Real Immigration Security
Tom Barry is policy director of the International Relations Center.
A common denominator unites the otherwise fractious immigration debate. That’s the widespread congressional concern with security—national security and border security.
All the major players—whether anti-immigration conservatives or pro-immigration liberals—stress that any new immigration legislation must ensure that Americans are secure.
The hard-line restrictionists in the House of Representatives, with their “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Control Act of 2005,” established law enforcement as the baseline of any new immigration reform. In the Senate, security is also the leading component of the various reform proposals. The bipartisan bill that received early support from pro-immigrant and church groups was the “Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act,” sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy and John McCain.
As the Senate Judiciary Committee offered a consensus bill this week to the Senate floor, Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to push ahead with his own enforcement bill mirroring the House measure that included the building of a 700-mile long fence along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. Typical of the fear-mongering rhetoric used by restrictionist organizations like the Federation of American Immigration Reform and the Minuteman Project, Frist described immigration as a “dangerous national security threat,” observing that the “scariest part” of illegal immigration is that “we have absolutely no idea what they'll do tomorrow on U.S. soil.”
Despite there being no evidence linking actual or planned terrorist operations to unauthorized immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the restrictionists have succeeded in tying the complex immigration issue to national security. Under the cover of national security objectives, the immigration restrictionists—ranging from Rep. Tom Tancredo, R.-Col., to the Minuteman Project and the Federation for American Immigration Reform—have amplified the voices of nativist, white supremacist and cultural supremacist forces.
But the real security issue that underlines the immigration issue is job security. Except for political refugee cases, immigration is mainly a labor-market issue. Contrary to Frist’s speculations, we do have a precise idea of what unauthorized immigrants crossing from Mexico do on our soil: they look for jobs and work very hard for substandard wages.
The proposals for “comprehensive” reform that include such measures as earned legalization and new guest-worker programs acknowledge this basic fact of immigration. But they fail short of being truly comprehensive because they do not acknowledge the reality that immigrant labor—both skilled and unskilled—does exert downward pressure on wages and working conditions.
No doubt that immigrant labor is a boon to the overall economy and fills unmet demand for workers, especially in the service and agricultural sectors. However, unless immigration policy is connected to economic policies that encourage full employment and insist that workers are paid livable wages, job security of citizens and other legal U.S. residents will be threatened.
Not since the end of World War II, when Congress passed the Employment Act of 1946, has the U.S. government been committed to an economic policy that provides full employment. In the past five decades, U.S. economic policy has become increasingly less concerned about creating the conditions for full employment.
Rather, our economic policy has measured economic progress more by such standards as increased trade, high corporate profits, high productivity and low inflation. All these outcomes are assumed to be the product of a downward pressure on union organizing, a large surplus workforce (unemployed, women, migrants), deregulation of government oversight of business, government subsidies and tax breaks to businesses, and decreased wages and benefits. Economic globalization in the past couple of decades has accelerated these worker-unfriendly trends, leading to increased income inequality, unlivable wage rates, decline of unionization and harsher working conditions.
A commitment to full employment implies a reversal of all these adverse trends. Instead, governments at the national, state and local levels would recommit themselves to the objectives of full employment, livable wages and an efficient social safety net for those unable to work. A small beginning of this reversal of priorities is the establishment of living wage laws by some towns such as Cambridge and Santa Fe.
The goal behind these laws is that all workers, no matter what the industrial or service sector, be paid a livable wage to ensure that all families have basic needs covered. Government regulation would ensure that all business sectors employ best practices so that no job would be considered undesirable by citizen/authorized resident workers because of demeaning working conditions or non-livable wages.
Absent a national commitment to providing existing residents with jobs that can support thems and their families, the immigration reform debate is subject to manipulation. Manipulating the debate from one side is corporate America, who benefits from a ready supply of cheap labor, and from the other side by right-wing populists who, by scapegoating immigrants, deflect popular attention from the real causes for economic insecurity and the fraying of the country's social fabric.
It is unlikely that the U.S. Congress will approve a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the coming year—an election year when incumbents, especially moderates and liberals from both parties, will be reluctant to make themselves targets of restrictionist backlash campaigns.
The 12 million unauthorized immigrants who have established roots in U.S. society and economy should be granted legal residency status and a clear path toward citizenship. Proposals such as those by President Bush and Sens. Kennedy and McCain for new guest-worker and temporary worker programs are driven almost exclusively by business demands for cheap and expendable labor. More likely in the short term is bipartisan approval at the national and local levels for measures that play the security card—increase number of border patrol agents, increase the authority of local police and other government officials to aid in the enforcement of immigration laws and add new punitive measures that further restrict the integration of unauthorized immigrants into U.S. society.
Security should be a central issue in the intensifying immigration debate. But rather than framed as a “us vs. them” debate about protecting our national borders, the discussion about immigration should be about policies that aim to create wage and job security for all workers living and working in the United States. At the same time that immigration policy should be linked to a full employment policy at home, a comprehensive immigration policy should also be tied to a new foreign policy that would lend support to national policies abroad that prioritize poverty alleviation and job creation, thereby increasing human security in sending countries like Mexico and reducing pressures to emigrate.