Saturday, August 15, 2009

Some Issues Only Matter During Elections: Immigration Policy in America

Have you ever noticed that the topic of immigration reform takes on a very different shape prior to and during elections than it does for most of the year between? I'm not saying that the usual crackpots (your Tom Tancredos and Virgil Goodes come to mind immediately) aren't fulminating on the topic or the Minute Men and the 'border wall' go away. I'm saying that those of us not completely obsessed with that single issue tend not to give it the attention it deserves between election cycles. The voices calling for election reform during and prior to the last presidential election have fallen largely silent. It can be argued, of course, that the snarling reaction that reformers got from nativists in both major political parties is what led to the ringing silence on the issue. It can be argued, solely by poll data and election results, that too many Americans are in the nativist boat for the advocates of reform to be too vocal.

All the same, what do those of us who talk about immigration reform do with the topic between elections? I have to note, to my discredit, that I have not written on the topic of immigration policy since the Democratic primary. I don't even remember the original post to find and link it without digging through my entire backlog, since it is part of that portion of the blog I have not yet catalogued by label. This certainly is not something of which I am terribly proud.

However, I thought about the topic again the other day because a conservative asked (in the course of a question about former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum's (R) possible run for the White House in 2012) if a statement that Santorum was 'anti-immigrant' or 'anti-illegal immigrant.' My initial reply on some of the details and history of the issue led to a brief runthrough of matters and because I had too many thoughts to share coherently on someone else's blog (this conversation was on Ron Chusid's Liberal Values), I decided I would post something more in depth here.

I think the reason that most of us on the pro-immigration side of the reform debate don't say much between elections, is that despite the fact that we'd like to see the laws changed to make it easier for people to get here and prevent the people already here from being legally persecuted (in many cases regardless of their actual immigration status, on the thesis that because they are Latino they might be illegal) is that those of us not obsessed with the 'burning crisis of illegal immigration' are happier with the status quo than we should be. People come here, people work, people raise families, everyone is happy most of the time and we really don't stop to think about the legal status issue unless it obsesses us. Most of those who are obsessed by it tend to be on the nativist side, and most of them can be observed to have pretty baldly racist motives for their obsession. Whether people agree or disagree with them, on the political questions of immigration, most people simply do not take Tom Tancredo or Virgil Goode seriously and there is a reason for that.

However, the fact that the 'crisis' being manufactured by the nativist voices in our country is (as it always has been, since the days of the Know-Nothings) a manufactured crisis built on a primary foundation of prejudice, that does not make the immigration issue a real issue worthy of attention. Especially since far too many people are unaware of the reason there is even a question of comprehensive immigration reform or border security in the first place. While we have issues of illegal immigration with Asian nations, for instance, there is neither a call for reform on our Asia policy nor widespread fear-mongering on the topic.

While this many come as a surprise to many today, prior to WWII there was no immigration quota on applicants from other American nations. Immigrants from Canada, Mexico, and Latin America could (and did) cross the American border in unlimited numbers as long as they met basic immigration requirements. In many areas, transit across the border was easy and unregulated. In California (both the US and Mexican states), there was a large migrant worker population that travelled from the southern peninsula to the Oregon border (and points north) following the seasonal work. This was a core component of the West Coast agricultural economy in both the US and Mexico and while much of the migrant labor was Mexican, there were Americans who followed the same route as well.

After WWII, an America flush with victory and revelling in its destiny and exclusivity as never before changed its immigration policy vis a vis Latin America. Strict quotas were set, immigration guidelines toughened exponentially, and the borders patrolled with increasing vigour. With strict new labor laws, as well as flush economic opportunities, the local American labor pool dried up. This confluence of legal reform in labor law with counter-reform in immigration law had a two-fold effect. It served to simultaneously reenforce the dependence of West Coast agriculture on a migrant labor force consisting primarily of Mexican nationals and to criminalize that same labor force. There are those who posit complex conspiracy theories that this was the intended result, but I think it more likely that lawmakers did not foresee all the consequences of labor reform laws when coupled with the immigration restrictions.

Without the immigration restrictions, of course, this would have meant a significant rise in the standard of living of the migrant labor force and a significantly higher legal immigration rate. Coupled with the reformed labor laws, however, it created a situation where it made far more economic sense (from the point of view of a farmer) for farmers to hire illegal labor and pay their workers in cash, under the table, than to hire American citizens or documented residents and pay them according to the new labor regulations. This led to major economic exploitation that, itself, led to the unionization of much of the migrant labor force... an ironic situation, a legal union that represented many illegal workers. A balance was ultimately found, one where cheap agricultural labor and farmers could co-exist and both profit from the relationship.

