Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A good start, but much work still needs to be done.

Today, Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a leading voice in advocacy for immigrant rights, laid out a "new" vision for moving the fight for migrant and immigrant rights forward.

While Sharry's analysis of the past failure of Washington's movers and shakers to correctly read the scope of the debate, and their disconnect with both the political realities on the ground and the need to address this issue beyond the narrow confines of political compromise, were insightful and honest, some his solutions still leave something to be desired.

Those of us who toil behind the scenes, outside the beltway world of strategy meetings and focus groups have long known that the messages of compromise and back room deals coming out of Washington found little resonance with people on both sides of this debate, and until those who shape policy started to address the real causes of mass economic migration, and the backlash to it, no meaningful legislation could ever be passed.

So it is good to see a willingness on the part of Washington policy makers to shift their focus away the traditional view that US immigration issues and the plight of migrant workers are a separate issue, somehow divorced from that of native-born workers, (or the global workforce for that matter) and recognize the interconnections between exploitive labor practices and the failed immigration policies that perpetuate them.

In addition, our understanding of what constitutes the workplace enforcement component of immigration reform needs to expand beyond the drive to create a workable worker verification system. We need to include enhanced labor protections and aggressive enforcement of labor standards for all low-wage workers. For example, we need to consider expanding the Occupational Safety and Health Act, fighting wage theft by strengthening enforcement of minimum wage and overtime laws, stopping the misclassification of workers as independent contractors, improving access to job offers by all low-income workers by requiring employers to make information available to all potential applicants, protecting against discrimination in the workplace by strengthening civil rights laws and enforcement, enabling workers to join a union if they choose to, protecting workers who are displaced when their jobs are shipped overseas by improving Trade Adjustment Assistance, helping workers and their communities plan for and adjust to plant closings and mass layoffs, and modernizing the nation's unemployment insurance program.

The Failure of Immigration Reform Has Created a Living Hell. What's Next?

This has long been a missing component in the pro-migrant debate that has allowed anti-immigrant forces to mislead and divide working people along racial and ethnic lines.

As evidenced by nearly every plant or factory raid thus far perpetrated in the administration's ill-conceived assault on immigrant workers, there has been a common denominator of abysmal working conditions, wage and hour violations, safety violations, attempts to prevent organizing, etc. ..yet in almost all cases it has been the immigrant workers, their families, and communities who have paid the price…and not the unscrupulous employers.

This injustice and violation of basic labor rights that have long been held as a cornerstone of the hard-fought protections all workers struggled to attain, resonates greatly with all working Americans regardless of immigration status. And the fact that Mr Sharry recognizes the power in this argument and the need to incorporate it into the greater debate is a good sign.

Yet, by Sharry's own admission, the policy makers "ended up on the wrong side of the globalization/economic anxiety debate and the legitimate concerns of American workers and taxpayers."

And here is one area where this "new" vision falls somewhat flat. The anxiety over the ramifications of new "globalized" economic policies is great, and backlash against them has grown exponentially.

One aspect of this that is ignored in Mr Sharry's "new vision" is the crucial role these policies have played in causing increased poverty, greater disparity in wealth distribution, and the subsequent increase in economic migration from sender nations. The examples of the destruction of Mexico's subsistence farm economy by cheap US corn imports, or the decimation of Central America's coffee growers by WTO and other trade agreements finds great resonance with US workers who have seen their own manufacturing jobs outsourced or employers gobbled up by huge multi-nationals.

Any serious re-framing of immigration policy must include provisions to deal with the ramifications of increased globalization if it is to be not only politically successful…but ultimately successful at all.

To attempt any regulation or control of migration without addressing the conditions in sender nations that force people off the land, or out of the cities, to trek through the desert or risk incarceration to just find work is doomed to failure.

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 their long term effects on both foreign economies and our own.

…(we must) 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 their countries of origin in order to simply survive. (We need to) tie all future trade, military, and foreign aid agreements to not only worker protections both here and abroad, but also to their ability to foster economic progress for the working class and poor in sender nations.

One Plan for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

This leads us to the second aspect of Mr Sharry's vision that lacks clarity and harkens back to one of the fatal flaws in all past immigration reform measures. … What to do moving forward to accommodate the "future flow" of new immigrants.

While Mr Sharry rightfully takes the specter of huge exploitive guest worker programs off the table, he presents no practical alternative.

But the old comprehensive immigration reform strategy embraced a significant increase in temporary worker visas for the “future flow” of needed workers. This element of comprehensive reform divided progressives. Especially as we enter and weather an economic downturn, a new strategy needs to consider a more limited set of “future flow” worker visas that extend permanent status rather than temporary status to new workers, with perhaps limited but reformed temporary worker programs (with more robust labor protections incorporated) targeted at agriculture and other seasonal industries.

…It seems to me that the combination of a limited number of permanent visas for the future flow and strong worker protections and supports for all workers is both good policy and good politics.


This is the same lack of vision that doomed the 1986 legislation to failure. Writing about the failures in the Grand Compromise legislation I stated it's similarities to Reagan's failed attempts to reform the immigration system:

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

…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.

