Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What comprehensive immigration reform should look like.

Some of the newer readers to this blog, particularly those who hold views slightly to the right of center, have raised some questions in the comments as to exactly what progressive immigration reform would look like. Comments such as this one:

TEXAN writes:

I read a lot of strongly pro-immigration posts on this blog that criticize any measures which might slow or hinder immigration or obstruct illegal migrants.

Should we open our borders to any and all comers? Should we abandon any attempts to limit the mass migration that is taking place without any semblance of control? Should we just maintain a blind eye to all of it? What is the point, what are the recommendations here?

So I figured it might be time to go back and recap some of the dialogue that's taken place over the past year and a half in regards to how and why this "issue" has come to the forefront of political discourse and what truly comprehensive immigration reform should look like.

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I must preface this entire discussion with a GIANT caveat that anyone wishing to discus this issue rationally and honestly, from either side of the issue, must make in the name of intellectual honesty: THERE ARE NO TOTALLY 100 % RELIABLE STATISTICS OR STUDIES ON THIS ISSUE. Anyone who quotes statistics and studies as gospel has not done their homework. For every study stating a given "fact" there are two to disprove it. Having debated with some of the best informed and diligently researched opponents from the other side of the issue, we inevitably come to the same stumbling block in very discussion; whose poll, study or white paper is more valid than the others. Inevitably we will agree that when it comes to hard facts and data about undocumented immigration, there just isn't any. The best we can do is try to use numbers coming from the most impartial sources available, and realize that even then they are not written in stone.

When looked at logically, this situation makes perfect sense; how can we possibly have documentation about a group who by their very nature are undocumented and undocumentable. In fact, no one can even state unequivocally exactly how many undocumented immigrants are living in the US at present, the best we can do is estimate the number. So to try extrapolating further information about a population you can't even count must be viewed as a mixture of conjecture and speculation at best. Those who discuss this issue honestly, from both sides of the debate, recognize this fact, and can only rely upon the impartiality of the source of their statistics to determine their viability.


That said, first we must look at "why this issue", and "why now". Many will claim 9-11 changed everything, and now border security is an issue. Ok, then why did it take five years, two wars, a Presidential and a midterm election to pass before this "pressing issue" moved to the front of the political agenda? In the meantime we've had time for national debates about gay marriage, Teri Chiavo, "family values", intelligent design and stem cell research. It is only now with Republican poll numbers sinking and a lame duck President who exhausted his political capital long before Katrina, or the endless war in Iraq sapped him of the last vestiges of support, that we now face an "immigration crisis".

We are debating this issue now for one reason and one reason only; to create an issue for the midterm elections.

The following stories where published over a year ago and updated for republishing here on Migra Matters. Both were intended as warning to progressives that the right wing would use the "immigration issue" in 2006 as a wedge issue to try to divide blue collar Democrats from the more liberal wing of the party:

On "The Immigration Crisis", where do you stand? originally published 5-05
Joe Sixpack: "Why's your life so bad?... Too many illegals" originally published 4-05

Finally, we have this comprehensive analysis of exactly who has been behind pushing this issue to the front of public debate. Why it was done and what they hope to accomplish by it:
Anatomy of a wedge issue: immigration

This is not to say that the immigration system is not broken. It has been for years. The current immigration system with its quotas, per country caps, backlog of years for processing and inability to keep track of who's here and who's not is a nightmare. It serves neither the security interests of the American people nor the immigrants who wish to come here. For a quick primer on the current immigration system and various plans to reform it see: A primer on immigration: background and legislation

So what we are left with is a totally dysfunctional immigration system and a right-wing effort to use this weakness in the system as a political weapon of misdirection to hopefully stay in power. That leaves progressives with the truly hard work of hammering out a reform of the immigration system that not only protects US sovereignty and security, but provides a fair, humane, and practical path for millions of new immigrants to join our ranks each year.


To go back to Texan's original question about open borders and unrestricted immigration; "Should we open our borders to any and all comers? Should we abandon any attempts to limit the mass migration that is taking place without any semblance of control? "

While some from the left, and both the Libertarian and Free Trade right, favor open borders and the total unrestricted flow of people, goods and services between nations, I personally am not of that camp. I see our current "immigration problem" as a failure of our system to live up to its historical duty to allow for the reasonable flow of people from all over the world to come to this nation to make a better life, add vitality and diversity to our national mosaic, and join in the great American democratic experiment. The key phrase being: "reasonable flow".

