Thursday, June 7, 2007

Immigration Reform: Shame on all of us for we have failed

Twenty-one years ago, at the height of his political power, Ronald Reagan moved through Congress the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It granted amnesty to the roughly 3mil undocumented immigrants and promised increased border security and stricter enforcement of employer sanctions. We now know that that law was not only highly flawed, but set the stage for today's current immigration debate.

Today as the Senate prepares to vote on the current immigration reform bill, we are once again at a crossroads. …and once again we are about to take a path that will most assuredly lead to problems of even greater scope and scale than were ever caused by IRCA.

But before going into detail as to how great a mistake we are about to make, we need take to look at just how we got to this place


The rumblings about immigration began long before the 2004 Presidential race. Prior to being thrust into reality by the events of September 2001, a newly elected President Bush had made "immigration reform", in the form of a greatly increased guest worker program, a cornerstone of his new administration's policy agenda.

Back-burnered by world events, the issue lay dormant for a few years as a growing current of anti-immigrant sentiment grew in the right-wing of the President's party. Shortly after salvaging the 2004 election with a combination of wedge issues and personal attacks, the Republicans went looking for a new wedge to divide the Democrats and bring out the party faithful. Newly appointed Democratic Chairman, Howard Dean, warned at that time that immigration would be the next great wedge.

With a highly unpopular war, record federal and trade deficits, wage stagnation, a growing health care crisis, and an under-funded and failing education system, only a wedge issue of epic proportions could save the Republicans from sure defeat in the next election cycle.

And so the "immigration crisis" was born.

To the Democrat's delight the wedge has blown up in the Republican's face and divided the party as never before. Exposing the fragility of the coalition first put together by Nixon's Southern Strategy and honed by Reagan with the inclusion of the Christian Right and Reagan Democrats, the immigration issue, fueled by nativist xenophobia on one side and corporate greed on the other, has cleaved the party down the middle.

But in so doing, it has now left the nation equally divided and put us in a position where one of the worst pieces of legislation ever written is about to leave the Senate.

But now it is no longer solely a Republican problem. Democrats, through their inability or unwillingness to stick to the liberal and progressive ideals on which the modern party was built, are now equally culpable in enacting legislation that will manage to not only virtually enslave millions of current and future immigrants in a system of second-class citizenry, but also attacks the very working Americans who have long been the backbone of the party.

The greatest failure of the Reagan legislation, contrary to popular opinion, was not its lack of enforcement and employer oversight, or an amnesty that sent a message of permissiveness to a world anxious to take advantage of our perceived weakness.

In the years following the legislation there was no great rush to the border by all those "waiting for the next amnesty." In fact, the numbers of undocumented immigrants remained stable at around 3.5 mil for nearly ten years, until the mid-nineties, when border crossing soared.

The same is true of border enforcement. In the 21 years since the bill was enacted the number of border patrol agents has increased from 3,243 in 1986 to 11, 106 today. Spending on border security has gone from $700 mil to $2,792 mil.

Additionally with the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 hundreds of miles of border walls and fences were built along the most heavily populated and traveled illegal entry routes, yet with all this added man-power and spending, the number of border apprehensions went down from 1,692,544 in 1986 to 1,188,977 currently, while the undocumented population soared to 12 mil.

This is because the true flaw in the Reagan legislation was that it never changed the fundamental dynamics of illegal immigration because in didn't make the needed and fundamental changes in the legal immigration system.

Reagan essentially asked for a "do-over" and got it without changing the rules of the game. There were no quota changes, no changes in the number green cards issued, no change in processing of paperwork, no changes in the path to citizenship for those qualified, no provisions made for any further immigration. Basically 3mil undocumented immigrants...many of them refugees from Reagan's Dirty Wars in Central America were made legal essentially over night ...then business was resumed as usual....without addressing why there were 3 mil undocumented immigrants here in the first place.

And we are about to repeat the same situation again. In fact, outside of the roughly 3mil green cards that will be used to alleviate the backlog that was caused by our current failed system...once it's been cleared up, there will be 200,000 less green cards available on a yearly basis then there are even today…. and we all know what that will lead to....in five years or ten...we'll be right back where we started.

