The terms of the immigration debate, as we’ve explored, have been largely set by two competing factions of the right: the eliminationism-prone nativist bloc, and the status-quo-oriented corporate conservatives, with the former’s ugly xenophobia taking most of the center stage, especially in the mainstream media.
Liberals, as a result, have largely been relegated to the sidelines so far. But more than any other faction in American politics, they stand the most to gain by seizing the issue of immigration reform and making it their own. Responding to the nonsense spewed by conservatives on immigration is a helpful start, because in debunking their popular delusions with facts, we can also discern the direction reforms need to take. But it’s only a start.
A liberal approach to immigration reform, in fact, could also have powerful short- and long-term economic and electoral effects that will benefit not just liberals but the country as a whole. But more importantly, it offers not only the best and wisest solutions to some of the thorny issues surrounding the debate, but it positively advances the core values of liberalism in its finest historical tradition.
It’s tempting when discussing any kind of political program to focus on policies and the law, but it’s more important, I think, to assess the values and principles that must inform those policies. So it might help, perhaps, to reflect briefly on what the values of liberalism actually are. I think Princeton Sociologist Paul Starr put it about as well as anyone when he wrote:
Liberalism wagers that a state… can be strong but constrained – strong because constrained… Rights to education and other requirements for human development and security aim to advance equal opportunity and personal dignity and to promote a creative and productive society. To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported a wider social and economic role for the state, counterbalanced by more robust guarantees of civil liberties and a wider social system of checks and balances anchored in an independent press and pluralistic society.
Applying these principles to the immigration debate, the shape of a liberal program for comprehensive immigration reform emerges:
— It would embrace the fundamental dignity of immigrants, as well as the respect due their contributions to the country, both economically and culturally.
As we saw in examining the nativist right’s popular delusions about immigration, not only do immigrants play a critical role in providing a supply of unskilled labor to the economy, they are an essential component in keeping America economically competitive — both now and for the foreseeable future.
Amid the blizzard of data concerning immigrants’ effects on wages, welfare and municipal budgets, the essential point is this: The latest wave of immigrants — legal and illegal, skilled and unskilled — has stimulated enormous economic activity and wealth generation in this country, and it is implausible that the American economy would fare as well without them.
Moreover, the nation’s future competitiveness hinges on immigration. The Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform is one of the progressive organizations that’s leading the fight from the liberal side of the aisle, and their position paper on the economy lays out the case clearly:
Comprehensive immigration reform is essential to maintaining and building a strong, healthy U.S. economy. Every facet of our economy today relies on the hard work and productivity of the immigrant workforce. And even with millions of immigrant workers, the US economy is strong and employment is high and unemployment remains low.
Our current immigration laws and quotas are out of date, unworkable, and limit growth to the economy. Comprehensive immigration reform is needed to strengthen the economy, keep American businesses competitive with their foreign rivals, and protect American workers. We need real reform, and real solutions, for a strong economy.
— It would be not just about "family values," but about improving and enhancing the well-being of every American family, regardless of status.
I wrote about this in some detail previously:
Many right-wing critics of American immigration policy are fond of saying that current policies would work just fine if the government would "just enforce the laws that are on the books."
It seems never to occur to them that the main reason the government doesn’t do so, at least not on a massive scale, is simply that the laws as written are largely unenforceable — or perhaps more to the point, that enforcing them actually creates larger problems, to the point of atrocities, than those they were intended to address.
The chief problem with immigration law in America is the misbegotten nature of the laws themselves. Much of this has to do with their nakedly racist origins, the legacy of which has never been erased.
This could not be any clearer than the effect of immigration laws on families. Sadly, the story of Tony, Janina, and Brian — one in which we can watch a family being ripped apart — is replicated every day in America. Those laws, seemingly designed to actually discourage immigration rather than deal with it both thoughtfully and helpfully, have for many years now had a devastating effect on immigrant families.