At the risk of not adhering to my own caveat about stating facts and figures, I will attempt to lay out a simple, logical, and humane outline for what progressive immigration reform should look like. To do this we must accept some "givens" in the debate.

1. We need immigration. Currently there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the US of which 7.5 million are in the workforce, with approximately a million more joining them each year. Additionally, we allow for roughly a million "legal" immigrants to enter each year. 98% of all undocumented immigrants eligible to work (excluding children and stay-at-home mothers of young children), do so, and the US unemployment rate floats around 5% or roughly 7 million people. With this relatively constant unemployment rate and the influx of over a million new workers joining the workforce each year it is obvious that these immigrants are not taking jobs from "American" workers, if they were, the unemployment rate would be rising by at least a million people a year and be hovering well above 10% by now. We need these workers, it's just a fact

2.Undocumented immigrants do keep wages artificially low. Employers, able to pay immigrant workers less, cannot be expected to do anything but take advantage of the situation. The solution to this problem is not to eliminate the immigrant workforce in order to force wages up do to a lack of needed workers. The solution is to put these workers on a path to legalization in order that employers can no longer exploit them. Numerous studies show that once an immigrant attains legal status his wages and benefits go up and his employer begins adhere to federal and state workplace regulations. It's a self policing system.

With these two basic premises accepted, it becomes clear what the goal of progressive immigration reform should be: Allow for a reasonable flow of new immigrants and figure out a way to allow them to enter the country legally.


How do we determine what a "reasonable" amount of immigrants to allow in each year should be?

The number of immigrants admitted each year should be determined by a floating scale that takes into account the number of available jobs, the current unemployment rate, the number of green cards issued the previously year measured against the number applied for. In other words use simple supply and demand. As long as there is a demand for increased immigration, there must be a legal way meet that demand. At the present time we have no legal means to supply the workers needed, hence they are forced to enter the country illegally and live in the shadows.

Obviously we must first raise the quotas to more accurately reflect the realities on the ground. We must eliminate the per country cap that favors smaller nations with fewer immigrant applicants over those countries that have long traditional ties to the US. We must raise the 5000 maximum cap on unskilled worker green cards issued each year to reflect the true needs of the national labor pool. We need to ease restrictions on family reunification and rework the diversity "lottery" and refugee policies to better serve the needs of those who face a clear and present danger in their countries of origin.

One of the key components in determining what the future level of immigration should be is a thorough examination of what has occurred already. As stated above in the caveat, at the present time we have no real idea what has happened in the past twenty years. We have no way of knowing how many immigrants have entered, what jobs they are doing, how many children have been born here as US citizens etc. We have estimates, but these are inaccurate and vary from 7 to 20 million according to the source.

This is why a path to legalization must be found for the millions of undocumented immigrants already here, before we can formulate future policy. We must bring these people out of the shadows, allow them to join society, and become full legal members of it. Then we will be able to see where we have come from to better understand where we need to go vis a vis immigration reform.

Here is one of the fatal flaws in the right-wing, anti-immigrant logic. Their plan to close the border, and than try to force the immigrants already here to leave through what Tom Tancredo calls "attrition" has no basis in historical reality. It makes no accounting for the fact that these current immigrants play a crucial role in our economy, and the need for future immigrants will continue. Perhaps it is because the most vocal proponents of "attrition" come from districts with the fewest number of immigrants, that these Representatives have no idea about the true impact of their proposals.

Once we have determined what reasonable levels of immigration are, then and only then can we begin to look at border security. Once we remove millions of would-be "illegal" immigrants from the mix by providing them a legal path to immigration, we can formulate an effective border security plan. To do the reverse, and try to secure the border before reforming the immigration system is like trying to fix a leaky pipe without turning off the water. We need to channel our immigration through legal points of entry, before we can plug the holes in the border.


