Sunday, March 26, 2006

Our Immigration Conundrum

Our immigration policy resembles the ineffective war on drugs. For decades we’ve spent billions of dollars on interdiction and law enforcement yet trafficking only increases. Similarly, the federal government continues to increase spending on border patrol and enforcement to no avail. Indeed, in November 2005, the Migration Policy Institute described how spending has increased since the passage of the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986(ICRA):

"Overall spending on enforcement activities has ballooned from pre-IRCA levels, with appropriations growing from $1 billion to $4.9 billion between fiscal years 1985 and 2002 and staffing levels increasing greatly. Resources have been concentrated heavily on border enforcement, particularly the Border Patrol. Spending for detention and removal/intelligence activities multiplied most rapidly over this period, with an increase in appropriations of over 750 percent.”
I think we can all agree we haven’t gotten our money’s worth. In spite of our efforts, 11 million illegal immigrants currently live underneath our radar. Both the human and economic dimensions of this issue are complex. A new immigration policy that combines compassion with rational innovation is in order. Sadly, our political class appears incapable of rising above the passions, fears, and even greed of their respective constituencies.

Corporatist Republicans prefer cheap low skill labor from our southern border. Migrant workers from Mexico and elsewhere toil in menial jobs most Americans don’t want. Their labor allows American CEO’s to either widen their profit margins or offer more competitive pricing.

Another issue for businesses is high skilled labor. Our education system is not producing enough qualified graduates in the technology sector. Consequently, prior to 9/11 businesses were relying on H1-B Visas to recruit 145,000 high skilled employees from overseas per year. In 2004, that number was capped at 40,000. The business community complains that unless they’re permitted to recruit qualified employees from other countries, they will be forced to relocate overseas – further reducing the number of jobs for Americans.

Meanwhile, organized labor is understandably concerned that low skilled migrants are reducing wages for American workers, while high skilled foreigners are filling desirable jobs. This facilitates insecurity and resentment, as Americans believe they’re competing for a shrinking pie.

Parents in states such as Arizona and New Mexico resent the allocation of resources for teaching students of illegal immigrants. Not to mention the various social services they’re eligible for at taxpayer’s expense. Even the most pro-immigration among us must acknowledge the strain during an era of Republican fiscal mismanagement.

There is also the issue of national security in a dangerous world. It’s simply too easy for individuals with hostile intentions to enter our country and use our own freedoms against us. We learned that the hard way on 9/11. How many of those 11 million illegal immigrants are threats to our society, have criminal backgrounds, or coordinate with terrorists? Even a small percentage can have a catastrophic impact.

Culturally, social conservatives feel besieged by change. Signs in hospitals and schools in both English and Spanish alarm them. They resent multilingual education in schools and claim that America’s national character is endangered. Personally, I think they’re racists.

Their use of words such as “amnesty” and “enforcing the law” is a canard designed to gloss over racism. When it comes to domestic surveillance conservatives are more than happy to ignore the law. However, people with a darker shade of skin speaking a different language must be criminalized for their existence? I don’t think so. Such an approach would
result in chaos and is morally reprehensible. It will only serve to force illegal immigrants deeper underground.

For the Democrats this issue is less divisive. Labor may not like immigration but they really have no choice but to stick with Democrats. Many members of organized labor are Hispanic as well. While some black Americans resent jobs going to Hispanics from across the border as well as a reduction in their wages, the GOP will not benefit from their discontent. Immigration will not be enough to overcame a half-century of Republican racism.

So it’s easy for Democrats to sit back, blast the Republicans for their cruelty and utter sound bites about securing our borders while making it easier for immigrants to become citizens – and future Democratic voters they hope. Everyone remembers how former Republican California Governor Pete Wilson engineered a come from behind victory in 1994 by exploiting proposition 181. Since then California has become a lost cause to Republicans in Presidential elections. Democrats are hoping for the same in southwestern states such as Arizona and New Mexico.

Nevertheless, on this issue Democrats would serve themselves and the country best if they put forward a sensible plan that facilitates consensus. That means supporting President Bush against the xenophobes of his party who appears to be wavering in deference to social conservatives. However, it also means challenging the Bush Administration to extract concessions from the business community.

