Blog & Updates
Immigration reform is coming, but there’s a looooong row to hoe
June 22, 2009 - Posted by Katherine Vargas
By David Neiwert Saturday Jun 20, 2009 11:09am
Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum was on The O'Reilly Factor last night with substitute host Laura Ingraham, talking about the coming battle over immigration.
Ingraham, predictably, dismissed the key component of immigration-reform plans -- creating a path for citizenship for those immigrants already here -- as "amnesty". Cluestick to Ingraham: Since when is paying an appropriate fine for a civil violation -- which is what having illegal-immigrant status is in under our current laws -- "amnesty"? Because that's what the current plans call for.
Ingraham, though, wants all of those illegals to go back home first before they can get back in line. Noorani, fortunately, was able to point out the utter impracticality of that idea.
So Ingraham tried yet another tack: Why should we let all these undocumented workers into the workforce when we're suffering massive unemployment right now?
But that argument is predicated on the notion that immigrants "take jobs away from Americans" -- which is indeed a fundamental flaw. As Cristina Jimenez at The American Prospect pointed out a few months back, comprehensive immigration reform in fact "is a cost-effective path to short-term stimulus and long-term recovery":
Under current law, undocumented workers are at the mercy of employers to the same extent that unprotected native-born workers were before the union victories of the 1930s. Distance from those historic triumphs makes it easy to forget that when immigrants and non-immigrants are equally empowered, job quality improves and wages rise, because the common interests of immigrants and non-immigrants become much stronger than the artificial conditions that divide them. Today, as in the past, cooperation and coalition-building would benefit all immigrants and native-born Americans trying to work their way into the middle class.
The Immigration Policy Center [PDF file] explains (in a reform plan written for members of Congress):
In this economic downturn, many may argue that immigration reform is not a priority. However, reforming our broken immigration system is an important part of improving our economy. Currently, unscrupulous employers are able to exploit undocumented workers and create unfair competition by violating labor laws and paying sub-minimal wages. This is harmful to U.S. businesses and U.S. workers. Our immigration system needs to work for all Americans, not just for those employers looking for low-cost labor. We need to recognize that it would be far better if immigrant workers were here legally and could exercise the same rights on the job as native-born workers. Leveling the playing field for both workers and employers by legalizing all workers and enforcing labor laws against bad-apple employers will eliminate unfair competition and improve the wages and working conditions of all workers. Putting immigrant workers in the formal economy and higher wages will increase tax revenues and consumption.
And there's also the reality about just what niches in the economy immigrants and native-born workers fill:
“Immigrants and natives tend to differ in their educational attainment, skill sets, and occupations, and they perform jobs that often are interdependent. As a result, immigrants do not compete with the majority of natives for the same jobs. Rather, they ‘complement’ the native-born workforce—which increases the productivity, and therefore the wages, of natives… During the 1990-2004 period, the 90 percent of native-born workers with at least a high-school diploma experienced wage gains from immigration that ranged from 0.7 percent to 3.4 percent depending on education.”
-- Giovanni Peri, Associate Professor of Economics, University of California, Davis
Opponents of immigration reform frequently argue that immigrants “take” jobs away from many native?born workers, especially during economic hard times. If this is true, then one would expect to find high unemployment rates in those parts of the country with large numbers of immigrants—especially immigrants who have come to the United States recently and, presumably, are more willing to work for lower wages and under worse conditions than either long?term immigrants or native?born workers. Yet an analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau clearly reveals that this is not the case. In fact, there is little apparent relationship between recent immigration and unemployment rates at the regional, state, or county level.
Nonetheless, in spite of these realities, there's a political reality as well: moderate Democrats are still scared waaaay too easily by the right-wing nativist mouthpieces whose flying monkeys descended upon Congress in 2007 and effectively killed immigration reform -- by calling it "amnesty". Which no doubt is why it's the first word out of the mouths of people like Laura Ingraham and Lou Dobbs when they discuss reform.
The L.A. Times has a report on how the White House is moving immigration reform forward, but with a certain amount of caution -- since it's their assessment that the votes just aren't there yet:
The biggest obstacle to speedy passage of a citizenship plan, according to interviews with lawmakers and Capitol Hill strategists, is the House. Democrats hold a wide majority there, but at least 40 members represent moderate or conservative swing districts with few Latino voters where legalization plans are unpopular and often derided as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.
"This a very, very difficult issue," said Rep. Jason Altmire, a Democrat elected in 2006 from rural western Pennsylvania. "The Democratic Party is doing everything they can to capture this very fast-growing community, and I understand that. But I'm not in that camp. I made it clear that I was going to take a very hard line on this, and my district takes a hard line."
The White House has downplayed expectations for next week's meeting. According to Latino lawmakers who met with Obama this spring, the president had indicated that he would host a summit with lawmakers and advocacy groups, just as he did with healthcare leaders when he kicked off the debate on that front-burner issue. Instead, the immigration event will be small and private and will include only House and Senate members involved in the immigration debate.
Moreover, the White House is careful to point out that Obama wants to merely begin the debate this year. He is not promising that a plan will be passed this year, although in his campaign he said he would make the issue "a top priority in my first year as president."
Since then, Obama has made it clear that he has two primary legislative goals for the year -- a healthcare overhaul and a global warming bill. Both proposals are already putting many swing-district Democrats in a political bind.
What should immigration reform look like? The Immigration Policy Center has a sound approach:
First and foremost, the United States needs a legal immigration system that secures our borders, strengthens our economy, and supports our communities: The most practical and realistic way to reduce undocumented immigration dramatically is to bring U.S. immigration policy in line with economic and social realities. Lawmakers should require undocumented immigrants already living in the United States to apply for legal status and devise immigration policies that are responsive to labor demands and ensure fair wages and good working conditions for all workers, both native and foreign-born. Finally, lawmakers should address the delays and restrictions that impose unreasonably long waiting times on hardworking families seeking to join close loved ones in the U.S.
The AFL-CIO has some suggestions as well:
[I]mmigration reform must fully protect U.S. workers, reduce the exploitation of immigrant workers and reduce employers’ incentive to hire undocumented workers rather than U.S. workers. The most effective way to do that is for all workers -- immigrant and native-born -- to have full and complete access to the protection of labor, health and safety and other laws. Comprehensive immigration reform must complement a strong, well-resourced and effective labor standards enforcement initiative that prioritizes workers’ rights and workplace protections. This approach will ensure that immigration does not depress wages and working conditions or encourage marginal low-wage industries that depend heavily on substandard wages, benefits and working conditions.
This seems so sound and reasonable that, of course, we can be sure that movement conservatives and their affiliated nativists will adamantly oppose it.