Labor and Immigration: Looking Beyond the Elections
Right-wing politicians are trying to fan the flames of passion over immigration during the current election campaign. So far they have met with mixed success, but as the election nears and the Right becomes more desperate, we can expect their efforts to intensify and the flames to grow higher. How should labor respond?
The importance of immigration as a campaign issue varies from region to region and from constituency to constituency. Nationally, just 15% of those surveyed in December in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll list immigration as a “top priority” in the coming election, and only 27% list it as “one of the most pressing problems facing the country”, but 81% think it is an “important” issue. The two parties are running true to form. Republican candidates, trolling for votes among the nativist wing of the party, are vying to see who can promise the longest and the highest wall along the Mexican border and the most vicious law enforcement in the rest of the country. Democrats, unsure of where key parts of their base stand and unwilling to stick their necks out, are scrambling for cover with rhetoric about the need for “comprehensive” immigration reform. This duck and cover approach is reflected in replies to a question about immigration and the election posed by the New Republic in November to five prominent Democratic “strategists and consultants” likely to play a key role in the upcoming election.
The press conveniently divides the debate between those candidates who believe in “enforcement only” approaches and those who believe in “enforcement and a road to citizenship”. It is assumed that everyone believes in “border security”. Other approaches are pushed from mainstream media.
Gone are the hopeful days of two years ago when millions were in the streets demanding immigration reform and amnesty for the undocumented. Instead a Pew Research poll released last week shows that, “just over half of all Hispanic adults in the US worry that they, a family member or a close friend could be deported…..” And, “nearly two-thirds say the failure of Congress to enact an immigration reform bill has made life more difficult for all Latinos.”
The immigration issue plays itself out at all levels of government. A second Pew Research report identifies forty-six states where 194 immigrant related bills were enacted in 2007—triple the number from 2006. New laws “…. (r)estricting the rights or benefits of illegal immigrants outnumbered law benefitting them by a 2 to 1 ratio, although roughly half did not deal specifically with illegal immigration.” The most restrictive laws have been passed in states in the South and West that have not traditionally had large immigrant populations but which have seen a big spike in new immigrants during the last decade. Arizona, for instance, has passed a law that will suspend the business licenses of any firm convicted of knowingly hiring undocumented workers after a first offense and permanently revoke the license after a second offense. “January First!”—the date the law comes into effect—has become a rallying crying for the anti-immigrant groups like the Minutemen vigilantes.
Things are better in those states and regions that have long been magnets for immigrants like California, Illinois, and the Northeast. Although the strength of anti-immigrant sentiment was evident even in New York , with its rich immigrant tradition, where Governor Elliot Spitzer was forced to abandon his plans to allow undocumented residents to obtain drivers license.
For labor, immigration is a critical issue. Many unions have staked their future on organizing workers in industries with large numbers of immigrants. While the US labor movement can be rightly proud of its stand in favor of immigrant rights, it has yet to generate a genuine worker friendly approach to immigration reform. Instead, the immigration debate has been framed by others and the legislative alternatives proposed have not been worker friendly.
Now labor risks a situation in which part of its membership is demanding the deportation of another part of its membership. In the absence of proposals that address the real needs of both immigrants and non-immigrants, union members, like other Americans, are confused. Anyone who has attended union or community meetings in which immigration issues have been raised has heard the refrains: “I’m not against legal immigration; it’s the illegal immigrants that I object to. Why should people be able to break the law? We should not reward law breaking. We need to stop illegal immigration now. ” And, “It’s the big corporations that benefit from illegal workers, they use illegal immigrants to drive down wages, it’s good for corporate profits.” Indeed, union organizers tell us that in some parts of the country these attitudes—and worse—are becoming more common. Often organizers avoid talking about immigration with native workers at all costs.
Another poll released last week by New American Media, an association of ethnic media organizations, shows that it’s not just white people that worry about immigrants. Fifty-one per cent of African Americans think that Hispanic immigrants are taking jobs and political power from African Americans.
The LA Times/Bloomberg poll reflects the confusion people feel about immigration. One-third of those polled favor barring undocumented immigrants from access to any public services from emergency rooms to public schools. But over 60% favored a route to citizenship to undocumented workers already in the country. This confused ambivalence is reflected in a follow-up interview with a respondent in Rhode Island who said, “I don’t know what the answer [to immigration reform] is, but I don’t think the candidates know what the answer is either”.