I propose that the Democratic caucus approach President Bush with the following:

  • Trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA have eliminated jobs in our hemisphere. Migrant workers would not be coming here if they had jobs at home. A security fence will not prevent migrants from entering our country as long as they can’t find jobs back home. Let’s restructure NAFTA and CAFTA so it no longer stifles job creation in our hemisphere. We can also work with leaders in the hemisphere and devise an aid package that increases in proportion to the decrease of migrants crossing our borders. More prosperous neighbors will translate into a reduction of human traffic.
  • Eleven million people are already providing needed labor but we have no accounting of who they are. Far better to make it easier for migrant workers to publicly reveal their identities and give them a path to citizenship if they’re willing to earn it. Threatening them with jail is counterproductive and will overburden our courts and criminal justice system. However, any prospective guest worker must be pre-qualified before entering the country. Those corporations who benefit from cheap labor should be required to pay a “due diligence” tax to determine if any migrant workers pose a security threat or have a criminal background. Otherwise we’ll continue to have illegal immigrants living in this country that are not properly screened.
  • The importing of guest workers is preventing wages from keeping up with the cost of living. If the business community wants to benefit from cheap labor outside the country then it is reasonable to demand American workers keep up with the cost of living. Therefore, the minimum wage must be raised at regular intervals. We can allow the business community to import inexpensive guest workers for menial jobs and raise the cap enabling employers to recruit high skilled workers with H1-B Visas. In return, President Bush and Congress must sign on to increasing the minimum wage every year based on the cost of living and inflation.
  • That children of migrant workers are attending our schools is a fact of life. Social conservatives are simply going to have to get over it. I would rather these children grow up appreciating this country and learning to be contributing members of our society. Today’s child who receives special attention while learning our language may become a premier surgeon saving lives in our hospitals tomorrow. All the more reason to increase funding in education that builds more schools, recruits more teachers, and reduces class size so all children be they English speaking or not get the education they need to become actualized members of society.
Contrary to the propaganda spewing from social conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, the threat to our national character is not from immigrants. The real threat is surrendering to fear and xenophobia as the world becomes more globalized. Once upon a time this country resented Jews, Italians, Irish and Asians from entering our country. Yet they became indispensable threads to our national tapestry. I hope we have not become so cowardly, that a migrant from Mexico or Guatemala cutting someone’s grass in the suburbs or babysitting children is this millennium’s “red scare.” Let’s not forget that most Americans can’t trace their heritage to Plymouth Rock. I certainly can’t.

SIDEBAR: I cross posted this topic on My Left Wing last night and was pleasantly surpised to learn it was designated a "recommended diary." Click here to review comments from that community as they come in. As of 8:00 AM Eastern Standard Time there was only one.

SIDEBAR II: I'm also including a link to my cross posting of this topic on Daily Kos. Although not a recommended diary by that community, the comments both favorable and otherwise make for interesting reading. Click here to review them.


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josephus said...

Rob, a sound analysis. A more cynical solution, however, is to not resist the radical block, and when the Repubican Congress passes the kind of inhumane legislation it is consideirng, make sure Latinos and Catholics understand why they need to vote for Democrats in November and thereafter. A Democratic Congress might then deal with the issue more sensibly. Lost of the Latino Republican voting bloc is a concern raised by David Brooks, for one.

pansophia said...

Part of the problem is that immigration encompasses so many issues. On the one hand, this is a country of immigrants, and we should keep the doors open: and we need to respond to the exploitation of "illegals" by acknowledging the human beings who have been reduced to slave labor in our own country.

On the other hand, I think formal immigration programs for "talent", such as the HB-1 visa are widely abused. These programs abet worldwide corruption as people pay to get these special visas. Part of the rage over HB-1 visas in the US is that people working in a corporate environment can *see* that we aren't importing geniuses, we're importing a monied, corrupt class that displaced U.S. citizens who were just as "talented" from their jobs. Part of the problem is that the idea of "talent" is itself mythical - people are talented when they are broadly educated, well-trained, and receive positive institutional support.

I think we need to eliminate these special visas all together and focus on training U.S. citizens for jobs that require "talent". Immigration opportunities should be offered on an equal basis.

pansophia said...

Ps. I'm curious about what you think of Florida's book "Flight of the Creative Class"...?

Duke1676 said...

Good analysis,

Just one question on labor.
I'm under the impression that the AFL-CIO, Servive Workes and the Laborers International are all in favor of immigration reform and support the path to legalization for the 12 mil undoumented immigrants already here. It is on the guest worker issue that they are divided with only the Service Workers backing that part of any Senate proposal.

If this is the case, would not Labor be a natural ally in a comprehensive immigratation proposal - as it would provide the possiblity for millions of new members to join their ranks said...

I have responded on my own blog:

The conundrum isn't a political problem. Democrats and Republicans own equal parts of the blame. Immigration is fundamental crack in the nation and needs more will than typical incremental policies can deliver.

jay lassiter said...