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

Mr Sharry's vision for "a limited number of permanent visas for the future flow" while containing the crucial element necessary for truly meaningful reform; the ability to insure permanent residency for all who seek it, the vague language of "limited visas" going forward offers little by way of concrete policy.

At a time when the ability for many of those most likely to seek legal migration to the US is severely limited we need something more substantial to hang our hats on. To make ambiguous assertions that visa numbers could be cut, with backlogs going on for years, and the majority of new green cards being issued to those already in the country seeking to adjust status, seems to be more of a concession to political expediency, than practical policy… far more clarity is needed if this is to be effective or accepted politically.

How will these cuts be made? Who will be eliminated ... who allowed entry? What of family unification? What of needed workers? What criteria is to be used to determine what "future flow" levels should be?...these are all thorny questions that need to be tackled if a blanket policy to issue limited permanent visas is instituted. If we are to eliminate the idea of using exploitive guest worker programs as the regulatory method and determining factor for future immigration levels, and replace it with a permanent residency model, that model must assure a humane and practical alternative.

This is not to say that numbers of new visas could not be "limited" in some way…it's quite possible that given faltering economic conditions and limited job prospects in the US, the numbers of those looking to migrate could diminish going forward, and anecdotal evidence does seem to be bearing this out. But to effect meaningful policy we will need to hear a more specific and practical plan as to how a limited visa plan could be accomplished.

Mr Sharry has laid out a good starting point to re-frame the greater debate and begin the movement building needed to finally move this debate in a more positive, migrant friendly, direction. We just need to broaden our sights and address some of the root causation of global migration and figure out a way to determine a fair yet rational way to determine what future levels of immigration should be and how those levels should be determined. …all in all, we're much closer today to that goal than we were just months ago. And Mr Sharry has added a valuable dimension to the greater debate.


KeepingItReal said...

Kudos to Duke for the careful critique and to Frank for the thoughtful deconstruction of the Senate bill's demise. Progressives cannot be on the sidelines sniping away when the next debate over immigration reform gathers steam and comes to a head. We have to be front and center in articulating a vision for the trajectory of immigration policy.

But we also have to be prepared to temper our policy expectations with a healthy dose of political pragmatism. Responsible immigration reform should encompass other policy considerations that relate to sending country conditions and the root causes of migration. So we should not shy away from injecting that additional complication into an already unbelievably complex debate. We obviously cannot expect, however, to solve the entire universe of problems created by globalization through immigration reform legislation. As you both know all too well, this is not an abstract exercise in policy development. The suffering of migrants here and in sending countries is real and cannot wait for perfection or for answers to the thorniest challenges presented by a global economy. The politics are too messy, the passions too inflamed, and the desperation too immediate.

Unquestionably, the most difficult policy consideration is the one addressed by Frank but drawn into sharp relief by Duke: what to do about the future flows of economic migrants. Frank is definitely on the right track with calling for more employment-based green cards (more permanence = more labor protections), but Duke is correct to point out that the most basic questions remain. How many more? How do we credibly determine need? How do we ensure enforcement suffices to prevent exploitation of both U.S. and immigrant workers? Do these new immigrants jump straigth to permanent residence or should we consider a transitional or provisional visa? Should a new program be worldwide or linked to countries where the sending pressures are greatest (and our ability to influence economic conditions may be the greatest)?

Many, many more questions to be answered. I hope the progressive community gets and stays engaged.


Duke1676 said...

thanks for your thought provocing comment keepingitreal.

you are quite right to point out that we cannot expect to solve all the problems related to globalization in any one piece of legislation...and particularly one dealing with such a complex and divisive issue as immigration reform. But the issue must and should become a vital component of the broader debate.

One of the great myths perpetrated by the right is the notion that the entire world would wish to immigrate to the US if given the opportunity.

This is Lou Dobbs' "We can't accept half the population of Mexico" argument so popular in restrictionist circles. But this little tidbit jingoistic exceptionalism rings untrue.

The true fact is that most people would be more than happy to stay in their home countries if they could. No one leaves friends, family, culture, etc. behind on a whim...or in order to increase access to material goods. You don't come here so you can buy big screen TV's or eat a never-ending supply of McDonalds….and as much as Lou and his restrictionist friend's would want the American people to believe that much of the world is driven by the same shallow materialism that drives much of the US population ... many if not most people drawn to this country without documentation do so because they must. It's a matter of survival.

And here is where the arguments and explanations of the worldwide effects of unrestricted globalization come into play. The American people must be made aware of the ramifications of both US economic and foreign policy decisions. Gloabalization puts us all in the same boat…particularly the poor and working class. …both hemisphericaly and globally.

This is a powerful concept when discussing and crafting immigration policy. Until there is broad understanding that policies crafted in Washington (or Mexico City for that matter) have far reaching consequences on both sides of the border, we cannot defuse the right-wing frame of immigration as some sort of consumer driven choice for a materialistic "better life"

We cannot solve the problems of globalization simply with immigration legislation…but to craft meaningful reform, and have it embraced by the US public…globalization must be brought into the wider debate.