As I noted then, this effect has hit home the hardest in the recent "immigration crackdowns" that have produced a significant number of raids on employers of undocumented immigrants in the past year by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials:
What’s happened, of course, is that many of these undocumented workers have spouses and children who are either citizens or legal immigrants. In rounding up massive numbers of these immigrants, and ostensibly concerned about keeping families together, ICE has been sweeping up entire families and placing them in euphemistically titled "family detention centers" that are really nothing less than modern concentration camps. And in doing so, they effects of the incarceration on families has been predictably awful:
The report lauded the goal of keeping families together but urged DHS to close the Hutto facility, saying that "prison-like institutions" are not appropriate for families. "Family detention is not one that has any precedent in the United States, therefore no appropriate licensing requirements exist," the report said.
… The report recommended that ICE parole asylum-seekers while they await the outcome of their hearings. It also said that immigrant families not eligible for parole should be released to special shelters or other homelike settings run by nonprofit groups and be required to participate in electronic monitoring or an intensive supervision program that would use a combination of electronic ankle bracelets, home visits and telephone reporting.
The 72-page report also criticized the educational services for children; the food service and rushed feeding times for children; the health care, especially for vulnerable children and pregnant women; the therapeutic mental health care as insufficient or culturally inappropriate; and the recreation time as inadequate for children. The review said that families were being held for months in Hutto and for years in the case of the longer-established Berks facility.
The report also cited inappropriate disciplinary practices used against adults and children, including threats of separation, verbal abuse and withholding recreation or using temperature control, particularly extremely cold conditions, as punishment.
… What’s clear is that these effects are the clear result of anti-immigrant agitation that has placed increasing pressure on the Bush administration to act. And when they have acted, the results have been predictably atrocious, especially for families:
Arrests of undocumented immigrants have grown 750 percent between 2002 and 2006, going from 485 arrests to 3,667. That dramatic increase in scale and frequency has produced far more visible humanitarian consequences than ever before, an immigrants’ advocate said .
"This is the hidden underbelly of immigration enforcement," said Christopher Nugent, a Washington-based immigration attorney. "This is nothing new. It happens all the time."
Nugent and others said families are separated and children left with friends or relatives every day in the course of normal ICE immigration detentions. But the welfare of children affected by immigration raids has become a bigger issue in recent months as the scope of the immigration raids has expanded.
… "America is going to see more and more of this," said John Keller, a Minneapolis immigration attorney who represented some of the 239 Swift & Co. workers detained in Worthington. The raids are "a very blunt tool that is being applied to family situations."
Children can be separated from detained parents for months, while parents await bond hearings, or deportation. Parents who leave the United States face the choice of taking US citizen children with them, or being separated from them permanently in the hope of giving those children better opportunities here. Social service workers in other cities where raids took place told of scrambling to try to get passports for the US citizen children whose parents chose to take them back to the countries they left.
ICE is not obligated to provide for the children of undocumented workers they arrest, or to go easier on those with children, said Victor Cerda, a former ICE general counsel and a 10-year veteran of immigration enforcement.
— It would work to make immigration law reflect basic American democratic values: fair play, equality of opportunity, and most of all, fundamental human decency: the mutual respect for our individual rights and freedoms and responsibilities as well as the value of community action in bettering life for every citizen.
I wrote about this a little while back over at Rick Perlstein’s place, noting that "the xenophobia favored by conservatives — which so far has dominated the national discourse on the issue" in fact "has prevented us from having a rational discussion of the real core values of what it means to be American as an essential component of immigration."
When liberals talk about “assimilation” as an essential component of immigration, they shouldn’t focus on superficial things like culture and language (by urging, for instance, English-only measures or other superficial steps) — rather it is our shared values as Americans that we should be talking about. It isn’t about white "culture" (read: privilege) or maintaining the status quo, it’s about absorbing the values that bind us as a nation — values well beyond race and ethnicity.
As I noted then:
I’m probably not the person to say authoritatively what those values are, but we should be talking about them. As starting points, we can probably all agree that individual freedom, a respect for the rights and freedoms of others, and a respect for the democratic process are good mutual starting points; progressives, centrists and even conservatives might agree further that equality of opportunity, tolerance of opposing views, and an unshakable opposition to scapegoating, violence, thuggery, and threats are also some of our core values. Perhaps others would like to chime in — the point being that we need to have this discussion.
