A New Deal for Immigrants in 2010?

Congress is almost certain to consider some sort of reform to the immigration system in 2010; when it does, we can expect a repeat of the “tea bag” resistance we saw at last summer’s town halls on healthcare reform.  The healthcare precedent “bodes badly” for immigration, Marc R. Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at the DC-based Migration Policy Institute, told a forum at Columbia University in New York City the evening of December 1.

Unfortunately, the discussion that night indicated that progressives are planning to follow the same scenario we followed in the struggle for healthcare: we propose legislation that falls short of what we need, the right wing then whittles it down, and in the end we are told we have to be responsible and accept half a loaf — or a good deal less than half.

What makes it worse is that, if we follow this plan, we will probably lose a unique opportunity to have a lasting effect on the way people think about immigration in this country.

The “Three-Legged Stool”

Most proposals for “comprehensive immigration reform,” or  “CIR,” conform to the “three-legged stool” concept that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano outlined in a speech on November 13.1  Each “leg” is meant to appeal to a different constituency:

  • for the country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants, CIR offers a limited legalization program;
  • to satisfy the immigration restrictionists, the package expands the enforcement of immigration laws;
  • to keep the corporations happy, the legislation includes a mechanism for bringing in foreign workers.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced one version of this on December 15.2  His bill, CIR-ASAP, sets up an “earned legalization” process for out-of-status immigrants and eliminates some of the worst abuses of the current system — the lack of proper medical attention for immigration detainees, for example, and the 287(g) program that brought local sheriff’s offices into immigration enforcement.  At the same time, it expands more “humane” enforcement methods, like the E-Verify program, which requires employers to use a government database to check every job applicant’s immigration status.

For the corporations, the bill sets up an independent bipartisan “Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets” to determine when and how much to increase the flow of foreign workers for different industries.  This proposal, which is backed by the Migration Policy Institute and the AFL-CIO, includes labor rights protections that would cut down many of the abuses in the present H1 and H2 guest worker programs.3

The Gutierrez bill has a number of attractive features.  Its big flaw is that it’s not going to pass.

A bill along these lines is never going to placate the restrictionists and the employer associations.  The restrictionists won’t be satisfied because an expanded E-Verify program won’t stop people from coming here to look for work; it will just drive more of them to work off the books or with shady subcontractors.4  And the corporations won’t be satisfied because they don’t want labor commissions — they want a guest worker program, preferably with as few labor protections as possible.

“If the unions think they’re going to push a bill through without the support of the business community, they’re crazy,” Randel Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of labor, told the New York Times last April.  “As part of the trade-off for legalization, we need to expand the temporary worker program.”5

Welcoming the Debate

The restrictionists and corporations will of course follow the healthcare scenario once the CIR debate gets under way, mobilizing their right-wing bases and pouring tens of millions of dollars into lobbying.  The results are predictable: an immigration bill with more enforcement and a larger guest worker program.  The only question is whether legalization will go the way of the public option.

That is, if we stick to the script.  But we don’t have to.

Instead of acting out a rerun of the healthcare compromise, devoting resources to lobbying and focusing on arcane points of parliamentary procedure, the grassroots movement for immigrants’ rights needs to take the issue out to the population at large.  This after all will be one of the rare occasions when people are actively thinking about immigration; and the economic crisis means they will be more open than usual to new and radical ideas.

But we’ll need to state our position clearly and forcefully, without apologies and equivocations, and we’ll have to take the discussion directly to the union hall, the community center, and the classroom, bypassing the controlled “debate” in the corporate media.  Above all we’ll need to come right out and say what many immigrant rights advocates have been strangely reluctant to say in the past: immigration reform isn’t just good for immigrants — it’s good for everyone who has to work for a living.

It’s not as if the arguments from the right are so hard to defeat.  We know what the anti-immigrant groups will say: the 1986 amnesty encouraged more immigration; legalization now will mean millions of new workers competing for jobs at a time of double-digit unemployment.  But we’ll have no problem answering this, since it’s simply not true: there’s no evidence that undocumented immigration increased because of the 1986 amnesty.6  The fact that right-wingers have gotten away with saying this for two decades just shows their ignorance and dishonesty — and our own unwillingness to confront them.

The reality is that, by ensuring labor rights for immigrant workers, legalization will help “end the race to the bottom” and create an upward pressure on wages.  “If you want to fix the economy, part of the way to fix it is legalization,” Frank Sharry, president of the pro-reform America’s Voice, said at the December 1 forum.  “I welcome the debate.”

Confronting Enforcement

It’s encouraging that many liberals are finally starting to make this argument around wages, and we should push them to keep up the good work.  But they’re not “welcoming the debate” when it comes to enforcement.  As Marc Rosenblum noted in an email, “even most progressive lawmakers are pretty heavily invested in the sanctions approach.”7

We don’t need to follow them on this.  Nothing stops people at the grassroots from pointing out that the tens of billions of dollars spent on enforcement over the past 25 years have done next to nothing to slow the flow of undocumented immigrants; their real accomplishment has been driving down wages and sabotaging union organizing.