Additionally, we will end up with 12 million people in the perpetual limbo of the Z visa system where they will pay continual fees to remain in legal status while never being able to convert to LPR status (green card holder) due to the constraints of a merit system intended to keep them on the margins of society while favoring the kind of high-skilled workers already stressing certain sectors of the native –born workforce through the various temporary worker programs already in place such as the H1-b visa program.

These perpetual Z workers will never become citizens, never fully join society, never have a voice in the political system, and never achieve the rights all workers deserve to organize and demand fair treatment due to the fact that their very ability to stay in the country will hinge upon their ability to remain employed. If they get fired …and are not re-employed within sixty days …they lose all rights and privileges. … no matter how long they've been here.

But, perhaps the most insidious aspect of this legislation is the new temporary worker program which will serve no purpose outside of supplying a perpetual supply of little more than indentured servants to a corporate system all too willing to exploit foreign workers to keep the wages of all workers artificially low.

These are only the most glaring faults of the legislation, but anyone whose read through it can attest to the hundreds of loopholes, infringements on basic rights and protections that will not only apply to immigrants but all US citizens, capitulations to business interests and lack of protections of workers both immigrant and native-born.

But who is to blame for this monstrosity?

It's easy to blame the politicians, the corporate boogiemen, the opposition party, DINOS, RINOS, the DLC, Bush, special interests, and lobbyists.

But the only ones we can really blame are ourselves. The liberals, the progressives, the left, the unions …. All of those who are supposed to be the conscience of the Democratic party.

WE had an opportunity, after twenty one years, to right a wrong, to fix a broken system, but instead we sat back either relishing the meltdown of the opposition party, or spent the time infighting.

As we have done so many times in the past, we have allowed our small differences to divide us. Those concerned with the human rights issues surrounding immigration reform fight with those advocating for H1-b visa reform. Those who favor guest worker programs as a path towards citizenship fight with those who oppose the plans on the grounds they are exploitive.

We have allowed those who first brought this issue to the forefront to frame the debate. We argue in the language of the Republican right and corporate wings. We argue in the language of Lou Dobbs, Tamar Jacoby, Tom Tancredo and George Bush. "Open Borders", "willing employers" "amnesty", "rule of law", "xenophobe" "anchor baby", "Mexican invasion", "English only", "Nation of immigrants", "Jobs Americans won't do"...this is how we have argued this debate….and shame on us for doing so.

These are their words … not ours. These terms were not part of the Democratic lexicon. They were spawned in the think tanks and PR firms of the Manhattan Institute and Frank Luntz.

We could have held firm to our values and beliefs as liberals and progressives.

  • We could have focused on workers rights and workplace enforcement of labor laws.


  • We could have focused on addressing the root causes of migration and demanded changes to trade agreements and foreign policy to guarantee a change of the conditions in sender nations.


  • We could have worked to change the quota system to ensure that it reflected our true labor needs as opposed to those imposed by corporate interests.


  • We could have demanded that all new immigrants were guaranteed the same worker protections and rights afforded all workers to end the exploitive practices that lower wages for all.


  • We could have ended all the exploitive guest worker programs that lower standards for all workers.


  • We could have fixed the legal immigration system so that it worked for all Americans and those wishing to become Americans.


But instead we dropped the ball. We allowed ourselves to lose sight of our core beliefs and got caught up in a Republican cat fight.

We could have led on this issue - instead we followed. And now we will reap what we have sown.

To those who sat back and watched the Republican melt-down in glee, I say shame on you.

To those who allowed themselves to be blinded by the faux populism of the Republican right, I say shame on you.

To those whose rigid adherence to humanitarian concerns allowed them to lose sight of the bigger picture, I say shame on you.

To liberals, progressives and Democrats, I say shame on us…shame on us all.

11 comments:

kyledeb said...

Beautiful piece of writing, Duke. I'm not so sure the legislation is going to go through. The guest-worker program was voted down as I understand it. I read the failures a little bit differently than you do. Instead of adhering to the core values of the past I think we need something new to win this battle. I mean if you think about it there is no blueprint, there is no history of migrants able to argue for rights that essentially don't exist. I don't think it is possible to argue within the national framework anymore for migrant rights, because within that framework migrants, as outsiders, are inherently unequal. I also think its unrealistic for people to call for no infighting among the left. Division is the result of the failure to inspire not to unify. We need to create a new framework to argue for migrant rights.