You are so friggin smart that I always have to think--digest, maybe--before I reply.
First of all, i get some real schadenfreude watching the GOP canibalize itself on this one.
But ya know, you really can tell a lot about a man by his penis size, ooops, i mean, immigration policy. And the House of Reps. outta be ashamed of itself.
And with regards to an earlier comment about this being a problem that deocrats and republicans share equally, i say, "Keep telling yourself that and you might convince *someone* but you're not convincing me."
This is a GOP-led government and this is THEIR problem.
Nice try though.

Anonymous said...

Your blog sucks. I want my 2 minutes back.

Anonymous said...

Your logic suffers from the same probelms as that of other "sympathetic" liberal sorts. It reminds me a lot of Eugene Robinson's latest efforts in the Times. You seem to think that uncontrolled immigration drains social programs, and prevents wages from rising at the rate of goods and services. At the same time, however, you seem to believe that any actions against non-white people (or at least any actions supported by Pat Buchanon) are inherently racist. You say that brown skinned people are being criminalized just for existing despite the fact that they are clearly being crimilized for being illegally in the country (not that they've been criminalized mind you). Regardless, in order to fight this racism, you believe it to be a moral imperative to support the legalization of an undefined number of people without any regard to controlling their numbers in the future.

This of course conflicts with your concerns about wages and social programs. This should be an impasse. The only way around it is to completely abandon logic, which is what happens when you propose that guest workers are okay, no efforts to secure the border are necessary, companies should have access to cheap labor, but that these same companies will pay a rising minimum wage even though they clearly have no incentive to do so. This is assuming that minimum wage controls are even relevant (many of these agricultural and manual labor jobs pay over minimum wage and thus wouldnt be effected for years, and obviously many illegal workers aren't payed on record). I guess that you're assuming that companies will suddenly start using legal labor over illegal labor, even though the latter is cheaper (and probably better because of fear of deportation). Companies will voluntarily do expensive backround checks (and I'm guessing that they'll do them without expensive government emforcement becuase you seem to be against that). It's hard to articulate how absurd this is. It's a nice solution to the problem, kind of like the whole world putting down guns and holding hands. They'd probably do that if you passed a law that told them to, right?

The Wall Street Journal has hijacked American "liberals" who are essentially protesting for a free market. It hasn't always been like this. Cesar Chavez encouraged his union members to report illegals to INS. Ralph Abernaty and Mondale stood with him at the border in support. I'm not arguing for deporting anybody, I'm simply pointing out that there was a time when liberals listened to their brain more than their heart. That time however has passed, largely, I think due to "liberals" obsession with painting the other side as racist (not that it isn't often deserved) at the expense of having coherent policies. The past 10 years haven't gone well, and that encourages more emotional responses than measured ones. I think it also stems from "liberals" idiotic belief (not that different from the one shared by their counterparts) that they always act with moral correctness. What this tells working class people (who probably haven't sifted through the various think tank research on whether or not immigration effects their wages), however, is that these people who always claim to be looking out for my interests, are really not. Think about it next time you bitch about working class voters voting against their interests (maybe you don't do that, but I do).

All I want for someone to acknowledge that they can't have it both ways, and spewing off the typical nonsense about how there are all these jobs that Americans don't want to do (interest in jobs is really determined by how much they pay. Would you want to be a corporate lawyer for 5.50 an hour?)I don't care which side they choose, just an acknowledgment that what they are saying is useless.

One last thing to think about: This country needs a certain number of immigrants (no one really knows what number, but still). Is it fair that they should all be Hispanic (or whoever else crosses the southern border)? Wouldn't increasing the ease of African immigration help add money to their local economies? Many of these countries have much lower standards of living than Mexico. Wouldn't it be in the true American progressive spirit to spread around the benefits of being in the American workforce?

Anonymous said...

First and foremost the congress passed a bill, which it thought the American public would not like, problem is most middle class people want our laws followed. The government is not criminalizing the illegals but rather they come here knowingly breaking our laws and by stealing social security numbers and creating fraudulent documents they make themselves felons. Our government, both democrat and republican support this criminal activity and we want it stopped. The quick fix of Amnesty will not work (see 1986 and the resulting tax bills) and deporting is too costly. The only action that will work is forcing the employers to follow OUR LAWS. That will shrink the job market for illegals and appease us (the great unwashed masses). If we don't then we are looking at a bankrupt health system (see California with hospital closings) and a bankrupt middle class. The bills that will come due ten to twenty years from now are staggering, the lowest trustworthy estimate is in the neighborhood of twenty billion dollars per year from years ten to twenty and no signs of letting up as extended families come in and overwhelm the social services in the United States. We will never be able to support that kind of mass integration made legal by the Senate bill. Please do not make this issue be about politics but rather the cost of our nation being in control of large business and special interest groups.