Moreover, the fact that so many of the new immigrants are coming in through the back door — instead of being handled legal through a rational legal system — has eroded our ability to ensure the transmission and absorption of core American values, which is yet another reason to find a way to return immigration to the effective rule of law. I believe that this degradation of the “assimilation” process is fuel not only for the resentment of legal immigrants, but of the larger populace as well.
— It would insist on asserting the right of immigrants to work without being subjected to the panoply of abuses by corporate and business interests who profit from the status quo — particularly the right to decent wages and working conditions, as well as the ability to organize both as workers and as political blocs.
As the CCIF puts it:
Comprehensive immigration reform is needed to take the unregulated, illegal, and disorderly flow of unscreened and unauthorized workers and replace it with a legal, orderly, limited flow of vetted and authorized workers. When a small number of corrupt employers are able to flaunt the system, it creates a race to the bottom that hurts wages and working conditions for all blue collar and low-wage workers, native-born and immigrant alike. To avoid the exploitation and abuses of flawed guest workers programs, the nation needs a “break-the-mold” worker visa program that adequately protects the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers.
One of my commenters, a fellow named Cascadian, discussed this recently:
The problem is the pursuit of cheap labor at the expense of worker’s rights. Undocumented workers are a great wedge for employers to use because they are cheap, can be threatened with deportation or worse because of their undocumented status, and hiring or even threatening to hire them drags down wages for Americans who can least afford to make less money.
The solution is to remove the power of this wedge. … Getting this done means shifting the narrative on this issue from one that blames workers to one that empowers workers, whether citizens or immigrants, against the unsavory practices of businesses.
Cascadian, incidentally, proposes a system of worker visas that sounds like it may indeed "break the mold":
Require employers, even people hiring nannies or people to work on their yards, to pay a livable minimum wage and all relevant taxes to all employees, regardless of whether they are citizens (say, $10-$12 an hour). Give 90-day travel visas to any Mexican citizen that does not have a criminal record or documented associations with terrorist groups. Create a new kind of employment visa that is not tied to a particular job but allows residency with proof of employment, and that reverts to a travel visa at the time of unemployment. Businesses that hire people under this visa program report hiring and firing to immigration so that these people are in the system and the visa status can be updated. Most importantly, fund an audit of businesses tied to fines for violations. If someone is hired without granting a work visa, it’s the *employer’s* fault, and they’re on the hook for six months wages PAID TO THE EMPLOYEE. If it’s found that some employees, citizen or not, are not being paid the legal minimum, then again, fine a minimum six months wages paid TO THE EMPLOYEE.
This system would mean that employers would have no leverage over immigrant workers by threatening deportation. It would transform every immigrant worker into someone with an incentive to whistleblow if they’re not being paid a fair wage. It raises wages to a level that avoids poverty for everyone and means that there are no jobs in the US that "citizens won’t do." That means there are no advantages to hiring immigrants, and several disadvantages (such as the language issue.) The only immigrants who would be hired would be those who honestly could do more work better for the same amount of money.
It makes every immigrant legal, but creates a situation where truly seasonal workers could work and return home, and then come back the next year, without being punished or exploited. They also can lose a job, and look for a new one without violating their visa terms. It also gets everyone documented while still preventing dangerous people from entering the country. It removes the incentives for people to cross the border illegally on both the demand and supply end, and renders the need for additional security measures moot.
As for both citizenship and permanent residency, create a point system that favors English fluency and professional skills but also gives credit to long-time immigrant workers who have been here for years. People who owe fines under the current system would still have to pay them, but that money could be garnished from their future wages, which would be at the prevailing minimum wage and in most cases higher than what people were getting paid anyway. The net effect would be that businesses would be paying fines for their past use of illegal labor. They are the real people violating US law, after all, and not the immigrants who just want to work and would work legally if that were an option.
Ideas like these may turn out to have problematic aspects, but liberals should be taking proposals like these and throwing them into the mix as an alternative to the tepid (and moreover counterproductive) measures that have emerged from Congress and the White House so far.
