The address by President Bush on May 15 and renewed debate in Congress have kept the issue of immigration reform on the front burner. But the debate is being shaped on the one hand by employers and on the other by right-wing ideologues who claim—falsely—to speak for established US workers. As a result, the debate is full of myths and misconceptions. We offer the following points as themes around which the common interests of immigrants and established workers can coalesce.
The best outcome of the present immigration debate in Congress is no outcome at all. There is virtually no chance that this Congress and this Administration will produce a worker and immigrant friendly immigration bill. In any event, splits in the Republican Party between nativists hoping to stop all immigration and corporate interests seeking greater access to low wage labor make chances of passing anything unlikely. Immigrant advocates should be building momentum for action in the next Congress and beyond. The emphasis on voter registration and getting out the pro-immigrant vote that emerged from the massive immigrant demonstrations could play a decisive role in shaping immigration legislation.
There is no immediate immigration crisis—only a crisis in the election prospects of the Republican Party. Current immigration policies function badly as they have for years. Reform is needed, but the immigration “crisis” is a product of a the Republican right’s attempts to fan the flames of a growing, but still contained, backlash against undocumented immigrants as part of its election year strategy. They may have miscalculated. The real backlash may be among the millions of Hispanic voters, many of whom have voted Republican in past elections.
Increased border security fails to keep undocumented immigrants out, but it does keep them in. The number of border patrol agents increased from around 2,500 in the 1980s to 12,000 today. Over-all spending on border security since the late 1980s has increased 500%. One result is that the cost of making a crossing for an undocumented immigrant today is about $2,500. According to Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey in the 1980s about half of all undocumented Mexicans returned home within 12 months, but by 2000 the return rate was only 25%. Thus the net result of increased border security is to actually increase the number of undocumented workers in the US. Immigrant advocates should stop pandering to uninformed or xenophobic voices demanding “border security”. Effectively sealing the border would require a massive attack on civil liberties and unacceptable economic and political costs in the US and abroad—and its primary effect would be to keep undocumented immigrants from returning home.
Abruptly halting undocumented immigration would have a chaotic effect on the economies of Mexico and Central America. Remittances from the US account for second largest sources of foreign capital in Mexico after oil. About 18% of Mexican adults—and 29% of Salvadoran adults—receives remittances from someone in the US. Those remittances are essential to support families and build communities. Shutting off the flow would create hardship and instability in Mexico and Central America. Instead ways need to be found to smooth the flow of remittances and make them part of a new economic development strategy that utilizes them to provide socially constructive forms of credit.
Policies supported by the US and institutionalized in treaties like NAFTA are a key factor pushing migrants north. NAFTA helped push around two million peasants off the land in Mexico and forced many Mexican companies out of business because they were unable to compete with cheaper imports. While NAFTA was touted as a way to slow northward migration, it has done the opposite. The giant sucking sound that many thought NAFTA would produce turned out to be less from jobs going south than from workers heading north. In 1995 there were 2.5 million undocumented Mexican workers in the US, ten years later there were more than 10.5 million. Any solution to the immigration problem must begin with rewriting NAFTA. With massive political change going on in Latin America, it’s time to take a fresh look at ways new hemispheric economic policies can make it possible for people to live decently at home without being dependent on migration or remittances from the US or elsewhere.
In some industries and some localities there is already a hemispheric labor market. In some occupations undocumented immigrants make up a substantial percentage of the workforce. About 24% of all farm workers are undocumented immigrants; 17% of all cleaners; 14% of all construction workers; and 12% of all food preparation workers. Taking a closer look at jobs within these categories 36% of all insulation workers; 29% of all roofers and drywall workers; and 27% of all butchers and food processors are undocumented. It is interesting to note that many of these occupations have had a large immigrant component throughout the 20th century. National laws have not kept pace with the reality of transnational labor markets. What’s needed now are laws and regulations that guarantee immigrant workers the basic human and labor rights needed to let them work and live in dignity.
Any comprehensive immigration program will be the result of a compromise among workers—both immigrant and established—employers, and politicians. The result will not be perfect, but it can be satisfactory. Employers need immigrant workers; workers need jobs. The interests of both are opposed to the right-wing anti-immigrant ideologues.
There is the basis for an alliance between immigrant and established workers. Immigrant rights advocates and progressives should not cede the established working class to the right-wing nativists. US workers—partly because many have immigrant roots—can be an ally in the fight for just reforms as the progressive role of US unions in the current debate shows. But fears that immigrants take jobs and decrease wages need to be taken seriously. Immigration legislation should emphasize the labor rights of immigrant workers both to protect their human dignity and to protect the wages and working conditions of established workers.
Immigration reform must be hemispheric in scope. A step in the direction of recognizing the hemispheric and global nature of the immigration issue has already been taken. The governments of the nations of Latin America that send migrants to the US have banded together to lobby against the most draconian immigration reform bills currently before Congress. This recognition that immigration is no longer a strictly national issue should prompt the labor and social movements in Latin America and the US to convene a hemispheric meeting of unions and social movements to help draft a worker and immigrant friendly immigration program. Unions and social movements should not leave immigration reform to elite decision makers whether in the US or in the hemisphere.
A program can be developed that represents the interests of established US workers, undocumented immigrants, and Latin Americans. Their interests can be meshed with those of the US employers on this issue. The claims of nativist ideologues to speak for American workers can be discredited. If the groundwork for such a program is laid now, the alliance of immigrant and established workers can seize the initiative in shaping immigration legislation after the 2006 election.