Sunday, March 26, 2006

The immigration conundrum

When you get half a million people marching in the streets to protest Republican immigration policies, you better believe that the political pot is beginning to bubble in time for the 2006 election.

It presents a real conundrum for conservatives, and a real opportunity for progressives. That was clear from the events that sparked this weekend's protests:
Saturday's rally, spurred by anger over legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last December, was part of what many say is an unprecedented effort to organize immigrants and their supporters across the nation. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is to take up efforts Monday to complete work on a comprehensive immigration reform proposal. Unlike the House bill, which beefed up border security and toughened immigration laws, the Senate committee's version is expected to include a guest worker program and a path to legalization for the nation's 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants.

The Associated Press report of the rally noted that the legislation "would make it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally. It also would impose new penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants, require churches to check the legal status of parishioners before helping them and erect fences along one-third of the U.S.-Mexican border."

The Republicans in Congress who spearheaded these measures -- particularly Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin -- represent a resurgent Cro-Magnon wing of the party, one that is threatening to swamp the genteel grip of corporate conservatives whose approach to immigration is decidedly different, if equally poisonous.

The Cro-Magnon approach, embodied by vigilantes like the Minutemen, is to blame the pawns. Their policies are predicated on the laughable idea that we can build a fortress wall around the country and just keep people out, a pretty notion that quickly runs aground on the reality that no wall can contain the larger forces driving illegal immigration. They consistently scapegoat the emigres while ignoring -- and indeed abetting -- those same larger forces.

Mind you, this is an easy issue to whip up public sympathy with majority whites. Latino immigration is creating huge demographic shifts across the country, and as with all such waves of immigration, it's creating real cultural frictions, especially as assimilation bogs down in the sheer mass of the wave.

So what the American far right is doing is appealing to white Americans' base racial instincts: associating the immigrants with crime and disease, accusing them of being part of a "conspiracy," complaining that they're polluting white culture. These are all significant features of the rhetoric used by both the Minutemen and their supporters in Congress.

But as Max Blumenthal points out, these ham-handed attacks on Latinos seem to have awakened the sleeping giant of the American Hispanic vote:
In passing HR 4437 and whatever draconian and utterly counter-productive bill emerges from the Senate, the congressional Republicans have become their party's worst enemy. They have cast their white, Southern base in conflict with the Latino constituency the RNC and the Bush White House realize they must win over if they are ever to achieve a so-called "Republican majority."

The Cro-Magnon approach is repellent enough on its own merits, but the other side of the Republican coin on immigration is the Bush plan to create a "guest worker" program that is nothing less than the realization of corporate America's wet dream of having a labor force that cannot vote. It would create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers, and would forever change the very nature of immigration as we have historically known it in America, severing it from citizenship.

This two-headed approach to immigration is like being given a choice of refreshing beverage: arsenic or strychnine. You pick.

It's all part of the ongoing Latin Americanization of the United States, in which the standard of living and the economic and political power of the middle and working classes is consistently driven downward and held there. As PZ Myers puts it, "The Republican agenda is to turn the United States into a third-world shithole."

What's especially insidious about this is that, contrasted with the jingos of the far right, Bush's program looks downright moderate in comparison. But it may be more destructive and, well, evil. As James K. Galbraith explained some time ago:
This program will permit any employer to admit any worker. From any country. At any time. The only requirement is that it be for a job Americans are not willing to take. But it is easy to create such jobs: Cut wages. Terminate the unions. Lengthen the hours. Speed up the lines. Chicken farmers have known this for years. Bush's plan is a blank check for every bad boss this country has.

... For millions of citizen workers, what would happen? The answer is clear: Bad bosses drive out the good. Good bosses will turn bad under pressure. The terms of our jobs would get worse and worse. Who would want a citizen worker? A bracero will be so much cheaper, more loyal, and under control. And who among us, in our right mind, would want to look for work? Unless, of course, we needed to eat. Or pay the mortgage. I am not exaggerating: This is a threat to us all.

Even the centrist Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post castigates the broad-reaching effects of Bush's plan:
Guest workers would mainly legalize today's vast inflows of illegal immigrants, with the same consequence: We'd be importing poverty. This isn't because these immigrants aren't hardworking; many are. Nor is it because they don't assimilate; many do. But they generally don't go home, assimilation is slow and the ranks of the poor are constantly replenished. Since 1980 the number of Hispanics with incomes below the government's poverty line (about $19,300 in 2004 for a family of four) has risen 162 percent. Over the same period, the number of non-Hispanic whites in poverty rose 3 percent and the number of blacks, 9.5 percent. What we have now -- and would with guest workers -- is a conscious policy of creating poverty in the United States while relieving it in Mexico. By and large, this is a bad bargain for the United States. It stresses local schools, hospitals and housing; it feeds social tensions (witness the Minutemen). To be sure, some Americans get cheap housecleaning or landscaping services. But if more mowed their own lawns or did their own laundry, it wouldn't be a tragedy.