Yave said...

I'm with kyledeb, although that was a passionate and informed post. The bill's chances of passing aren't looking so good right now. We do need a new framework, but I think we're a long, long way from where that framework could emerge. It's not just a framework on immigration, it would be a new framework of nationality and international politics. As long as the "national" frame is dominant, we will always have an immigration "problem".

We could have focused on addressing the root causes of migration and demanded changes to trade agreements and foreign policy to guarantee a change of the conditions in sender nations.

This is a footnote in your post, but it's one of the keys to resolving the immigration problem, the other being changing our nationalist exclusionary culture. But "demanding changes to trade agreements and foreign policy" is easier said than done. What changes would you suggest? How much can the U.S. really do on its own to reduce the root causes of global poverty that drive international migration? I'm not saying we couldn't do more, just that it's a very difficult problem, one that will likely last for the foreseeable future. The issue is not made easier when you consider that the parties also fragment in unpredictable ways on trade policy.

I agree with you that progressives should stand more firmly against rabid restrictionism. But I have not seen much discussion about the other half of the problem, root causes. Congress and the country at large is woefully unprepared to address the immigration issue. We're like medieval doctors killing our own patients because our understanding of reality is so mismatched to the task at hand. I just don't think it's possible to get a good bill in the current environment within the current framework.

kyledeb said...

I completely agree with you yave. It's the exact same part of the post that I highlighted on Immigration Orange. Just because the root causes of immigration are difficult to tackle doesn't mean that we should abandon solving them. When the question is completely ignored that is what is happening. Thanks for that.

janinsanfran said...

In an era of unfettered capital and vast regional disparities in wealth, I am not sure there are any humane solutions. Instinctively, I believe in open borders but I don't know how we get from here to there. Instead, we get closed borders that are porous for those desperate enough to pay the price of drudgery and precarious servitude.

I do know that liberals and progressives can only work for solutions alongside the people who migrate themselves, in the light of their understanding of what justice would entail.

And any solution demands a new kind of labor movement that understands the transnational character of wage labor in the present economy.

Duke -- thanks for creating this forum.

michael said...

Now that the bills looks pretty much dead in the Senate, it's almost guaranteed that nothing happens (at least) until early 2009. That gives us almost 2 years to improve the conditions so that when Congress comes back to this issue, the pro-immigrant forces are leading the debate. I think Duke started with an excellent list of what we should be focusing on. While there are quite a few specifics I'd like to add, for now I'll just say that it seems to me that one of the most important things pro-immigrant forces can do is to grow the movement. This would include continuing:
- massive demonstrations across the country
- meetings with senators and representatives
- working to elect like-minded progressives and liberals
- fighting to stop the mass arrests and deportation
- highlighting immigrant stories in the media
- targeting companies that exploit immigrant workers
- ensuring that immigration is a central piece of any progressive discussion (whether about labor/trade, foreign policy, housing, medicine, etc.)
- and much, much more.

In some respects, I think this breakdown can be viewed as a gift to immigrants and their supporters. While I am not one bit happy that the most vulnerable, abused and exploited will continue to be, I believe that no bill is better than this bill. We now have time to change the debate and take the lead so that the next time this comes around, we can demand better from the politicians who work for us.

Yet it's also clear that the solution isn't simply legislative (though the most change can come the quickest through better laws). In the meantime, we must continue trying to make life better for all immigrants through smaller scale advocacy efforts - positive state laws, targeting companies that exploit, etc. There's got to be a way for like-minded folks across the country (and world) to work together both for short and long term gains. I imagine the internet will be critical - exactly what this will look like and how it'll work, I'm not so sure.

Anyways, as always, thanks for your invaluable site, Duke!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this blog post, along with the thoughtful and insight comments. I do think Duke reframes the debate in a more useful way.

