For President Barrack Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard, immigration is the political elephant in the room as both governments face re-election in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Recently both leaders have made significant speech on immigration and refugee 'reform'.
America has more than 11 million people living inside its borders who do not have legal status. They account for 3.7% of America's population. Australia has 6 725 people held mandatorily in immigration detention centres whose legal status has not been determined or they are awaiting deportation as failed asylum seekers or as visa overstayers. There are no official figures for how many people are living in Australia without valid documents.
Gillard has announced increased labour migration and the deportation of asylum seekers to Malaysia. In terms of labour migration, the Gillard government has focused on 'Big Australia': a version of populate or perish that accepts Australian's aren't having enough children so we should increase our population with migrant labour. The 2011 federal budget costed administration, infrastructure and sustainability for this measure alone at over $1.17 billion. Gillard is seeking to win support from the powerful mining lobby, including BHP Billiton, who are screaming out for labour in regional Queensland and Western Australia. Their power was evident in their ability to kill Rudd's mining tax so promptly and in doing so providing a trigger for Labor to depose Rudd as Prime Minister. Gillard is also trying to counter the Coalition's 'stop the boats' rhetoric that appears to win it votes in electorates in outer Sydney and Melbourne, mainly by spreading fear and hysteria.
Obama has called for immigration reform in an attempt to wedge Republicans over border security. It is a response to his failed 2010 Dream Act that would have allowed children of undocumented migrants to earn legal status through education or military service. It passed the House but was blocked by Republicans in the Senate. The measure was meant to bolster support for Obama among Hispanic voters, an increasingly important voter group. In many respects Latinos should be conservative voters. They are overwhelmingly Catholic, socially conservative and entrepreneurial and many have strong reservations about abortion. For every undocumented migrant there's usually a connection to a network of legal friends and relatives who vote, and in the 2008 presidential election they voted overwhelmingly for Obama. In some places Obama won 85 per cent of the Latino vote and he wants to make sure he keeps as many of them as he can at the 2012 presidential election. Hispanic support also proved crucial in saving some Democrat seats in the midst of the 2010 mid-term Republican sweep. Obama also needs to pressure the Republicans into supporting his calls for an amnesty.
The proposed immigration amnesty would forgive "acts of illegal immigration" and "related illegal acts such as driving and working with false documents". Only one national amnesty has been granted in the U.S. In 1986 the Immigration and Reform Control Act was taken up by 2.8 million undocumented migrants. Talks of an amnesty not only seek to win back Hispanic voters (many who are dismayed at Obama's use of 'silent raids' and apparent support of 400 000 mainly Hispanic deportations in 2009-2010) but to counter states, like Arizona, legislating on immigration matters.
Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 is considered America's toughest bill on undocumented migrants. While still under challenge in the Supreme Court it seeks to empower police to detain anyone suspected of being an undocumented migrant. This measure comes on the back of the Legal Arizona Workers Act (which bars hiring illegal workers) and efforts by some states to take control of citizenship laws with 'anchor baby' legislation. The number of children born to at least one unauthorised-immigrant parent in 2009 was 350,000 and they made up 8% of all U.S. births. At least five state have agreed on a coordinated effort to cancel automatic American citizenship for children born in American to unauthorized parents (sadly referred to as 'anchor babies'). Automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S. (regardless of parent's status) is rooted in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
About one million people a year pass through America's immigration detention facilities (mostly jails). As of May 2011, Australia will process 6, 444 asylum seekers and 156 visa overstayers held in mandatory detention. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has recently cited Australia's detention practices as "extremely distressing". Of those under the control of the Department of Immigration are 1 038 children. Australia's detention of children is considered problematic given we are signatories to the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
Regardless of criticism, it seems the Gillard government will continue with the practice. Conversely, Obama seems more responsive to public opinion. Apart from his efforts to introduce citizenship rights for children of undocumented migrants (something children born in Australia to asylum seeker parents are not entitled) he recently shelved plans to build three detention centres and outlawed the sending of migrants and asylum seekers to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former state prison in Texan that drew an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit and scathing news coverage for putting young children behind razor wire. Obama's efforts however should not be seen as being apolitical.
Driving both Gillard and Obama's policies are domestic political considerations. Gillard is trying to wedge the Coalition and Obama is trying to wedge the Republicans and counter conservative states from bringing in anti-Hispanic legislation. For both of them immigration is a political issue that could sink their re-election hopes.
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