The most lunatic notion is that admitting more poor Latino workers would ease the labor market strains of retiring baby boomers. The two aren't close substitutes for each other. Among immigrant Mexican and Central American workers in 2004, only 7 percent had a college degree and nearly 60 percent lacked a high school diploma, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Among native-born U.S. workers, 32 percent had a college degree and only 6 percent did not have a high school diploma. Far from softening the social problems of an aging society, more poor immigrants might aggravate them by pitting older retirees against younger Hispanics for limited government benefits.

Moreover, Samuelson notes that many moderate liberals and middle-class voters almost reflexively support the Bush plan, even though it's obviously poisonous to their interests:
Business organizations understandably support guest worker programs. They like cheap labor and ignore the social consequences. What's more perplexing is why liberals, staunch opponents of poverty and inequality, support a program that worsens poverty and inequality. Poor immigrant workers hurt the wages of unskilled Americans. The only question is how much. Studies suggest a range "from negligible to an earnings reduction of almost 10 percent," according to the CBO.

It's time, indeed, for progressives to come up with their own plan for dealing with immigration -- one that goes beyond the scapegoating and the narrow business interests and realistically and fairly comes to grips with the issue.

The negative effects of unbridled immigration on American workers is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how liberals should be thinking about this. They need to understand that mass employment of illegal immigrants is open ground for gross exploitation and civil-rights abuses. It also corrodes the value of citizenship. As Samuelson has noted elsewhere, the current wave "is increasingly sabotaging the assimilation process."

As Bill Sher at Liberal Oasis explained awhile back, it's not only possible, but imperative, that liberals develop a plan of immigration reform that embraces their values and effectively resolves the problems.

The answer, it must be noted, is not to be found in the reforms currently favored by many moderate Democrats embodied in the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, which essentially just extends the current flaws in policy. As Paul Donnelly explained in one of my threads here awhile back (from this post):
[I]t essentially accelerates the core problem of the current mess to escape velocity. We're now trying to manage immigration by backlog, and when that gets to be too much, we make more exceptions (like 245(i), or amnesty) instead of new rules that will work. The McCain-Kennedy proposal is for 400,000 "temporary" visas a year, plus dependents that brings the total up to about a million annually), ALL of whom will eventually be eligible for green cards -- except, you see, there ain't but 87,000 green cards a year available in these employment-based slots, which McCain-Kennedy doesn't even attempt to address.

So, if we're going to discard the traditional, interest-driven approach, where do we begin?

Getting a clear view of the big picture with immigration is essential. As with many previous waves of immigration, there is a strong "push-pull" dynamic at work in our relationship with Mexico: there are conditions there pushing them over our borders, combined with a strong demand pulling them here.

The latter is most obvious to us here. The big gorilla on our side of the fence is American business' demand for cheap labor, which creates the opportunities many immigrants seek:
"There is a demand for cheap labor and since immigrants have a need to survive, they are willing to provide that supply of labor. It is a complicated topic, but we will not reduce the amount of undocumented immigration without eliminating the demand (for) cheap labor," Rodriguez said.

The most significant contributors to this demand are:
-- Agribusiness, which has been the chief exploiter of immigrant labor for decades, but whose use of undocumented workers has exploded since American farming has become vertically and horizontally integrated under the Big Five food corporations.

-- The construction industry, which makes billions of dollars annually on the backs of illegal workers, and simultaneously exposes them to an array of abuses.

-- Wal-Mart, whose employment practices involving undocumented workers are nearly as abusive as those of the day-labor market, all driven by the demand for those low, low prices.

It doesn't help, of course, that Democrats are as often fully in bed with these corporate interests as Republicans are. Severing that relationship -- or at least permanently altering it -- is going to be essential to any kind of effective reforms that progressives might concoct.

But we're also going to have to come to terms with the "push" from the Mexican side of the border. At some point, we're going to have to begin behaving more like real neighbors when it comes to our neighbors to the south, instead of treating them like the second-class humans as so many Americans are wont to do. Certain imbedded American attitudes -- particularly the notion that poor people are poor because they're lazy and won't work hard enough -- linger in our economic policies and our cultural prejudices. The result is that we come to think of the pervasive poverty of so many Mexicans' daily lives as almost "natural" instead of the atrocity it is.