We agree. We have argued that genuine comprehensive immigration reform will not emerge out of the legislative process. Politicians are not up to the task. Reforms must be crafted on the outside by labor and civil society organizations in both the US and the sending countries and then promoted by aggressive campaigns. Why is labor movement central to this process? First, because trade unions are the socially recognized institutions to represent the economic interests of workers and immigration is at heart an economic issue. Immigrants come to the US to work. They affect labor markets and impact the economy as a whole. Yes, there are important cultural and social overtones, but in the United States these become less prominent when work is plentiful. Second, because the labor movement has millions of members from all walks of life and with all types of immigration status, giving it a unique role to play in the debate. In addition many union members maintain ties to their country of origin—an important asset in creating a genuinely comprehensive solution.
The coming elections are likely to further degrade the debate on immigration; rational voices will need to speak up to stem the tide against misinformation and reaction. But labor and civil society organizations should not simply be on the defensive: they should also begin to fashion new reform policies and the campaigns needed to get those policies enacted when the elections are over and immigration once more return as a legislative issue. As the US economy slips into recession, and jobs become even scarcer, the immigration debate could get even uglier. The time to act is now.
A debate can be reconstituted around 5 principles:
Protect the most vulnerable. Immigration reform advocates must demand an end to workplace raids and amnesty for those already in the country. Rational debate cannot take place with authorities ready to storm the plant gates. The widespread notion that undocumented immigrants are law breakers in an otherwise law abiding society and that they should be subjected to immigration raids and not be rewarded with permanent residence is dishonest at best. The US immigration system has been, for a very long time, fundamentally based on active and passive law breaking by businesses looking for cheap labor; governments at all levels that have looked the other way in their own procurement policies and often tolerated labor rights abuses against undocumented workers; ordinary middle and working class people who hire undocumented service providers to clean, paint, provide child care, or cut their grass; and, consumers who demand cheap prices and good service from restaurants and retailers. To single out the most vulnerable links in this chain of illegality—undocumented immigrants and their families—is inherently unfair. By pursuing harsh policies the government pushes undocumented workers further underground where they can be even more exploited to the detriment of all workers.
Broaden the movement. The immigrant rights movement has done a fine job of organizing within the immigrant community, but that is not where the immediate problem lies. The immigrant community lacks the social power to force change on its own. It needs help. Support for genuine reform must be built in the non-immigrant community. Attention must be paid to the concerns of non-immigrant workers worried about declining wages and job loss. Labor has the capacity to reach out to the broader public with a public education program and a reform plan that addresses the concerns of all workers.
Develop non punitive regulations. Regulating the flow of immigrants is a legitimate task of government. But regulation must rely on non-punitive measures. It’s time to stop pandering to the enforcement only crowd beginning with the myth that US borders can be sealed. Effectively sealing the border would require a massive attack on civil liberties and unacceptable economic, political, and environmental costs in the US and abroad. The border between the US and Mexico is the most militarized border between two friendly countries in the world. That has not slowed the flow of immigrants. It has made the crossing more dangerous and more expensive by pushing people into remote desert areas. The cost in human terms has been high: according to official statistics—which probably understate the death count—more than 10 times as many people have died trying to cross the US-Mexican border in the past 10 years, than in the nearly 3 decades history of the Berlin Wall. Instead of being shot, immigrants have died in the deserts of the Southwest of exposure and thirst.
Create a hemispheric discussion. People leave their countries of origin in search of work. For instance, policies supported by the US—like NAFTA—have displaced millions of Mexican peasants and workers unable to compete against productive US agriculture and industrial production. The giant sucking sound that NAFTA created was not jobs going south but workers coming north. Any comprehensive reform will have to involve both the US and the sending countries. Jobs and social programs need to be created in the sending countries so that people do not have to leave their communities. There are some fresh winds of political change in Latin America and its time to work for hemispheric policies to keep people home. And a change of governments in Washington could make a new dialogue possible.
Look for mutually beneficial compromises. A comprehensive reform program to regulate the flow of immigrants will require a compromises between established and immigrant workers and employers and between politicians in the US and the sending countries. But unions and civil society organization can frame the terms of these compromises if they take action now and seek out the common interests of the constituencies involved. The alternative to taking action now will be a repeat of what happened during the immigration debate in 2007: all of the alternatives presented to the Congress will be bad.
Posted on December 20, 2007 in Global Unionism, International Labor Standards, Migration, New Global Strategies, The Global Economy | Per