We need to take a complete and comprehensive approach to immigration reform, and this includes something none of the present legislation accounts for. We need to look at the reasons why millions of people each year are compelled to risk their lives to enter this country illegally. This includes an examination of the effects of US foreign policy and trade policies that have fostered poverty and political upheaval throughout much of the third world. Why is it that Mexico, a country with the tenth largest economy in the world, has a population that lives in abject poverty? How have we allowed US corn exports to decimate local Mexican economies? How come NAFTA and WTO trade restrictions have been allowed to cause of the collapse of the coffee industry throughout much of Central America.

The US has power to do both great good and great harm throughout the third world with its economic and foreign policy decisions and we must start to look at the long term ramifications of these policies. Rather than allowing US business interests to dictate trade and economic policy, we need to view these policies in light of there long term effects on both foreign economies and our own.

Let's look at what globalization has done to both the US and Mexican economies. At first under NAFTA US companies outsourced American jobs to Mexico where they could find cheaper labor and less government restriction. Over time these jobs have now been outsourced from Mexico to Asia, where even cheaper labor and less government interference can be found. As long as US economic and trade policy is based solely upon the interests of big business, this continued race to the bottom will continue. Until we begin to address the true causes for the mass migration of people who live in abject poverty in countries that have more than enough resources to provide a reasonable lifestyle for its entire population, we will never get a handle on the "immigration problem"


Allowing for reasonable rates of immigration and the legalization of all current undocumented immigrants would in fact start a process by which all US workers could begin to reverse the thirty year decline in working class real wages and benefits. Starting with Reagan's union busting tactics in the early eighties, through thirty years of intentional disassembly of our nations social safety net, education system and health care system, to Bush's current rewriting of the US tax codes in favor the wealthiest 1% of the population, working Americans have been the target of a continual assault that has resulted in a race to the bottom for the majority of US workers. All this in the name of "smaller government" that in fact has meant a government that responds to the needs of big business and the wealthy over the needs working people and the middle class.

The inclusion of 12 million newly legal workers to the workforce would go a long way to stem this tide. This is why the immigrant's rights movements has had the support of the largest unions in the country. The Services Workers, Laborers International and the AFL-CIO have all backed comprehensive immigration reform and the legalization of workers already living in the country. They realize that if they could unionize the current immigrants already in the country and add ½ million or so new members each year from new immigrants, they could possibly regain much of the power they have been lacking for the past thirty years. At the polls, these new working class Americans would have a voice in formulating policies more favorable to working families. Things like universal health care, education, a living wage and an equitable tax code would move to the forefront. This is one reason Bush and his big business buddies are so enthralled with his "guest worker" program. It supplies businesses with workers, while keeping them from unionizing and more importantly eventually voting. The last thing Bush and his buddies want is a growing working class voting block to contend with. They will concede on those already here, but as for future immigrants, they want them to enter as temporary workers, to be shipped back home before they can gain political clout. Contrary to what the right-wing would have Americans believe, immigrants are not the enemy of working men and women, but rather natural allies in the struggle for a better life.


While this is far from a complete analysis, or comprehensive plan to address all the aspect of this complex issue, it does represent a starting point for understanding what a plan for progressive immigration reform entails.

*Formulate a reasonable, humane, fair and practical method for determining the levels of immigration going forward.

*Providing a path to legalization for all current undocumented immigrants living and working in the US.

*Secure the border by first insuring that the vast majority of immigrants are able to legally enter the country through a legal port of entry. Once the massive flow of immigration through illegal channels is curtailed, then work to physically secure the remainder of the border.

*Address the root causes of immigration, and change US policy so that it doesn't foster and produce conditions that force millions of people each year to leave there countries of origin in order to simply survive.

*Opposition to a "guest worker" program on the grounds that it provides no benefit to the American people or the immigrants themselves. It only provides big business with disposable workers that hold down real wages and prevent immigrants from becoming a viable force in the workplace.

*Foster an immigration policy that strengthens the middle and working class through unionization and participation in the electoral process.

*Recognize that immigration is a vital part of maintaining a healthy and vibrant America. It is what has set this nation apart from all others since its inspection. To close our borders to new immigrants is to cut off the lifeblood that has always made this nation grow and prosper.