A 1999 study by Columbia University economist Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz indicates that the “employer sanctions” instituted in 1986 — as part of a “trade-off for legalization” — almost immediately forced wages down for undocumented workers.8  And last October the AFL-CIO and other groups put out a report showing how the effect of enforcement at the workplace has been “chilling the assertion and exercise of workplace rights, a result that hurts all workers, regardless of immigration status.”9

We need to make these arguments, and we also need to say that there’s no real way to slow down immigration without addressing its root causes, the political and economic situation in the countries to our south — and that to a large extent this situation is the product of economic policies like NAFTA that are promoted by the U.S. elite.10

If people who claim to be concerned about the pace of migration are really serious about addressing the issue, they can join with us in supporting struggles against “free trade” agreements in South America, or in solidarity with the 42,000 laid-off electrical workers in Mexico City, or the Honduran unions fighting last June’s coup d’état.11  They can back the movement for the “right not to migrate,” Mexicans organizing for “development that makes migration a choice rather than a necessity,” in the words of University of California Los Angeles professor Gaspar Rivera Salgado.12  And they can support the efforts of leftist governments in Bolivia and Ecuador to use economic incentives to get migrants to come home.13

The Trail of DreamsCan immigrants win a New Deal in 2010?  That will depend on a lot of things.  One will be the impact of mobilizations by immigrants and their allies — not just the large protests but also small dramatic actions like the “Trail of Dreams,” a 1,500-mile walk a group of Florida students are starting on January 1.  But another factor will be how vocal and effective we are in presenting the issues behind the mobilizations.  If we do the job right, we’ll at least be able to weaken the influence of the anti-immigrant “tea parties,” and we’ll start to change the terms of the debate.  Under the right circumstances, we might even build enough pressure on Congress to get a real immigration reform.14


1  Julia Preston Napolitano, “White House Plan on Immigration Includes Legal Status,” New York Times, November 13, 2009.

2  Randal C. Archibald, “New Immigration Bill Is Introduced in House,” New York Times, December 15, 2009.  A summary of the bill is at <www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/comprehensive-immigration-reform-americas-security-and-prosperity-cir-asap-summary>.

3  Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Doris Meissner, Marc R. Rosenblum, Madeleine Sumption, “Harnessing the Advantages of Immigration for a 21st-Century Economy: A Standing Commission on Labor Markets, Economic Competitiveness, and Immigration,” MPI, May 2009; James Parks, “Immigration Reform Bill Protects All Workers,” AFL-CIO blog, December 15, 2009.

4  Michelle Chen, “Troubled ‘E-Verify’ Program Highlights Dysfunctional Immigration System,” In These Times, September 14, 2009.

5  Julia Preston and Steven Greenhouse, “Immigration Accord by Labor Boosts Obama Effort,” New York Times, April 13, 2009.

6  David L. Wilson, “The Truth about Amnesty for Immigrants,” MRZine, August 8, 2009.

7  Email from Marc R. Rosenblum, December 7, 2009.

8  Cited in Wilson, “The Truth about Amnesty for Immigrants.”

9  Rebecca Smith, Ana Avendaño, Julie Martínez Ortega, “ICED OUT: How Immigration Enforcement Has Interfered with Workers’ Rights,” AFL-CIO, American Rights at Work Education Fund, National Employment Law Project, October 2009; James Parks, “Report: Unbalanced Immigration Enforcement Hurts All Workers’ Rights,” AFL-CIO Blog, October 27, 2009; Amy Traub, “Getting Tough on Exploitation,” The Nation, November 17, 2009.

10  “NAFTA Boosted Mexican Immigration: Study,” World War 4 Report, January 24, 2009; Eduardo Zepeda, Timothy A. Wise, and Kevin P. Gallagher, “Rethinking Trade Policy for Development: Lessons From Mexico Under NAFTA,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 2009.

12  David L. Wilson, “Mexican Layoffs, U.S. Immigration: The Missing Link,” MRZine, November 22, 2009.

13  David Bacon, “The Right to Stay Home — Derecho de no Migrar,” New America Media, July 8, 2008.

14  “Bolivia: Government Wants Immigrants Back,” Weekly News Update on the Americas #1018, December 27, 2009; “Correa pide a emigrantes regresar,” El Universo (Guayaquil, Ecuador), March 24, 2009.

15  See also Jane Guskin and David L. Wilson, “A Grassroots Vision for U.S. Immigration Policy — and Beyond,” NACLA Report on the Americas, volume 42, issue 1, January-February 2009.

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

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