A Comprehensive Look At Comprehensive Immigration Reform
With the recent raids on Swift & Co., and the subsequent detainment of undocumented workers in detention centers, a new round of debate has opened up on the issue of immigration and immigration reform.
As a new congress is about to take office, perhaps it is time to re-examine what needs to be done about this issue and perhaps re-define the goals and terms of the debate. With the emergence of a new growing populism within the progressive ranks, it is important that we not be drawn to solutions and proposals that run contrary to the basic progressive beliefs in human value and dignity.
With that in mind, what follows is a proposal for how to address this issue effectively while still remaining true to the ideals of liberal and progressive thought… a policy paper if you must… but I'd rather think of it as a starting point for meaningful dialogue.
Getting To The Root Of The Problem: Comprehensive Immigration Reform And The Middle Class
Today there is much discussion about what many are terming an "immigration crisis" in America. Undocumented immigrants flood over the borders daily risking their lives, and sometimes losing them, in order to find work and security in the United States. Perhaps upwards to a million undocumented people each year find a way, whether it be by overstaying a visa, or crossing hundreds of miles deadly desert, to enter this country in hopes of making a better life.
Americans of all political stripes are concerned about this situation and there is great division on exactly how to solve the problem. Some have advocated a tightening of security and closing of the porous border as a solution. Others have promoted a method to regulate and legitimize the flow of the undocumented. But there is one thing missing in both of these strategies. Neither contains any analysis of why this problem exists, and more importantly, why at this time in our history this influx of new immigrants is causing such great concern for the American people. Neither group seems concerned with root causes.
The number of immigrants has not really changed
Throughout our history we have encountered many waves of immigration. In fact, most of us can trace our roots back to foreign shores one way or another. The number of new immigrants who come today, both entering through proper channels and the undocumented, is no greater as a percentage of population than at many other times during our history. From the late-nineteenth century, through the first thirty years of the last, immigrants represented about 14.6% of the total population (1) ; today that number is 12% (2). Certainly our earlier immigrants were not rich, and most had limited education, but they like our current crop of immigrants, had the drive and determination to seek out a better life. This influx of new vitality and ambition has been a cornerstone on which the nation was build.
So why today do we find ourselves in the middle of what some would term a crisis?
What is different today then during past immigration waves?
Historically there have always been a small minority of protectionists who've opposed immigration for xenophobic or racists reason, but generally we as a people have accepted new immigrants with open arms and absorbed them into society. Yet, today we find this harder and harder to do. Many believe the new immigrants are putting undo pressures on our economy, creating stresses on a tight job market, and stretching already taxed social services and education systems.
Why today do we find it so hard to absorb these new immigrants? Why at a time in our history, when we have never been richer as a nation and more educated as a population, do we find these new immigrants putting such great stresses on our society? Perhaps we need to look at some of the changes that have taken place over the last twenty-five or so years to find the answer.
The systematic assault on working and middle class Americans
Over the past twenty five years it appears that there's been a systematic assault upon the working and middle classes of this nation which now leaves many vulnerable and in a position where they must compete for an ever decreasing pool of resources. At one time, a family could live comfortably on the income of one earner, but today it takes two just to make ends meet. A guaranteed pension for retirement is no longer the norm. A union card no longer guarantees a lifetime of job security. Health insurance costs have become an overwhelming concern for both workers and employers and forty five million Americans in fact go without any. A job with one of the nation's largest companies no longer means yearly raises and increased benefits; in fact it doesn't even guarantee job security. An advanced degree no longer means a career in your chosen field. Today working and middle class Americans can expect plant closings and layoffs, pay cuts and increased hours, loss of benefits and outsourcing. They can expect economists to talk about "jobless recoveries" and increased productivity. It is no wonder that many working class Americans are feeling the added stresses of our new modern global economy. It is also no wonder that they are ready to lash out against those they feel they must now compete against.
Our nation is sick, and current "immigration crisis" is not the cause of this national illness, but just another symptom of it.
Who is responsible for this situation?