Marcela Sanchez at the Washington Post went into this in some detail awhile back:
This truth is so obvious it seems a cliche and yet it remains mostly absent from the current debate on how to reform U.S. immigration. For all the talk around the country of border enforcement, guest worker programs, employer sanctions and driver's licensing restrictions, the sad fact is that none of these "solutions'' addresses the root of the problem -- a persistent and large U.S.-Mexican income disparity.

Even the most comprehensive and progressive immigration reform proposal in years, introduced this month by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is more concerned with making U.S. immigration policy more humane than dealing with income disparity between the United States and Mexico. The bill crafts a guest worker program -- creating new visa categories and quotas and a secure identification system for employers -- but only provides a vague indication that income disparity might be a problem worth taking on.

There have been some ideas put forth for tackling this disparity. Robert Pastor at Newsweek described one such potential solution, particularly in the wake of the economic disaster that NAFTA has proven to be for Mexican workers:
What they should do is think far more boldly. The only way to solve the most pressing problems in the region -- including immigration, security, and declining competitiveness -- is to create a true North American Community. No two nations are more important to the United States than Canada and Mexico, and no investment will bolster security and yield greater economic benefits for America than one that narrows the income gap between Mexico and its North American partners.

Bridging that gap was supposed to be one of the many benefits that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would deliver. And indeed, since NAFTA took effect in 1994, trade and investment among the United States, Mexico and Canada have nearly tripled, making North America the world's largest free-trade area in terms of territory and gross domestic product (GDP). Yet the income gap has widened: the annual per capita GDP of the United States ($43,883) today is more than six times that of Mexico ($6,937).

NAFTA has been inadequate in other ways as well. The agreement made no provisions for cushioning economic downturns like the Mexican peso crisis of 1994-95. It created no credible institutions that operate on a truly regional basis. Thus, after terrorists struck New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration unilaterally tightened security on its international borders while Ottawa and Mexico City reverted to their traditional ambivalence toward Washington.

Illegal immigration has increased and if anything, NAFTA has inadvertently fueled immigration by encouraging foreign investment near the U.S.-Mexican border, which in turn serves as a magnet for workers in central and southern Mexico. As a result, the number of undocumented Mexican workers who live in the United States has skyrocketed in the NAFTA era, from an estimated 1 million in the mid-1990s to about 6 million today. One of every six undocumented immigrants is under 18 years old, and since the mid-1990s the fastest growth of the population has occurred in states like Arizona and North Carolina that had relatively small numbers of foreign-born residents in the past.

An effective program of immigration reform will recognize this dynamic and -- in direct contradistinction with the Republican programs -- seek equitable solutions based on the principle that immigration is inseparable from citizenship, that the goal of immigration is to enhance the pool of citizens and make lives better both here and abroad; that a sound immigration policy will benefit people on both sides of the border.

I think Donnelly's outline of a reform program would be an excellent place to start. His thesis:
"Immigration policy fails because America promises more than it delivers. That blurs legal and illegal, permanent and temporary; outlawing marriages, exiling families and dragging down wages. But foreigners should be legal when they are wives, husbands, kids or employed siblings of legal permanent residents and even citizens: we promised. Failing to deliver makes enforcement nearly impossible, it erodes citizenship and inspires bad ideas like replacing the Ellis Island model with a German-style guest worker plan severing immigration from citizenship.

"So replace the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act with a point system that combines family and employment and other VALUES. Stop subsidizing employers, enough exceptions like amnesty: let's make rules that work. Aim immigration at citizenship by the accumulation of what we WANT in new Americans. Start with green cards for spouses of permanent residents just as for citizens, but recognize that sibling immigration is essentially a hiring network, and that when workers have "temporary" jobs for five years, they ARE permanent -- and ought to be on the path to citizenship. Accelerating Americanization is key."

To which I'll add:
-- Crack down on American corporate behavior -- both in its thirst for cheap labor, and in its constant export of American jobs. Corporations who hire mass numbers of undocumented workers should be held culpable for their lawbreaking and forced to pay fines they can't simply shrug off, as they do. And too many of those who export American jobs to places like Mexico often do so in a way that actually depresses wages in those countries; these kinds of predatory practices should be made illegal.

-- Build support for programs to ameliorate the wage disparity between the two nations: explore the possibility of a North American Community. Reform the provisions of NAFTA so that they help Mexican workers earn decent livings. Don't drive down the American standard of living. Rather, abide by the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats -- including those of our neighbors.

Progressives need to put together a program of immigration reforms now. It need not necessarily be these particular reforms, but we need to begin talking and thinking about it before the summer arrives so that, when elections come, everyone knows where Democrats stand on the issue.

Because if they can do that, those 500,000 people are just the beginning of the tide that will join them in that cause.

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