Does Duke or anyone know what happened with the investigation concerning the Mexican union organizer murdered in Mexico in connection with the agricultural guest worker program? Did I read about that here? I can't remember ... last word was that an Ohio representatitive was heading south to look into it.

Monty said...

Realistic Immigration Reform Is Up To The Democrats.

Contrary to many I am of the opinion that the ‘Grand Compromise’ immigration bill actually lives up to its name. And with some adjustments it will be the best chance over the next decade to reform our immigration system. The problem is that those on the far left and the far right do not understand or refuse to accept the political, social, economic & humanitarian realities of modern day America. So, in order to honestly reform our immigration system, we need to highlight these realities.


The most glaring and obvious reality is that our country is governed by a 2 party system. This means that only a bipartisan compromise will result in immigration reform. Democrats must realize that Republicans will not support any bill that allows for extended chain migration nor one that advocates a guest worker program that would lead to permanent residency and citizenship. Most importantly Republicans & most Americans demand a merit -based system. Advocating the continuation of our current family based system, however laudable this might be, is futile. Even with a Democrat as president these realities will remain for the foreseeable future. This is why compromise is so important.


The bill’s elimination of extended family visas is a necessary compromise. In my opinion some articles I have read emphasizing the value of extended family are inaccurate. In the 21st century the vast majority of adult siblings live totally separate lives, most often in different geographic locations. As far as the elimination of these visas are concerned the only workable additional compromise I can envision would be to increase the eligibility age for adult unmarried children. In any case anyone who is familiar with our current immigration system must know that it would take a minimum of 10 years, most likely far longer, for a sibling or adult child to get a visa! This bill, in fact, eliminates decades of backlogged family applications in an 5-year period.


I also find it amusing that those rallying against a merit-based system do not realize that our current system is pretty much a defacto merit based system. Besides family based visas only those with advanced degrees can get visas that would lead to permanent U.S. residency. As I have already stated almost all Republicans and the majority of Americans approve of a merit based system. It is a shame that a mixture of security fears and economic concerns have created this reality. But with declining middle class wages, principally due to globalization, immigrants have become a convenient scapegoat for the current economic situation of the average American. There is a widespread feeling that low or mid skilled immigrants depress the wages of Americans and are an economic drain to the country. However accurate the arguments that prove the contrary its a fact that our middle class is shrinking. Our workers are being outsourced to the lowest bidder and until 21st century skills are widely adopted for this global economy, middle class wages will continue to shrink and the prevailing consensus towards immigration will remain. Unfortunately this process might take decades so it is crucial to realize that any successful immigration reform will be a shift towards a merit-based system. The ‘Grand Compromise’ bill addresses this prevailing concern but also maintains the importance of family immigration. Under the bill a point system will be adopted but family based visas will still comprise the majority of visas issued.


This does not mean that the merit-based system as it is outlined in the bill shouldn’t be amended. The most important change must be to create a realistic path to permanent residency and citizenship for those immigrants who get a Z visa. Adherence to the point system for this group would mean that the majority would never gain permanent status. So the point system needs to include provisions for Z visa holders who wish to become permanent residents and eventually citizens. Another possible further compromise would be to increase the points awarded to those immigrants who have family living in the U.S. This would help make up for the elimination of the extended family visa categories. But any further or more drastic changes would jeopardize the bill.


Another major point of contention is the guest worker program. The prevailing feeling among Republicans and most Americans is that any guest worker program should be temporary. There is no way that Republicans will agree to any immigration reform that offers a path to permanent residency or citizenship for guest workers. This is a political reality so two options are left for the democrats – either scrap the guest worker program or accept the temporary nature of the work that the program offers. I have pondered over this aspect of the immigration bill and come to the realization that a guest worker program, if properly administered, will be beneficial to the U.S. as well as those foreign workers and their home countries. I have heard the arguments that this program will create an underclass of workers and depress wages but this type of reasoning ignores all social and economic realities. A guest worker program would address our urgent labor concerns and provide many with the opportunity to support their families back home. Substantial money and labor would also flow back to those countries most in need of these resources. These guest workers would mainly work in industries in which Americans are not willing to work so such a program will not depress wages as many claim. And since these workers will be legal it will easier to ensure that they are protected – a minimum wage and other provisions will make sure these people are not exploited. Any suggestion that such a program is not beneficial is nothing less than liberal idealism.