The answer is simple … the economic and social policies of those who claim to be Conservatives that favor an elite class of the economically privileged over the vast majority of Americans.
Of course, many working class Americans might scoff at this idea. Certainly a philosophy of smaller government, personal responsibility and free market economics sounds appealing to many, and on face value alone is quite in line with the principles on which our nation was founded. But in practice, what these so called Conservatives have done with this philosophy has been the antithesis of what the founders had in mind. These Conservatives have used this philosophy to consolidate economic and political power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. They have turned the ideals of fair play and Christian charity upside down and transformed them into grotesque parodies.
They have taken two hundred years of struggle to raise the standard of living for the average American and thrown it to the winds, all in the name of "fiscal responsibility" and "smaller government." All along being neither fiscally responsible nor providing smaller government.
How did they do this?
How did these self-proclaimed Conservatives wage this war on the working and middle class? It started in the eighties with two policies; deregulation and union busting. Then continued with more failed and flawed policies right up until our present day in alliance with business interests and the economic elite who benefit most from this agenda.
Starting with the firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981, Conservatives have set forth an agenda through legislation and judicial decisions to slowly disassemble the American labor movement. At the time, many Americans supported the idea, feeling that unions had become too powerful, corrupt and greedy, but the results of this policy have had devastating effects on American workers. Conservatives advocating "right to work" legislation under the guise that it allowed workers free choice whether or not to join a union, have in effect allowed employers to guarantee open shops and eventually drive the unions out of many sectors of the US economy. Ever since the eighties the number of union households has been steadily declining from a high of 20.1 % in 1983 to 12.5% in 2005 (3). Today Wal Mart, the nations largest employer, continually fights against the unionization of it's employees using laws and policies put in place by conservative legislators.
At the beckoning of corporate interests, Conservatives have managed to take what was once the bulwark of working class America, the very entity that allowed millions of American workers to move themselves or their children into the middle class, and render it powerless.
Under the guise of increased competition and lower prices through free market forces, Conservatives began a campaign of deregulation. They would no longer allow the government to regulate business, but rather leave it up to the free market. Again, on paper this practice looked reasonable, but under their control we have ended up with the reverse.
Instead of government controlling business, we now have business controlling government.
We have allowed business combinations that rival any of those of the Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century. We have seen regulated monopolies in the energy, telecom, airline and other industries destroyed, only to recombine into unregulated monsters like Enron. We have seen the merger of mega oil companies that are larger than those of Rockefeller's Standard Oil, who make profits that would make King Midis blush, while the average American can't afford to fill up his gas tank.
Globalization and outsourcing
The next logical step after domestic deregulation for Conservatives was globalization and the taking of their idea of the free market economy, without any government regulation, to a global scale. Conservatives passed legislation and trade agreements that allowed huge multinational companies to operate with impunity throughout the world. Believing that free markets, free trade, and the unrestricted flow of capital would produce the greatest social, political and economic good, Conservative policies have left our nation with record trade imbalances (4) and a national debt of over 8 trillion dollars (5) , much of it underwritten by possible economically hostile nations like China (6,7). Hundreds of free trade agreements have been signed that have in many cases had devastating effects not only for American workers, but decimated industries in foreign countries. In Mexico in particular, free trade agreements have destroyed large sections of the agricultural sector (8), leading to increased immigration to the US. They have allowed companies like Halliburton to set up shadow entities on foreign soil to avoid paying taxes.
They've allowed American businesses to sell American jobs to the lowest bidder on the global market all in the name of free market economics.
Rewriting the tax codes and starving the beast
Conservatives often say that the only thing wrong with government is government, and promise to lower taxes, reduce the size of government, and be fiscally responsible. Yet, after years of Conservative leadership we have the largest government in US history, a record federal deficit and a record national debt of more than 8 trillion dollars. The only part of their philosophy they seem to be able to stick too is tax cuts.
They have systematically worked over the last twenty-five years to shift the tax burden from both big business and the top 1% of the nation's wealthiest people and place it on the middle and working class.