This, I believe, is a reasonable starting point to proceed from. The various legislative proposals currently moving through the Senate address some of these concerns, but so far still fall short. As to the specifics over the number of H1b visa that should be issued annually, the number of years it should take to for undocumented immigrants to pass through the system, whether there should be a three tiered system determined by the length of time an immigrant has been in the country, the amount of fines immigrants should pay for being here "illegally" etc. etc. , these are all minor details having far more to do with political jockeying for position than formulating a working immigration system.

Any plan that started from the above basic premises would go a long way towards becoming a truly progressive immigration reform policy.


Texan said...

I read your analysis. It does bring some good thought and discussion into the issue.

You mentioned that polls are not 100% accurate and can't be treated as gospel. With a growing sense of disillusionment, I agree all too much. Too many things that are published under the guise of “journalism” or “objective study” are agenda-driven. That most certainly includes blog. I for one am not inflexible on the immigration issue; I shall scrutinize more carefully what I read (for and against)!

I hope you aren't suggesting readers should infer that statistics about undocumented illegals are all meaningless. The mathematics and science of statistics has been around a long time. It's all about gathering samples of data where 100% is not possible. Methods can be manipulated and done incorrectly, but I hope you don't want us to infer that we should summarily dismiss ALL statistics and polls.

You wrote that you risked not adhering to your own caveat against quoting figures. I believe you may have unwittingly illustrated your own misgivings. You said that 98% of all undocumented immigrants work. That is physically impossible. The number of young children and babies who are undocumented immigrants and couldn't possibly be working MUST be a lot more than 2% of the total. I have no clue where you pulled that "98% are working" figure out of, but I am taking it with a grain of salt. Do we really have millions of low wage jobs waiting for these workers? I don't know. But I do agree with your statement in an older posting that says we're losing lots of low wage jobs to outsourcing and manufacturing declines.

I also agree with your statement that we need to make it so that employers can't exploit these new workers. One way that is often suggested to do this is by cracking down on those employers. Another way is to legalize the workers. The latter might be a good idea, but I'm not sure if it can be done without a resulting acceleration of the mass migration (i.e. suddenly the land of opportunity appears to be a whole lot brighter, while in fact it's not so clear that the jobs really exist to support an increased wave of incomers).

In short, I don’t believe it’s easy to conclude that we have millions and millions of low wage jobs anxiously waiting to be filled by immigrants. Your suggestion that we study the issue and try to figure out what really is the need for more low-wage workers, well that’s a good suggestion.

I'm confident we'll agree on one thing. On the issue of the undocumented (which seems to be a euphemism for illegal) immigrants, I personally think it would be unthinkable to mass deport them. That said, we must as a nation deal with the fact that they are here. I’ve traveled a lot to other continents and seen a lot of things. My conclusion is that the only way to prevent serious problems that could happen decades later is to treat them with the same dignity that any American is entitled to. Prolonged discrimination and unfair treatment of an ethnic or economic group can lead to problems like separatism, racial conflict, and in extreme cases, open warfare or terrorism. This can be avoided by simply treating them with dignity.

You mentioned that US foreign policy has had a strong impact on the Mexican economy. I don’t know a whole lot about that. There may be truth to that. If so, it needs to be addressed.

You also wrote that we have moved outsourcing from Mexico to cheaper labor overseas. As long as companies continue to outsource, this won’t change. China’s economy is developing as a result. Eventually their wages will increase enough so that more outsourcing will go to India instead, and so on. Eventually this globalization will exert an equalizing pressure all around the world, which I believe will depress the US economy and lift others. To what extent, I don’t know. I’m not an anti-globalization person. I’m just a realist.

You have attributed the root causes of mass migration out of Mexico to US foreign policies, trade policies, and American business prerogatives. I hope you would acknowledge how incomplete this portion of your analysis is, because nothing whatsoever in your commentary attributes any root causes as happening inside Mexico’s own borders.

We apparently agree with the statistic that Mexico has the 10th largest economy in the world. Why are there so many poor and relatively uneducated people there fleeing the country? I suggest it is at least partly due to systemic neglect by the government and by those who have the wealth (and refuse to share it). It has been stated elsewhere that Mexico’s tax collection rates are pathetically low and that consequently they don’t have and don’t invest government funds for building roads, communications, schools with textbooks, and more. Why doesn’t the Mexican government collect taxes? I have seen elsewhere that there is a great deal of corruption in Mexico. People who have lived there tell me it’s a way of life. It is widely known by economists that corruption inhibits growth in an economy, and I believe this is happening on a large scale inside Mexico.

