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The Politics Of Immigration: An Excerpt

by Jane Guskin and David L. Wilson

Editor's note: The following are select questions and answers from the book, "Politics of Immigration".

Do immigrants take our jobs? (p. 67)

This is one of the few immigration questions that most economists can agree on. In 1994 the conservative Alexis de Tocqueville Institution concluded that the "evidence suggests that immigrants create at least as many jobs as they take, and that their presence should not be feared by U.S. workers." Twelve years later the liberal Pew Hispanic Center came to a similar conclusion based on a study of employment trends in the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Immigrants take jobs, but they also buy goods and services, creating more jobs. In fact, immigrants probably generate more jobs than many older residents: immigrants are younger and more likely to have children at home, so they spend much more of their income on goods like clothes and food, which involve labor-intensive production. Older and richer people are much more likely to put their money into luxuries and speculative investments, which generate relatively few jobs.

Do remittances drain the economy? (p. 67)

Immigrants in the United States tend to send large amounts of the money they make to relatives back home. Latin American immigrants sent an estimated $28 billion home in these remittances in 2002. Mexico received $9.92 billion, mostly from the United States, in 2001; the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Colombia each got between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. These payments are a huge part of the economies of poorer countries-remittances made up 24.2 percent of Haiti's gross domestic product (GDP) in 2001, for example.

Big as they are, these payments aren't big enough to have a major impact on the total U.S. economy, and most go to countries like Mexico which are tightly linked to the United States economically-so that a lot of the money comes back in purchases of U.S. goods and services.

U.S. politicians and corporations generally don't complain about the remittances. In 2002, immigrants paid about $4 billion in fees for sending remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean; most of this went to U.S. banks or to U.S. corporations like Western Union. Washington, for its part, uses the remittances as a hidden form of foreign aid for friendly governments-letting Central American immigrants, for example, stay in the United States to help bolster pro-U.S. governments in the region with the dollars they send home.

Who benefits from low wages for immigrants? (p. 70)

A new wave of immigration has coincided with a stagnation of real wages for most U.S. workers. After rising 81 percent from 1947 to 1973, real wages fell 3 percent from 1973 to 1980 and have barely moved upward since then. This was despite dramatic increases in worker productivity-16.6 percent from 2000 to 2005, for example. At the same time, the country's richest 1 percent were benefiting from equally dramatic increases in their real income-by 135 percent between 1980 and 2004.

There are a number of factors behind the wage stagnation, including Congress's failure to raise the minimum wage after 1996, and government policies that reduce the ability of unions to organize. But certainly a large part of the explanation is the major shift in the U.S. economy that has resulted in many jobs going to low-paid, vulnerable workers: undocumented immigrants, people thrown out of the welfare system by the 1996 welfare law, and the several million workers employed in assembly plants in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean producing goods for U.S. firms to sell in the United States.

All of these workers are being forced into what labor organizers call "the race to the bottom"-they must accept wretched wages and working conditions, or they will lose their jobs to other workers who are willing to accept even less. And as wages stagnate or decline, the wealthiest individuals and corporations profit.

Are "guest worker" programs a solution? (p. 109)

The debate over immigration "reform" in the United States has included a lot of talk about expanding temporary worker or "guest worker" programs. These programs allow people to come here for temporary or seasonal jobs, and require them to go home when the job is done.

Temporary worker programs do nothing to resolve the status of millions of immigrants who have already established their lives here and want to stay. Such programs also create a sub-class of workers who are effectively unable to defend their rights. Some critics compare these programs to a modern form of slavery, because workers are generally not allowed to change jobs, and have no real way to fight back when they are cheated out of promised wages and faced with substandard living and working conditions.

Cecilio Santillana, a 78-year-old former "guest worker" from Mexico who picked beets, cherries, and cotton, and shoveled manure on farms across the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, told the San Francisco Chronicle why he opposed a temporary worker proposal that was included in an immigration bill the Senate passed in May 2006. "I'm against it, because they may do to the new workers what they did to us," he said. "We suffered a lot."

Employers often claim that temporary worker programs are needed because a shortage of workers is hurting certain industries, especially farming. Labor rights activists disagree. "There are plenty of people who will do the job if you pay them enough," said José Oliva, director of the National Network of Workers Centers for the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. "The pretension that there aren't enough workers here and you have to go and import them is just a way of expanding this slave labor program rather than paying decent wages."

Some employers object to the rules and bureaucracy that come with temporary worker programs. Among other requirements, they must prove they can't find enough citizens or legal residents to fill the available jobs. Sometimes the workers themselves resist the restrictions imposed on them by these programs; they may try to escape and seek unauthorized employment with better pay and conditions.

Stricter enforcement is often used as a tool to weaken resistance to the temporary worker programs. Migrants are forced to choose between the substandard conditions of the temporary worker programs and the risks of working in the United States without legal status, under constant threat of arrest and deportation. Increased workplace enforcement also encourages employers to support temporary worker programs, as a way to avoid the raids while maintaining a captive labor pool they can easily control.

What if we deport all the "illegal" immigrants? (p. 95)

The estimated twelve million out-of-status immigrants living in the United States are an integral part of our country. They are our family members, friends, partners, co-workers, classmates, and neighbors. Efforts to deport them all would rip apart the fabric of our society.

Mass deportations would also be expensive. In 1986, when Congress decided to extend amnesty, or limited legalization, to undocumented immigrants, one of the main reasons Congress members gave was the difficulty of deporting the unauthorized population, then less than half as large as in 2006. Representative Peter Rodino, a New Jersey Democrat, said he supported amnesty because, "In my judgment, we cannot deport these people. We would not, I am sure, provide the money to conduct the raids. It would mean billions of dollars in order to try to deport them…." Opinion polls show the U.S. public deeply split on the question of immigration, so we can guess that at least half the population probably wouldn't support efforts to deport twelve million immigrants, and a good number might actively oppose such a drastic move. That resistance would certainly grow at the sight of federal agents trampling roughshod over families and communities. It's one thing to have a discussion about the pros and cons of immigration, but political views aside, most people don't want to see their friends and neighbors led off in shackles just because of their immigration status.

On September 1, 2006, federal agents began rounding up out-of-status immigrants in Stillmore, Georgia. The community of 1,000 people lost some 120 residents-more than 10 percent of its population-in the raids, and hundreds more fled, turning Stillmore into a ghost town. David Robinson, who operates a trailer park in town, watched helplessly as the agents handcuffed residents and hauled them away. To protest, he bought a U.S. flag and posted it upside down in front of the trailer park. "These people might not have American rights, but they've damn sure got human rights," Robinson said. "There ain't no reason to treat them like animals."

About The Author

Jane Guskin and David L. Wilson are the co-editors of Weekly News Update on the Americas, an English-language bulletin covering grassroots news from Latin America. Guskin also edits Immigration News Briefs. Guskin produced a widely circulated immigrant rights flier entitled "What's So Wrong About Immigration?" Her essay "The Case for Open Borders" was published in Melting Point or Boiling Point? The Issues of Immigration. Wilson's articles on Latin American issues have appeared in publications including Monthly Review, Extra!, and New York's El Diario-La Prensa. Interested readers who wish to purchase the book can learn more at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.