They have consistently rewarded corporations and the rich with larger and larger tax breaks. Through cuts in funding to education, health and human services and many other state and local programs they have managed to shift the tax burden down to the local level so that average Americans now pay more in real estate, state and local, use and sales taxes than ever before. They have not given the American people "back their money" as they claim, but rather forced them to just pay more to other government agencies.
The other aspect of the Conservative tax cutting agenda has been to use cuts as a means to, as they term it; "starve the beast". It's been conservative policy to try to assure that social programs for education, childcare, healthcare and the poor are "starved to death" due to the lack of available federal funds.
Their philosophy has resulted in huge benefits for the rich while programs that working and middle class Americans rely on are cut. The best example of this is public education, where Conservatives have consistently cut funding while placing ever more increasing demands upon the system.
Another big concern for average Americans is healthcare and its skyrocketing costs. Conservative deregulation and free market philosophies have influenced this also. While fighting vehemently against any form of a national healthcare program, they have through legislation and governmental agencies, allowed large pharmaceutical manufactures and healthcare conglomerates to set the agenda.
National health policy has written by insurance companies and other corporate interests rather than physicians and medical professionals. A policy that has left 45 million Americans without basic health insurance and millions more grossly under-insured and paying a large percentage of medical costs out of pocket.
But what does all this have to do with immigration?
These Conservative policies that favor the economic elite have had devastating effects on the working and middle classes, yet in order to remain in power Conservatives have tried to shift the blame. Every problem that is claimed to be a result of the "immigration crisis" can be seen to have its roots in Conservative economic and social policies.
Conservatives have been trying to convince the American people that it is the immigrants who put all the stresses on education, social services and healthcare institutions and that they take jobs from American workers and drive down wages. But it must be understood that while immigrants do highlight the problems of working class Americans, they haven't caused them. All these problems can be seen as direct results of twenty-five years of Conservative policy. This is obvious when you look at the ROOT CAUSES. The Republican controlled Congress for the last ten years has exacerbated the situation by rubber-stamping every Conservative policy that has come down the pike. With each passing year they have taken more and more from working Americans and given it to their corrupt corporate masters. Now there is nothing left, and the American working man and woman knows it. They just need to stop buying into the Conservatives "blame game" and look at the ROOT CAUSES of their problems.
What can we do?
We, as a nation need to stop letting those who don't have our best interests at heart to control the agenda. We must not allow them to divide us along lines of class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender. We must not allow them to misdirect us or mislead us with appeals to our patriotism or national pride. We must not let them blame the symptoms rather than the disease.
The "immigration crisis" is just another symptom of a far greater disease … the disease of a Conservative agenda that favors the rich and big business over average Americans. Immigrants certainly put added stresses on society and highlight the problems of the now decimated social programs, education and health care systems, but they did not cause the national illness.
How do we "fix" immigration?
Fixing our broken immigration system will not be easy, and it will be a long hard process. Again just as in the case of working Americans, one key must be to look for the ROOT CAUSES OF THE PROBLEM. We must look at the reasons why millions of people every year risk their lives to come here? What is it about their countries of origin that make them so desperate to leave? Particularly in the case of Mexico, it's a nation that has the 13th largest economy in the world, ahead of 167 other nations. They also are the second largest recipients of direct investment by US companies in the hemisphere. On top of this Mexico has vast amounts of untapped natural resources and oil reserves that rival those of any Middle Eastern power. So why do their people live in poverty? Why must they come here simply to survive? Could it be precisely because they are the second largest recipients of direct investment by US big business? Could it be because Conservative trade and economic policies have been crafted to favor the business elite and the rich of Mexico, just as they favor them here? Could it be because Conservative policies help perpetuate a system that leaves 55% of the countries wealth in the hands of 20% of its people? These are all things that need to be addressed when looking at the "immigration crisis".
What Should Progressive Immigration Reform Look Like?