Let me be more direct. I am suggesting that Mexico seems to have a class of wealthy elite (hence it’s being the 10th largest economy) that doesn’t share it for the good of the country (perhaps by paying off the government to keep taxation low?). I’ve also heard that they drain the pockets of the average Mexican by collecting bribes quite regularly (police pull drivers over, collect some cash, and let them go, and the list goes on). This is not a fiction; people I know who lived or traveled there have told me that corruption is a way of life.

While I can’t profess to be an expert on the conditions internal to Mexico, I can categorically state that no discussion of root causes for Mexico’s poverty can reasonably exclude what’s happening inside Mexico itself. US foreign policy and trade policy might aggravate their problems (and should be addressed) but can not be solely responsible!

I know from the experiences of friends and family who are recent immigrants (including my own wife) that breaking up a network of friends and family is a traumatic event for all concerned. Knowing this, I believe it should be clear that if the problems inside Mexico can be improved, fewer Mexicans will want to flee their homeland.

The solution must be multi-pronged (as you have suggested), but I believe it should include pressuring the Mexican government to fix their internal problems. How that should be accomplished is a whole other discussion.

Thank you for all the thoughts and considerations. I shall continue to review them and factor them into my own thinking.

Duke1676 said...

Thanks for responding.

First off your right about the 98% number , it should read 98% of all those eligable to work (meaning not children, or the mothers who stay home to take care of them) that's where the 7.5 million workers number comes from .. the remainder of the 12 million are stay at home moms, children, and the 2% unemployed.

Perhaps I wasn't clear on my caveat on statistics etc. They are usefull and necessary in order to formulate an analysis of the issue. My point is that for every study from CIS or Fair that claims immigrants cost the healthcare system x amount each year, or that x number of undocumented immigrants are convicted felons, there is a completely contradictory study from a "liberal" think tank or university. It is only when we find the rare impartial study that we see that neither sides statistics are to be totally trusted. My point is - those who base their entire argument on this study or that they heard from some politician or activist, from either side, need to be very leery. That is why I call for more intellectual honesty when dealing with this issue.

As to the root causes, you're quite right that they go far beyond just American policy, both foreign and economic. Many of the countries that send that greatest number of undocumented immigrants are nothing short of despotic in their political and economic systems. It is no small wonder that many South and Central American Nations have been taking a turn to the far left as of late. Between dictatorships, class systems which or more like caste systems, Government corruption, a lack of regulation of business to the point exploitation, and a division of wealth that leaves all but a chosen few to live lives of desperation and deprivation, many of these nations are ripe for ideologies from the far left. Mexico for instance not only has the world's tenth largest economy, but the largest number of billionaires of any other country. The social structure there is worse than in the feudal states of the Middle East. This is true of much of Latin America.

Now... we cannot change how other nations run their countries or economic systems, but we can at least try to formulate policies to foster change instead of enabling this kind of inequality. We have a long history of backing, propping up, installing, and perpetuating repressive and inequitable regimes throughout Latin America. Many times in the interest of business other times for ideological reasons. Vincente Fox and the other approximately twenty families that control 95% of the wealth of Mexico could not remain in power without the support of the US government and business. This is just a fact. We are by far their greatest trading partner. The same can be said for much of the third world. Here is where American foreign and economic policy could make a great difference. If we linked our trade policies to requirements for human and workers rights, instead of just economic profit we would be taking the first step. If we linked our foreign policy, foreign aid, banking regulations, debt forgiveness policies, business regulations, loan agreements etc.etc. to specific internal policy requirements, we could change much of how these countries operate internally. We have many carrots and sticks at our disposal, t is only a matter of how we use them.

like you say:The solution must be multi-pronged (as you have suggested), but I believe it should include pressuring the Mexican government to fix their internal problems. How that should be accomplished is a whole other discussion.

We do have the ability to put that kind of preasure on them ... we just need the will to do it... and a lot of that will needs to be directed at our own multi-nationals and government. They hold many of the keys to make these changes possible.

Thanks for replying, and I hope this perspective adds something to your veiw of this issue.