I also cannot understand those who suggest that such a program will lead to another huge population of illegal immigrants. The 86 amnesty did not create adequate workplace enforcement measures and did not enact any fool proof identification system. This bill ensures that only legal workers will be able to work in the U.S. and without the possibility of work there will be no illegal immigration. Post 1986 there was no major demand for enforcement. The government turned a blind eye and to a large extent the public simply did not care. Well in 2007 we are faced with a completely different economic and social reality…the overwhelming majority of Americans demand workplace enforcement and better border security and the government is prepared to deal with this fact. So that dishonest far right argument that the government will not enforce the law does not hold water. Particularly infuriating are those who suggest that since the 86 immigration reform was unsuccessful we are not capable of enacting effective comprehensive immigration policy. Thank god those at Nasa did not give up on our space program after the Apollo 1 disaster.


The last reality that needs to be addressed is that of our existing 12 million undocumented immigrants. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of undocumented workers crossed the border with the sole intention of providing for their families and seeking a better life for their children. Any person who claims they would not break such a law to provide for their children is totally blinded by privilege or not telling the truth. Many of these undocumented immigrants have been living in the U.S. for years and already established deep roots. So loss of employment or deportation would be catastrophic. The ‘Grand Compromise’ bill takes these facts into consideration and clearly recognizes, as do most Americans, that deportation for people who have lived here for years is NOT an appropriate or fair punishment nor is it a practical solution. The grand compromise actually allows most undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. prior to Jan 1st 07 to obtain a Z visa. Democrats should be willing, if necessary, to compromise on this provision as it is a fact that many moderate Republicans and even some Democrats consider this excessively liberal. So by limiting Z visas to people who have been living in the U.S. for at least 4 years as Senator Webb has proposed would create a much broader appeal for any comprehensive reform. Perhaps those who have been in the U.S. for between 1-4 years can be offered an alternative, longer and more punitive route to legalization.


So the fate of immigration reform and the lives of millions of undocumented workers is largely up to the Democrats. In the face of increasing anti immigrant local ordinances and elevated raids and deportations it is clear that these undocumented immigrants face a growing humanitarian crisis. The status quo is absolutely unacceptable and is nothing more than an endorsement of this existing crisis. Unfortunately some Democrats realize that, contrary to what those on the far right believe, denying a path to legalization for our existing undocumented is political suicide for the Republican Party. Already Hispanics are registering as Democrats in increasing numbers largely due to the stance on immigration of the far right wing of the Republican Party. So these Democratic senators are playing politics. But standing on the sideline, while the lives of millions are in the balance, and watching the GOP implode is reprehensible (Harry Reid take note). Even with a Democrat as president and majorities in both the House and Senate we will still be a 2 party system for the foreseeable future so any immigration reform must be bipartisan. The fact is that the ‘Grand Compromise’ is substantially better than the status quo and addresses our most urgent concerns. This is the time for pragmatism and not political idealism – this bill is as good as it gets for many years to come. So, especially for all those undocumented immigrants, now is the time to demand that the ‘Grand Compromise’ is immediately returned to the Senate floor. And hopefully reasonable leaders from both sides can iron out the kinks and get this bill passed.

Anonymous said...

A well stated argument, though I cannot hold with all your points.

Here's one:

"I also cannot understand those who suggest that such a program will lead to another huge population of illegal immigrants. The 86 amnesty did not create adequate workplace enforcement measures and did not enact any fool proof identification system. This bill ensures that only legal workers will be able to work in the U.S. and without the possibility of work there will be no illegal immigration."

You repeatedly use the term "idealistic" (in other portions of your argument) as an implied criticism of others. Yet do you not find your position on enforcement rather idealistic? Or the idea that people will not find other work illegally once inside the U.S. through such a program? Your argument also does not take into account what civil liberties we Americans must sacrifice in the name of such enforcement. Such as those that shall go wanting through your "fool proof identification system."

No thank you.