Despite what many claim, support for some sort of comprehensive immigration reform is not tantamount to calling for "open borders" , unrestricted immigration" or as Lou Dobbs like to claim, "importing half the population of Mexico into the US." While some from the left, and both the Libertarian and Free Trade right, favor open borders and the total unrestricted flow of people, goods and services between nations, most progressives don't. They see our current "immigration problem" as a failure of our system to live up to its historical duty to allow for the reasonable flow of people from all over the world to come to this nation to make a better life, add vitality and diversity to our national mosaic, and join in the great American democratic experiment. The key phrase being: "reasonable flow".
Two facts must be taken as givens in any discussion of immigration reform if we are to make any real progress towards meaningful reform:
With these two basic premises accepted, it becomes clear what the goal of progressive immigration reform should be: Allow for a reasonable flow of new immigrants and figure out a way to allow them to enter the country legally.
- We need immigration. Currently there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the US of which 7.5 million are in the workforce, with approximately a million more joining them each year. Additionally, we allow for roughly a million "legal" immigrants to enter each year. 98% of all undocumented immigrants eligible to work (excluding children and stay-at-home mothers of young children), do so, and the US unemployment rate floats around 5% or roughly 7 million people. We need these workers, it's just a fact
- Undocumented immigrants do keep wages artificially low in certain industries that rely on them for the bulk of their workforce. Employers in these sectors, able to pay immigrant workers less, cannot be expected to do anything but take advantage of the situation. The solution to this problem is not to eliminate the immigrant workforce in order to force wages up due to a lack of needed workers. The solution is to put these workers on a path to legalization in order that employers can no longer exploit them. Numerous studies show that once an immigrant attains legal status his wages and benefits go up and his employer begins adhere to federal and state workplace regulations. It's a self policing system.
What is a reasonable flow of immigration?
How do we determine what a "reasonable" amount of immigrants to allow in each year should be?
The number of immigrants admitted each year should be determined by a floating scale that takes into account the number of available jobs, the current unemployment rate, the number of green cards issued the previously year measured against the number applied for. In other words use simple supply and demand. As long as there is a demand for increased immigration, there must be a legal way meet that demand. At the present time we have no legal means to supply the workers needed, hence they are forced to enter the country illegally and live in the shadows.
Obviously we must first raise the quotas to more accurately reflect the realities on the ground. We must eliminate the per country cap that favors smaller nations with fewer immigrant applicants over those countries that have long traditional ties to the US. We must raise the 5000 maximum cap on unskilled worker green cards issued each year to reflect the true needs of the national labor pool. We need to ease restrictions on family reunification and rework the diversity "lottery" and refugee policies to better serve the needs of those who face a clear and present danger in their countries of origin.
Perhaps there is a better way to formulate such important and complicated policy. Perhaps we need some sort of independent "immigration policy board" that is free of elected officials, made up of experts in immigration, economists, labor and immigrants right advocates, that could be charged with the responsibility of formulating certain aspects of immigration policy.
At present it's basically a decision made by politicians. As we saw in the negotiations going on in Congress, they seem to pull numbers out of thin air, check with "business" leaders, take some foreign policy considerations, think about sound bites, spin and firing up the base, then put it all in a big bowl and mix it up and serve it to the American people as policy.
This is politics as usual, but it doesn't have to be.
What if there could be something set up independent of elected government, something similar to the way the Federal Reserve is set up, and sets interest rates? An independent "immigration policy board", charged with setting the immigration levels and working out policy. They could be the ones to determine how many of each visa class to issue each year, or how many green cards etc. rather than our elected officials.
This seems to be a logical alternative to the current system. We do not allow elected officials to set the Fed interest rates because they lack the necessary expertise to do so and we know they'd set them at 0% in election years, and 30% in off years. The same should be true with immigration policy. Between of pressure from big business, the natural tendency for politicians to pander for votes, and other political calculations, perhaps elected officials are not the best choice for formulating the nuts and bolts of immigration policy.
This policy board's mission would be to gather information, listen to testimony, call in experts, listen to lobbyists, immigrants advocates, etc., then make their recommendations for the following years "quotas". Each year they would then adjust them according to economic conditions, world events, the previous years successes and/or failures, unemployment rates, etc.
