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Only Nixon Could Go To China
by Gary Endelman

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP Amoco Corporation. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP Amoco Corporation in any way.

Biography August 29, 2000
Hon. Al Gore
Washington, DC

Dear Al:

Kudos on the successful convention! Only a true Alpha (or is it Beta?) male could have kissed Tipper for that long! While your prospects down here in the Lone Star state do not appear luminous, it seems the political silly season is going to be more fun than I first thought for which I am truly grateful.

Al, I was worried that you thought I had gone over to the Republicans since I wrote the Shrub before you. Not so. I am resolutely undecided but I did want to share my thoughts with you before Labor Day when the hunt for votes shifts into overdrive.

Al, in your acceptance speech, you said that, "sometimes we have to take the hard right rather than the easy wrong." This is not only logical but also good politics which makes it doubly delicious. I know you have been looking for the perfect issue that you can do this with and, as a fan, I have found it for you: Immigration!

Historically, Al, big business has pushed for more immigrants while the unions fought to close the Golden Door. It all seemed to be a fight over wages with immigrants as pawns in the middle. But, Al, something has changed recently and you may have been too busy becoming authentic to realize it. The suits in the executive washroom now look upon immigration as their best and most reliable source of high tech talent. The rest of the world, Al, is kind of like our farm system sending up top brains to the American economy for the creation of new wealth and the expansion of opportunity. In the information age, the focus has shifted from the cheapest worker to the most productive. That is where immigration comes in.

Big labor is also changing, Al. This past February, the AFL-CIO came out in favor of a new general amnesty for undocumented workers whom the unions want to organize. Just as management sees international ingenuity as a core economic asset, labor is beginning to smell the coffee and look at these same foreign workers as a vast source of new members who can be mobilized to reverse the decline of trade unionism as a political force in American life. The Labor Boys understand that depriving foreign workers of protection will only give unscrupulous employers even greater incentive to hire them.

The problem, Al, is that the unions still do not understand that immigration is not social work. They still think that our immigration policy should be built on extending these poor folks a helping hand; in return, they will be grateful for being allowed to stay here and sign up. They continue to think of immigration as a problem not an opportunity. They continue to worry that immigrants will take away current jobs but give little or no thought to the possibility that the larger impact will be the enormous creation of new ones in industries that have yet to emerge. Labor looks at the economy solely in a domestic context; for them, the rest of the world really does not exist. What counts is here at home. Since the global economy does not resonate with the unions, arguments that immigration will improve America's ability to participate in, and set the agenda for, this new world order, fall flat on their face. They want the security of an economic reality frozen in time where the winds of change will not intrude to challenge cherished assumptions. Rather than marry greater labor market controls with more immigration, the AFL-CIO supports the former to make the latter go away. What to do, Al? This really is a toughie.

Al, labor needs to support employment-based immigration for many reasons. First, their traditional source of members, non-Hispanic white males, is declining as a percentage of the population and there is no chance of reversing this trend. Second, the immigrants are going to come anyway, Al, and nativism is only guaranteed to piss them off and make them hate unions for a long time. Third, at a time when there is essentially full employment, the argument that immigrants are stealing jobs is not very persuasive to your classic disinterested third party. Fourth, if the immigrants do not come here, either US employers will go to them or they will work for our competitors in Asia and Europe. Fifth, immigration is the most, perhaps the only, successful formula we now have for the revival of urban America, and the cities, Al, are the home of the union movement. If the cities die, so do the unions. Sixth, if immigration is choked off, you can bet that the resulting wage pressures will re-ignite inflation. At first, the Labor folks will like that but for how long? Remember how many steelworkers used to work in Ohio and Pennsylvania? Well, Al, those steel workers now live in Korea or Japan. It might be hard for them to vote absentee! The United Steel Workers lost 500,000 members in the last 20 years. The artificially high wages forced on the industry by union pressure and government policy helped a favored few but mostly paid the way for these good jobs to go overseas. The same thing will happen with the high tech industries of our knowledge-based economy if the immigration pipeline is shut down. Seventh, there is no place where labor can hide, Al. The market is out there and it matters. Either labor can learn to think more about how to use immigration as an asset to be engaged, or Wall Street will surely figure out how to do so.

Who is going to talk turkey with Labor and explain why backing more employment-based immigration is good for them? That is not a job that most politicians would envy or accept. Sure, we could send the Shrub over to John Sweeney but why send a Bush to do a man's job? Besides, Al, it's going to take a good prairie populist like yourself to make the sale. They will never believe a Republican. If you doubt that, Al, remember this: Only Nixon could go to China.