The SPLC reported widespread corruption, human rights abuses, and difficulties in the administration of the guest worker programs. I thus find your reference to it being "properly administered", without much description as to how, another idealistic and rather flippantly offered solution.

I also see no basis for your assertion that most Americans, like most Republicans, want these workers to be here only temporarily.

I think most Americans understand that we have a shared interest in creating paths for citizenship for the individuals who work in this country.

Monty said...

Mr Anonymous,

My position on enforcement is grounded in reality. There was no outcry over enforcement after the 86 amnesty. On the other hand Americans are now demanding enforcement and border security and I have no doubt that the Govt will be forced to act on this consensus. About the foolproof ID - this would be required by all Americans and immigrants to gain employment... I have read of a possible ammendment which will add biometric markers to social security cards which would be effective. I'm not sure how you can possibly come to the conclusion that such a fool proof employee verification system would be a threat to our civil liberties. The only effect such a system will have is to make sure employers only hire legal workers and that each worker is actually who they claim they are! How does that infringe on our civil liberties?

Also such workplace verification together with massive employer fines will make it extremely difficult for illegal immigrants to find work. Previously employers were slapped on the wrist for infractions but this bill threatens unprecedented fines of tens of thousands of dollars to those who ignore the new rules. With this in mind I doubt employers would risk hiring illegal workers.

Concerning the guest worker program I maintain that a properly admistered temporary woker program can benefit everyone concerned. By properly administered I mean whistleblower protections, minimum wage enforcement & other oversight measures. At least such a program has some oversight unlike the current status quo which virtually encourages abuse.

The basis for my assertation that most Americans support only a temporary worker program is the numerous immigration polls that can easily be referenced - use the web! Every poll I have read overwhelmingly supports the temporary nature of such a guest worker program. Personally I would prefer for these workers to have some path to legalization. BUT I have realised that Republicans would never support such a measure and it would be a killer amendment to any immigration plan. So the question is whether a Guest worker program is better than no program at all. And according to the reasoning I have outlined above I think a guest worker program can be beneficial to the guest workers, their country of origin and our economy.

I have no doubt that this immigration bill is far better than the status quo. I also have no doubt that this bill represents the best possible compromise that we can expect for a long time. Of course it needs some fine tuning as I have already mentioned. And I hope in 10+ years we might have the ability to pass a far more liberal & welcoming immigration policy. But while we are waiting this bill ensures that the humanitarian crisis facing our undocumented population is addressed. It also unifies families by dealing with a massive backlog of family visas. Don't forget the legalization of millions of probable future democrats will eventually help all you well meaning liberal idealists address your well intentioned, although currently impractical, reforms!

Anonymous said...

Mr Monty,

I am surprised that a well informed right wing realist like yourself would not be familiar with arguments as to why a biometric ID presents numerous civil rights issues, among other things.

A number of states are fighting such a measure. For where there's a wall, there's a ladder.

Since you made the initial argument as to how the American public views the temporary worker, it is incumbent on yourself to back it up, not me.

I therefore consider that premise in your original argument unestablished. And all else that follows from it moot.

Nor am I inclined to accept your statement at blind face value - "fool proof system." Please, Mr. Monty Realist.

And how do you propose to track those temporary workers who decide that being a under-the-table nanny or maid is more fun? Shall you keep them under the overseer's eye in the fields? So that the slaves don't run?

As for your explicitly stated guest worker proposals as to how it could be properly administered, I am not seeing that any such proposals are part of the current package you suggest accepting.

So you don't make much sense there either, to me.

Though some of your other points are certainly taken.

But what I'm really wondering is why accepting the deal is REALLY important to you.

Is it all those undocumented persons and a bleeding liberal heart? C'mon, you already said, that ain't like you.

Nuisance Man said...

Minor correction to the beginning of your article -- in 1986 Reagan was NOT at the height of his power. That came in 1981-82, when he had a conservative Congress and managed to get some really reactionary budget changes through. After the Republicans took it on the chin in the 1982 midterm election, Reagan was pretty limited in what he could do. From then on, his so-called "Reagan revolution" was mostly hype, though his judicial appointments and his executive policies at home and abroad certainly continued to do a lot of damage.