— It recognizes that the clearest means to achieve real equality of opportunity for immigrants lies in creating an equitable and obtainable path to citizenship for those who come here to work.
This is not the "amnesty" for immigrants that gets the nativists worked up into a froth — though in fact a rational case can be made for outright amnesty as well. As Nathan Thornburgh observes in that Time piece, many critics protest that "amnesty would be unfair to those waiting in line to come legally."
But that’s a false comparison. If people are frustrated, as they should be, by the fact that some eligible immigrants have been waiting for citizenship for as many as 28 years, then by all means, fix that problem. Streamline the process for legal immigration. But don’t blame that red-tape nightmare on the millions of low-wage illegals already here, who form a very different (and vastly more populous) group.
Nonetheless, comprehensive immigration reform must be about reinvigorating fundamental respect for the rule of law (including our borders). That in turn means that creating a clear path to citizenship entails some acknowledgement on the part of undocumented immigrants that they broke civil laws in coming here and will pay a fine accordingly — nothing onerous, but an essential step anyway.
But the larger aspect of this reform lies in making immigration both functional and effective — founded not on irrational fears about racial makeup and cultural decline but on rational criteria, particularly the normal economic demands of the marketplace.
A good example of the way nativist xenophobia undermines rational policy is the debate over issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented workers, which turned into such a debacle for Elliot Spitzer. The reality of the matter is that, as Bruce Schneier observes, nearly every knowledgable law-enforcement and anti-terrorism expert will tell you that issuing such licenses actually enhances our domestic security by giving authorities the tools they need to track potential terror or criminal suspects:
In reality, we are a much more secure nation if we do issue driver’s licenses and/or state IDs to every resident who applies, regardless of immigration status. Issuing them doesn’t make us any less secure, and refusing puts us at risk.
The state driver’s license databases are the only comprehensive databases of U.S. residents. They’re more complete, and contain more information – including photographs and, in some cases, fingerprints – than the IRS database, the Social Security database, or state birth certificate databases. As such, they are an invaluable police tool – for investigating crimes, tracking down suspects, and proving guilt.
Removing the 8 million-15 million illegal immigrants from these databases would only make law enforcement harder. Of course, the unlicensed won’t pack up and leave. They will drive without licenses, increasing insurance premiums for everyone. They will use fake IDs, buy real IDs from crooked DMV employees – as several of the 9/11 terrorists did – forge "breeder documents" to get real IDs (another 9/11 terrorist trick), or resort to identity theft. These millions of people will continue to live and work in this country, invisible to any government database and therefore the police.
— Comprehend the "bigger picture" by directly engaging our the governments of neighboring nations, especially in Mexico and Latin America, in an economic program aimed at eradicating the grotesque differential in wages — as well as basic standards of living — between those nations and the United States.
At some point, as I’ve noted before, in addition to the "pull" effect exerted on immigration in the Americas by economic demand, we’re also going to have to come to terms with the "push" from the southern side of the border. Eventually, we’re going to have to begin behaving more like real neighbors when it comes to our neighbors to the south, instead of treating them like the second-class humans as so many Americans are wont to do. Certain imbedded American attitudes — particularly the notion that poor people are poor because they’re lazy and won’t work hard enough — linger in our economic policies and our cultural prejudices. The result is that we come to think of the pervasive poverty of so many Mexicans’ daily lives as almost "natural" instead of the atrocity it is.
Marcella Sanchez at the Washington Post discussed this some time back:
Whether you believe Mexican immigrants help or hurt the United States, there is one incontrovertible truth: work here pays much, much better. A low-skilled Mexican worker in this country earns five to six times as much as he would back home, assuming he or she could find a comparable job.
This truth is so obvious it seems a cliche and yet it remains mostly absent from the current debate on how to reform U.S. immigration. For all the talk around the country of border enforcement, guest worker programs, employer sanctions and driver’s licensing restrictions, the sad fact is that none of these "solutions” addresses the root of the problem — a persistent and large U.S.-Mexican income disparity.
