Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The top five immigration stories of 2011

During the past week, Multi-American has been counting down the biggest and most influential immigration stories of 2011. That's not to say there were only five: It's been a major year for stories related to the immigration debate, especially as the battleground has shifted to the states, record deportations have continued, and the Obama administration's expansion of federal-local partnerships such as the Secure Communities fingerprint sharing program continues to draw controversy.

Stories that didn't make the list are also worth mentioning, among them the passage of state tuition-aid bills for undocumented students like the California Dream Act and the continued steep drop in illegal border crossings - even as illegal immigration remains a popular talking point for candidates seeking the presidency in 2012. Here are M-A's choices for top stories of the year.

1) The states as immigration battleground: When counting down last year's top stories, choosing Arizona's game-changing SB 1070 to top the list was a no-brainer. Not necessarily because news of the stringent 2010 anti-illegal immigration law dominated immigration coverage last year, but because of the lasting impact the law was bound to have on other states.

A year later, SB 1070-inspired immigration enforcement bills have made their way through statehouses around the country. Similarly strict laws have taken effect in states like Alabama, Georgia, Utah, Indiana and South Carolina.

Like the Arizona measure that inspired them, headed to the U.S. Supreme Court on a state appeal, all of these face their own court challenges. Federal judges have blocked several of these laws’ most stringent provisions, including a controversial provision in Alabama that would require public schools to check the immigration status of students, which when the law first took effect prompted a rash of school absences. Agricultural states like Georgia and Alabama, meanwhile, have experienced severe labor shortages as immigrant farm workers have fled their fields for more welcoming climes.

The new laws enacted are but one small aspect of what’s been happening in the states. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported recently that in 2011, there were 1,607 bills and resolutions relating to immigrants and refugees introduced in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, significantly up from a little more than 1,400 in 2010. Bolstered by the relative success of SB 1070, even as parts of the law remain hung up in court, immigration restriction-minded legislators in many states banded together, working with the same legal teams to draft crackdown bills.

Where does it go from here? The Supreme Court decision on SB 1070 could well hold the answer, either encouraging or putting the brakes on state bills. The high court will weigh the merits of a lower court judge's decision to block some of the more controversial provisions of the law, including one empowering local police to check for immigration status. The case is expected to be heard in the spring.

The high court set a state-law precedent earlier this year when it ruled in favor of a previous Arizona anti-illegal immigration law, a 2007 measure mandating employers to use a federal program called E-Verify to check workers’s immigration status and punishing those who don’t comply. Many of the state laws that have followed SB 1070 have had similar employer provisions, an enforcement tactic that is becoming more popular as states find ways to crack down.

2) Another year of record deportations: In fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration broke its deportation record for the second straight year, deporting close to 400,000 people in the year that ended last Sept. 30. 

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that news of another record-breaking year was pretty much expected, with the continued expansion of federal immigration enforcement programs like Secure Communities and 287(g), both of which have fed the deportation pipeline in recent years with a steady flow of cases stemming from local law enforcement. The number of people deported annually has crept upward steadily for years now, from 291,060 in fiscal year 2007 to 396,906 in fiscal year 2011, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement records.

These deportations have raised several questions, among them questions about just who is being deported as the Obama administration stresses an emphasis on criminal deportees, and whether the programs being used are working as intended. An October press release from ICE read that “nearly 55 percent or 216,698 of the people removed were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors — an 89 percent increase in the removal of criminals since FY 2008.” But analyses of deportation stats have pointed out gray areas.

Last summer, an Associated Press analysis revealed that among those counted as criminal deportees are a growing number of people who have been deported following traffic and DUI arrests; the number of those deported following less-serious, non-DUI traffic offenses had close to tripled over a two-year period.

The growing number of deportations has had broader domestic repercussions as more immigrants are sent back to their native countries, among them a growing number of mixed-status or legal-resident families in the U.S. left without a parent (or sometimes both parents), and a growing number of U.S. citizen children of deported parents landing in foster care.

In August, the Obama administration announced that it would review some 300,000 deportation cases to ferret out those deemed a “low priority” for removal under a set of prosecutorial discretion guidelines released by ICE earlier this year. The review process is being pilot-tested now; if expanded, thousands could be spared from removal, among them undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children and immigrants with U.S. military ties.

3) Secure Communities: The controversy over the federal immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities has been brewing since not long after it was first implemented 2008, during the waning days of the Bush administration. But after a heated back-and-forth between state, local and federal officials over the program as some jurisdictions attempted to withdraw – only to be told they couldn’t – it came to a head this year.

In a nutshell, how Secure Communities works: When state or local authorities book someone into a local jail, the person’s fingerprints are electronically submitted to the FBI. These fingerprints are then sent to the Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents check them against an immigration records database to determine if the person is deportable. If so, the person is then held for removal by ICE.

Unlike with a similar federal-local partnership known as 287(g), the screening is done pre-conviction, meaning that some people who turn out to be otherwise innocent have landed in the deportation net. This has been a sticking point for critics of the program, who say it goes against the Obama administration’s stated goal of focusing on criminals. Criticism has also come from some law enforcement agencies, state and city officials who complain that the program alienates immigrant communities by undermining trust in police.

Several jurisdictions around the country, including the city of San Francisco, began attempting to opt out of the program last year. Many local and state officials had believed that as with 287(g), Secure Communities was optional, given they had signed contracts known as Memorandums of Agreement, or MOAs, with federal officials before the program was implemented. Here’s how part of the contract with the California Department of Justice, dated January 23, 2009, reads:

This MOA may be modified at any time by mutual written consent of both parties.