This way the whole affair is taken out of the hands of both the politicians and the business interests that control them
Once we have determined what reasonable levels of immigration are, then and only then can we begin to look at border security. Once we remove millions of would-be "illegal" immigrants from the mix by providing them a legal path to immigration, we can formulate an effective border security plan. To do the reverse, and try to secure the border before reforming the immigration system is like trying to fix a leaky pipe without turning off the water. We need to channel our immigration through legal points of entry, before we can plug the holes in the border.
Addressing The Root Causes Of Migration
We need to take a complete and comprehensive approach to immigration reform, and this includes something none of the present legislation accounts for. We need to look at the reasons why millions of people each year are compelled to risk their lives to enter this country illegally. This includes an examination of the effects of US foreign policy and trade policies that have fostered poverty and political upheaval throughout much of the third world. Why is it that Mexico, a country with the thirteenth largest economy in the world, has a population that lives in abject poverty? How have we allowed US corn exports to decimate local Mexican economies? How come NAFTA and WTO trade restrictions have been allowed to cause of the collapse of the coffee industry throughout much of Central America.
The US has power to do both great good and great harm throughout the third world with its economic and foreign policy decisions and we must start to look at the long term ramifications of these policies. Rather than allowing US business interests to dictate trade and economic policy, we need to view these policies in light of their long term effects on both foreign economies and our own.
Let's look at what globalization has done to both the US and Mexican economies. At first under NAFTA US companies outsourced American jobs to Mexico where they could find cheaper labor and less government restriction. Over time these jobs have now been outsourced from Mexico to Asia, where even cheaper labor and less government interference can be found. As long as US economic and trade policy is based solely upon the interests of big business, this continued race to the bottom will continue. Until we begin to address the true causes for the mass migration of people who live in abject poverty in countries that have more than enough resources to provide a reasonable lifestyle for its entire population, we will never get a handle on the "immigration problem"
Raising Standards For All US Workers
Allowing for reasonable rates of immigration and the legalization of all current undocumented immigrants would in fact start a process by which all US workers could begin to reverse the thirty-year decline in working class real wages and benefits. The inclusion of 7.5 million newly legal workers to the workforce would go a long way to stem this tide. This is why the immigrant's rights movements has had the support of the largest unions in the country. The Services Workers, Laborers International and the AFL-CIO have all backed comprehensive immigration reform and the legalization of workers already living in the country. They realize that if they could unionize the current immigrants already in the country and add ½ million or so new members each year from new immigrants, they could possibly regain much of the power they have been lacking for the past thirty years. At the polls, these new working class Americans would have a voice in formulating policies more favorable to working families. Things like universal health care, education, a living wage and an equitable tax code would move to the forefront. This is one reason Bush and his big business buddies are so enthralled with his "guest worker" program. It supplies businesses with workers, while keeping them from unionizing and more importantly eventually voting. The last thing the economic elite want is a growing working class voting block to contend with. They will concede on those already here, but as for future immigrants, they want them to enter as temporary workers, to be shipped back home before they can gain political clout. Contrary to what the right-wing would have Americans believe, immigrants are not the enemy of working men and women, but rather natural allies in the struggle for a better life.
While this is far from a complete analysis, or comprehensive plan to address all the aspect of this complex issue, it does represent a starting point for understanding what a plan for progressive immigration reform entails.
This, I believe, is a reasonable starting point to proceed from.
- Formulate a reasonable, humane, fair and practical method for determining the levels of immigration going forward. Perhaps by an independent policy board free from the pressures of political expediency and business interests.
- Providing a path to legalization for all current undocumented immigrants living and working in the US.
- Secure the border by first insuring that the vast majority of immigrants are able to legally enter the country through a legal port of entry. Once the massive flow of immigration through illegal channels is curtailed, then work to physically secure the remainder of the border.