Even the most comprehensive and progressive immigration reform proposal in years, introduced this month by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is more concerned with making U.S. immigration policy more humane than dealing with income disparity between the United States and Mexico. The bill crafts a guest worker program — creating new visa categories and quotas and a secure identification system for employers — but only provides a vague indication that income disparity might be a problem worth taking on.
There have been some ideas put forth for tackling this disparity. Robert Pastor at Newsweek described one such potential solution, particularly in the wake of the economic disaster that NAFTA has proven to be for Mexican workers:
What they should do is think far more boldly. The only way to solve the most pressing problems in the region — including immigration, security, and declining competitiveness — is to create a true North American Community. No two nations are more important to the United States than Canada and Mexico, and no investment will bolster security and yield greater economic benefits for America than one that narrows the income gap between Mexico and its North American partners.
Bridging that gap was supposed to be one of the many benefits that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would deliver. And indeed, since NAFTA took effect in 1994, trade and investment among the United States, Mexico and Canada have nearly tripled, making North America the world’s largest free-trade area in terms of territory and gross domestic product (GDP). Yet the income gap has widened: the annual per capita GDP of the United States ($43,883) today is more than six times that of Mexico ($6,937).
NAFTA has been inadequate in other ways as well. The agreement made no provisions for cushioning economic downturns like the Mexican peso crisis of 1994-95. It created no credible institutions that operate on a truly regional basis. Thus, after terrorists struck New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration unilaterally tightened security on its international borders while Ottawa and Mexico City reverted to their traditional ambivalence toward Washington.
Illegal immigration has increased and if anything, NAFTA has inadvertently fueled immigration by encouraging foreign investment near the U.S.-Mexican border, which in turn serves as a magnet for workers in central and southern Mexico. As a result, the number of undocumented Mexican workers who live in the United States has skyrocketed in the NAFTA era, from an estimated 1 million in the mid-1990s to about 6 million today. One of every six undocumented immigrants is under 18 years old, and since the mid-1990s the fastest growth of the population has occurred in states like Arizona and North Carolina that had relatively small numbers of foreign-born residents in the past.
Any comprehensive immigration reform will have to radically readjust NAFTA to address its manifest inequities inherent in the system it creates: as long as capital can move freely over borders but labor cannot, workers will be always at a disadvantage. The absolute freedoms now enjoyed by business interests under NAFTA should be reined in, and the ability of workers to change their citizenship should be made less difficult.
Now, because I can’t claim to be a real "expert" on immigration — in the end, I’m simply a journalist/blogger intent on contributing to the discourse — I fully expect that I’ve overlooked some important aspect of the debate here, though I have tried to be as thorough as space permits.
But these posts aren’t intended as an end in themselves, but simply a start: an attempt to get the conversation going among liberals about what they should be doing about immigration and why it is so fundamentally important an issue for them.
I’m certainly not an organizer or a political doer — and I’ll leave it up to those who are to take the appropriate action to realize any liberal immigration-reform program. But obviously, that’s the level where people will take the ideas we develop through the ensuing discourse and make them into reality.
Certainly, doing so will entail building networks among progressive organizations with a direct interest in comprehensive immigration reform, many of whom are already natural allies on other fronts: labor unions, civil-rights groups, Latino and immigrant interest groups, even environmental groups. Those relationships will undoubtedly be complicated and colored by the various interests they represent, but in the end, we can build them soundly on the common ground of our very real shared interests.
And the blogosphere can have a role in this change as well. There is a wealth of blogs out there dealing with immigration and Latino issues on a regular basis, and many of them feature not just important perspectives that need to be part of the conversation, but compelling and powerful writing as well. A sampling: Migra Matters, Latina Lista, Matt Ortega, Immigration Prof Blog, The Silence of our Friends, Citizen Orange, The Unapologetic Mexican … well, the list is long, and this one is certainly incomplete. But you get the idea.
If you don’t make at least a few of these blogs part of your daily reading — and especially if haven’t ever visited them — you should: Not just because their issues and concerns are our issues and concerns, but also because otherwise, you’re missing out on a lot of good writing and reading.
Moreover, it’s from small steps like this that we begin building the necessary networks for our future. And when it comes to immigration, that is the bottom line of the matter.