforce, comprising many undocumented and younger Latino men without citizen-children. California has taken steps to protect them from undue persecution by federal immigration officials. Last year lawmakers saw fit to push back against the so-called safe communities, safe schools regime enacted by the feds. The state passed the Trust Act, which has been in force since January.

The act clipped the wings of deportation-oriented immigration officials by saying the state would no longer hold undocumented aliens for deportation who were charged with minor offenses. The idea was that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would deport felons—but food-cart workers operating without permits, for example, also got caught up in the net.

So what becomes of the Trust Act protections now that Obama has stripped away the underlying rationale for the state taking action on behalf of undocumented ag workers?

Good question.

"We're waiting to see how that is going to be affected by the president's proposal," says Jesus Guzman, an organizer and immigration activist at the Graton Day Labor Center.

If recent history is any indication, be on the lookout for a spasm of vengeance politics on the backs of ag workers not covered by Obama. Howls of "Defund!" have been the order of the day since Obama's announcement—but there's not much for anti-immigration congressmen to defund, as numerous observers have pointed out.

The state may be another matter—and anti-immigration sentiment has run strong in recent years. Remember, California is the state that in 2009 considered a ballot initiative that would have created a two-tier birth certificate protocol: so-called anchor babies would get one, and the children of American citizens would get another.

The ploy would have created a separate and unequal designation for people who are guaranteed citizenship under the Constitution. With that in mind, are we seeing the possible emergence of a Juan Crow regime for those immigrants left out of the Obama order? Separate, unequal—and easy to deport?

Guzman has been critical of Obama (2 million deportations on his watch) but supports the executive action, limited though it may be, and notes that the state, along with enacting the Trust Act, has just made it easier for undocumented immigrants to get a Cali driver's license.

The ICE program, says Guzman, was never supposed to target undocumented aliens in the shadows who were generally law-abiding non-citizens, but that's exactly what happened.

"Obama recognized that," he says.

But his order doesn't protect undocumented workers without children. The Trust Act, which does, led to a "huge drop-off in deportations" this year.

"There is a lot of uncertainty and wait-and-see about that," he says. "A lot of people, though they weren't covered under this announcement under Obama, [had] a measure of safety under the Trust Act that brings some normalcy to families and workers. California has been leading and pushing to integrate immigrants more fully, but there are some questions about the Trust Act component."

Business organizations in Sonoma County contacted by the Bohemian say it's too early to say how Obama's order may impact undocumented workers not covered by it. Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission says that growers here have "yet to determine the implications of Obama's immigration action."

Ditto Tim Tesconi, president of the Sonoma Farm Bureau, who says the bureau's directors have not met since the Obama order to discuss it, "but immigration reform is a major issue for our farmers and ranchers."

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