The Financial Crisis Hits the Immigration Debate

Part of the right wing routinely blames undocumented immigrants for just about everything.  On September 24, nine days after the financial meltdown started in earnest, the National Review Web site carried an article by columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin blaming “illegals” for the crisis and the subsequent bailout of the banks.  “The Mother of All Bailouts has many fathers,” she wrote.  “But there’s one giant paternal elephant in the room that has slipped notice: how illegal immigration, crime-enabling banks, and open-borders Bush policies fueled the mortgage crisis.”1

Malkin’s pieces often read like parodies of conservative punditry, and there’s something distinctly comical about the idea that a few undocumented homeowners caused a multi-trillion dollar financial crisis.  Less than a month after Malkin’s article was posted, the Wall Street Journal showed that in fact mortgages bought by out-of-status immigrants have performed rather well.2  But the Malkin diatribe is a useful indication of how the immigration debate is likely to change over the next months.

Until this September, informed opinion was that whichever party won the November elections, Congress and the new president would move in 2009 to revive the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” (CIR) package that was voted down in the summer of 2007.  CIR (which started as the “McCain-Kennedy Bill” in 2005) would combine stepped-up enforcement, a limited program for legalization, and a greatly expanded guest worker program like the notorious “bracero” operation of 1942-1964.

It is no longer clear whether Congress will proceed with CIR; the politicians may put immigration on the back burner as they try to deal with more pressing economic issues.  The crisis has taken much of the urgency away from “immigration reform.”  Undocumented immigration had already begun to decline as the U.S. economy slowed in 2007,3 and the employer associations that pushed CIR for the sake of the guest worker provision may be losing interest: there will be less desire to import easily exploited workers from abroad as the crisis creates a pool of jobless workers here at home.

What is clear is that immigrants will continue to serve as convenient scapegoats for the economic disaster.  Analyst Tom Barry of the Americas Policy Program’s TransBorder Project reports that immigration restrictionists are planning to “retain their dominance in the immigration debate” by “reframing the immigration issue as a threat to ever-scarcer jobs in the context of the national economic crisis.”4

Return of the “Welfare Queen”?

Barry suggests that the right may be “wildly overreach[ing]” in this effort to shift the blame to immigrants, but we shouldn’t forget how successfully Ronald Reagan and others implicated the mythical “welfare queen” in the recurring economic crises of the 1970s and early 1980s.  Never mind that welfare was a minuscule part of local and federal budgets — and that the great majority of welfare recipients were white — much of the country came to believe that the source of all economic problems was a fictitious Cadillac-driving African-American woman who drained services and raised taxes with the payments she received for her ten illegitimate children.

Even before the present crisis, anti-immigrant forces had had similar success with racist and xenophobic myths about immigrants getting welfare checks, bearing “anchor babies,” and straining medical and education services, even though these were all long since exposed as fictions.  Unfortunately, there’s an easy way to measure the success of the right-wing propaganda: the 40 percent rise of hate crimes against Latinos since 2003 as the anti-immigrant drive stepped up (Latinos are often perceived as immigrants even if they are native-born).5

But can the right pull it off again?  It may be harder to shift the blame this time around.  After all, contrary to Malkin, the “giant paternal elephant in the room” isn’t immigration — it’s the neoliberal economic policies that have dominated for the past thirty years.

Since the end of the Carter administration, working people in this country have been promised economic well-being from the “free market,” from Reagan’s tax reforms, from the Bush-Clinton “free trade” pacts and “globalization,” from the “end of welfare as we know it,” from the dot-com bubble, and from the housing bubble.  What they’ve actually gotten is stagnating wages, a sinking standard of living, a failing environment, and an infrastructure literally collapsing around them.  Now, facing layoffs and foreclosures, wage earners have to watch as their taxes provide massive handouts to bank presidents and corporate CEOs, the real welfare queens.

People are not just angry; they are specifically angry at the plutocrats who brought them this disaster.  And they’re open to new ideas and ways of thinking: the November elections may have been less important for any changes they could bring to Washington than for what they show about changes in the consciousness of the U.S. public.

Facing Economic Realities

The immigration debate brings together many of the economic issues that need to be discussed at this point: the effects of “free trade” policies, the government’s anti-labor measures, the fomenting of divisions among working people.

The majority of undocumented immigrants come here to flee the results of neoliberal policies in Latin America and the Caribbean — policies that were pushed by the same Wall Street wizards that brought us the collapse at home.6  Once here, the immigrants are forced into low-wage, high-risk jobs through repressive anti-labor measures disguised as immigration enforcement (massive workplace raids are the extreme example).  This repression keeps the undocumented immigrants’ wages down and thus creates downward pressure on the wages of native-born workers as well.

The obvious solution for the native-born is to organize alongside their immigrant coworkers to raise wages, improve labor conditions, and demand jobs for all, but politicians and the media stir up racism and fear of “the other” to prevent or at least slow class-based organizing.  And it’s clear which side these anti-immigrant forces are really on, despite their populist rhetoric.  Their lead media spokesperson is Lou Dobbs, former host of the pro-business “Moneyline” TV show.  One of their main voices in Congress is Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who, as labor journalist David Bacon points out, promotes xenophobia in Washington while his family’s Grupo México business associates help cause migration from Mexico, and Kimberly-Clark, the Sensenbrenner family paper business, profits from low-wage immigrant workers in U.S. forests.7

In the 1930s many working people allowed themselves to be divided along ethnic and racial lines, but many others overcame those divisions to organize the protests, boycotts, and strikes that led to the labor protections and social services we have today.  In the current crisis, a lot will depend on how quickly and aggressively activists challenge the right wing on immigration by organizing around the real economic issues.


1  Michelle Malkin, “Illegal Loans: A Criminal Business,” National Review Online, September 24, 2008

2  Miriam Jordan, “Mortgage Prospects Dim for Illegal Immigrants,” Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2008.

3  Walter A. Ewing, “Immigration Fairytales,” New America Media, August 4, 2008.

4  Tom Barry, “Both Sides of Immigration Debate Retrench,” Americas Updater, November 14, 2008.

5  “Anti-Latino Hate Crimes Rise for Fourth Year in a Row,” Hatewatch/Southern Poverty Law Center, October 29, 2008,

6  Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, “Wall Street and Immigration: Financial Services Giants Have Profited from the Beginning,” Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP), December 4, 2007.

7  David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, September 2008, 64-67.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007).