This MOA may remain in effect from the date of signing until it is terminated by either party. Either party, upon written or oral notice to the other party, may terminate the MOA at any time. A termination notice shall be delivered personally or by certified or registered mail and termination shall take effect 30 days after receipt of such notice.

By last summer, the governors of Massachusetts, Illinois and New York had announced plans to withdraw from the program, and California’s state Assembly had passed legislation that would allow the state to renegotiate its Secure Communities contract with Homeland Security, allowing local jurisdictions to opt out. Then the hammer came down. In August, ICE director John Morton sent out a letter to governors terminating all existing MOAs with the agency regarding Secure Communities. The letter clarified “an issue that has been the subject of substantial confusion,” i.e. that states must participate and have no choice in the matter, according to ICE.

The Obama administration plans to have the program implemented nationwide by 2013. Meanwhile, it has continued to draw criticism, most recently from civil rights advocates angry over U.S. citizens being detained accidentally after being fingerprinted.

4) Birthright citizenship:The political battle over birthright citizenship exploded almost a year ago, when a series of states began introducing bills seeking to cut off the children born to undocumented immigrants from automatic U.S. citizenship.

The United States, like most countries in the Americas but unlike many European nations, has a longstanding practice of jus soli citizenship, with citizenship granted to those born on U.S. soil (jus soli is Latin for “right of the soil). Other nations, such as Germany, abide by versions of jus sanguinis (Latin for “right of blood”) citizenship, which there is granted only to children of citizens and/or legal residents.

The notion of barring the children of undocumented immigrants from receiving U.S. citizenship had long lingered on the more extreme fringes of the immigration restriction lobby. But in the anything-is-possible climate that followed the approval of Arizona’s SB 1070 last year, a group of like-minded state legislators worked with some of the same legal counsel involved in drafting SB 1070 to draft model state legislation that would distinguish between babies born to undocumented immigrants and other children when issuing state birth certificates.

Bills based on this model were introduced in several states, including four related bills in Arizona. The idea was to force a Supreme Court reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which since a landmark 1898 ruling has been interpreted as defining how citizenship is bestowed on those born in this country. Here’s Section 1 of the 14th Amendment:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Opponents of the current definition (which came out of a legal challenge from a young San Francisco-born Chinese American named Wong Kim Ark) argued that "subject to the jurisdiction" is misinterpreted. Anti-birthright citizenship bills were introduced in states that included Arizona (where four related bills were introduced), Iowa and Indiana; a U.S. Senate resolution seeking a constitutional amendment was introduced by GOP legislators from Kentucky and Louisiana.

In the end, the bills didn’t get much traction. In Arizona, where two of the anti-birthright citizenship bills were voted on in the Senate, these and three other strict anti-illegal immigration bills (including one requiring hospitals to check immigration status, and another “omnibus” bill that would bar undocumented immigrants from public services) were struck down in March.

Much speculation followed: Had the anti-birthright citizenship frenzy contributed to a jump-the-shark moment for immigration restriction in the nation’s statehouses? Not entirely. While the legislative action has cooled in Arizona, other states have since enacted their own strict anti-illegal immigration laws, and more could follow - but that's another story.

5) "Coming out" as undocumented: What began a few years ago as a small number of undocumented student activists "coming out" with their status as a political act has developed into a movement in its own right, gaining steam this year via social and other media.

By December of last year, growing numbers of young, undocumented college students and their supporters were publicly revealing their status as a previous version of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill that would grant conditional legal status to young people who arrived before age 16 if they went to college or joined the military, moved through the House and on to the Senate. The bill failed a Senate vote, but the trend continued.

In California, some of these young people continued to go public in support of other legislation, namely two state bills called the California Dream Act (both eventually signed into law this year) which would make it easier for undocumented students to pay tuition. Last March, a national campaign mounted by student immigrant advocacy groups urged more students to reveal their immigration status, with groups around the country holding coming-out events.

Some youths who have grown up culturally American, going to school here while keeping their legal status a secret from peers, have described "coming out" as a cathartic rite of passage.

“People have reached this point,” said Jorge Gutierrez, a 26-year-old activist and graduate of Cal State Fullerton who was brought here by his family from Mexico at age 10, but had been unable to adjust his status. “It has become a cultural phenomenon.”

The movement hit a milestone last June, when ex-Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer winner Jose Antonio Vargas revealed that he’d kept his undocumented status a secret for years, sharing it only with a close network of confidantes while navigating college and career.

The term “coming out,” if course, is borrowed. While promoting last year’s “National Coming Out of the Shadows” week, the advocacy site posted a quote from gay rights hero Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco city supervisor who in a 1978 speech urged his peers, “you must come out.” Milk was calling for a political act in an era when coming out the closet was not a cultural expectation, but a dangerous thing to do, as it still is in many places. But the danger didn’t involve deportation, as it does for people who aren’t in the country legally.

Young people who have come out as undocumented say they are aware of the risks; they also say that the more of them choose to come out, there more safety they believe there is in numbers. Student activist networks have come to the aid of those who land in deportation proceedings, launching petition drives and social media campaigns.

Still, the prospect of legal status for them could be a long way off. A new version of the federal Dream Act hasn’t moved forward since it was reintroduced last May. The Obama administration's August announcement that it would begin reviewing deportation cases, potentially sparing many who arrived here as children or have military ties, is being pilot-tested in two cities now. But even those who might eventually be spared deportation as a result will remain in limbo, as there's no provision for legalization.