- Address the root causes of immigration, and change US policy so that it doesn't foster and produce conditions that force millions of people each year to leave their countries of origin in order to simply survive. Tie all future trade, military, and foreign aid agreements to not only to worker protections both here and abroad, but also to their ability to foster economic progress for the working class and poor in sender nations.
- *Opposition to a "guest worker" program on the grounds that it provides no benefit to the American people or the immigrants themselves. It only provides big business with a disposable work force that holds down real wages and prevents immigrants from becoming a viable force in the workplace or full fledge members of society.
- Foster an immigration policy that strengthens the middle and working class through unionization and participation in the electoral process.
- Recognize that immigration is a vital part of maintaining a healthy and vibrant America. It is what has set this nation apart from all others since its inspection. To close our borders to new immigrants is to cut off the lifeblood that has always made this nation grow and prosper.
1 "From 1850 to 1930, the foreign-born population of the United States increased from 2.2 million to 14.2 million, reflecting large-scale immigration from Europe during most of this period.1 As a percentage of total population, the foreign-born population rose from 9.7 percent in 1850 and fluctuated in the 13 percent to 15 percent range from 1860 to 1920 before dropping to 11.6 percent in 1930. The highest percentages foreign born were 14.4 percent in 1870, 14.8 percent in 1890 and 14.7 percent in 1910."US Census Bureau; "Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-1990"; http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0029/twps0029.html.
2 "The Census Bureau estimated that the number of foreign-born people living in the United States topped 33 million and accounted for nearly 12 percent of the population in 2003--its highest share since 1930…. The foreign-born population, as defined by the Census Bureau, refers to all residents of the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth, regardless of their current legal or citizenship status." Congressional Budget Office; "A Description of the Immigrant Population", November 2004; http://www.cbo.gov/showdoc.cfm?index=6019&sequence=0
3 "In 2005, 12.5 percent of wage and salary workers were union members, un-changed from 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The union membership rate has declined from a high of 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available." US Dept of Labor News, January 20, 2006; http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm
4 "The U.S. Department of Commerce today reported that the international deficit in goods and services trade reached a record level of $726 billion in 2005, an 18% increase over 2004. The U.S. merchandise deficit alone, which excludes services, was $782 billion, also an 18% increase."Economic Policy Institute, February 10, 2006, "Rapid growth in oil prices, Chinese imports pump up trade deficit to new record" http://www.epinet.org/content.cfm/webfeatures_econindicators_tradepict20060210
5 National debt as of June 21,2006: $8,309,177,355,316.66. National Debt Clock; http://www.brillig.com/debt_clock
6 "The growth of the trade deficit with China, which reached $202 billion in 2005, was responsible for the entire increase in the United States’ non-oil trade deficit. The trade deficit in manufactured products (net of refined petroleum) increased $46 billion, to $655 billion (an 8% increase)." Economic Policy Institute, February 10, 2006, "Rapid growth in oil prices, Chinese imports pump up trade deficit to new record"; http://www.epinet.org/content.cfm/webfeatures_econindicators_tradepict20060210
7 Major foreign holders of US treasury securities as of April 2006; Japan – $639.2 B, China -$323.3 B, UK-$166.8 B. US Dept. of Treasury/ Federal Reserve; http://www.treas.gov/tic/mfh.txt
8 "Mexican farmers say hefty agricultural subsidies in the United States give American white corn and beans an unfair advantage over the Mexican market, which depends in large part on small-scale and mostly subsistence farmers… Mexico's agriculture minister pleaded with Canada and the United States this month to reconsider the removal of the corn and bean tariffs, but U.S. Undersecretary for Agriculture J.B. Penn flatly rejected the appeal." ABC News, "Mexico Hopeful Takes Hard Line Vs. NAFTA", June 21, 2006; http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=2089345
About The Author
Duke is a regular contributor to the blog Migra Matters. Migra Matters is a nonpartisan, educational effort dedicated to making information, news, and opinion about US immigration policy and immigration reform available to concerned citizens. It is dedicated to the enactment of progressive reform that is practical, rational, fair and humane, and it is affiliated with no political party or organization, but supports those who work towards this common goal.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.
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