It is terribly important to recognize how central this process was to maintaining stability in the agricultural economy of the West Coast during the 1950s. Prices for farm produce were kept down even as demand increased to a greater degree than ever, which meant significant regional growth. The region of Southern California called 'the Inland Empire', where I myself was born and raised, was built up and developed because of agricultural profits made possible by illegal labor. In many ways, the economic success and massive growth of California, post-WWII, is as dependent on illegal labor as it is on the aircraft industry. While many of the old agricultural communities have urbanized or suburbanized, the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, Riverside County, the Imperial Valley, and San Diego County all contain significant agricultural sectors. Even the heavily urbanized counties of Los Angeles and San Bernardino maintain at least minimal agricultural activity. When one factors in the large agricultural sectors of the Oregon and Washington economies, one starts to have an even greater sense of just how illegal immigration supports the American middle class when they go grocery shopping.

The sad economic facts make exploitation by American business in the United States preferable to many Mexicans over exploitation by American or Mexican business (or unemployment) in Mexico. This isn't something than can be changed by law enforcement budget hikes or crazy racist quasi-terrorists policing the border. It's also important to note, from a critically realistic point of view, that actually putting an end to the current system of migrant labor could have grave economic consequences for both the US and Mexico and could pose a significant politcal and social problem in Mexico. Therefore, whatever the solution to a genuinely morally repugnant siutation might be, it's not throwing law enforcement or military dollars at the problem. Nativist political activists who insist otherwise are simply showing their ignorance of the real situation.

Thus immigration policy is a difficult choice between three options:

1.) Maintain a morally repugnant but mutually beneficial (in a purely economic sense) system of exploitation of illegal workers to preserve the highly successful status quo. Most people in politics, in both the United States and Mexico, have consistently chosen this option. From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, it is very hard to argue against this choice. By simple, zero-sum measurements, everyone wins with this system... except that it is the most morally repugnant agribusiness system in American history since slavery. Which makes stark utilitarianism less appealing. Moreover, while the 'crisis' of undocumented workers 'stealing American jobs' and overburdening American social services is manufactured crap, it is true that this system allows corporations to switch from legal to illegal labor if they choose to take that option... and some corporations have. This has a real economic cost, but it is intellectually dishonest to blame the immigrants and doing so is incorrectly defining the problem. In these cases, the real issue is not undocumented workers but corporations who smuggle them into the country. It is worth noting, as well, that many of the workers exploited in such a fashion are not part of the Mexican influx of which the nativists complain, but Asian laborers specifically smuggled into the country by or for corporate clients.

2.) We can spend a massive amount of money on the kind of enforcement and interdiction policies the nativists advocate... and have largely the same situation that exists now, with a police state mechanism incorporated that poses a real risk of forcing Latino Americans to prove their citizenship on demand. First of all, this is unconstitutional (yes, despite my disregard for the intent of the Framers in many constitutional questions I do believe the document itself has value). It is a bill of attainder, acting to stigmatize a specific class of citizens and not the rest of the population. It is also in violation of the 14th Amendment, denying one section of citizens their full share of their civil rights. Before you argue otherwise, consider... who will asked to prove their citizenship before receiving medical care or when pulled over by a traffic cop? The odds are that it won't be people who 'look like Americans.' Beyond the constitutional problem, this also vastly increases law enforcement costs and will necessitate far more public spending than the share illegal immigrants currently consume.

3.) Take a deliberate, critical, and holistic look at the situation and work to actually define the problem. The definition of the problem will be a key step toward finding the solution and the current definition of the problem, as given by nativists and accepted by many Americans, is pure bullshit. The share of public spending that goes to provide social services for illegal aliens is too tiny to justify massive spending on enforcement and deportation operations or writing a new set of Jim Crow laws targetting Latino Americans. So the question becomes the chief object of any policy undertaken. Is the problem the economic issue of corporate criminality and loss of opportunity for the American labor force? Is the problem the humanitarian issue of the economic exploitation of undocumented workers by American employers? Is it a combination of the two? Is it simply that lack of legal access and legal opportunity creates the demand for illegal access and illegal opportunity? Clearly, different problems require different policies and any policy with any potential for success must, automatically, consider issues over which we do not have direct control in this country: the Mexican government's border security, the Mexican economy, the highly charged atmosphere of violence currently permeating many northern Mexican cities due to the drug war?

Repeatedly, for reasons that only become obvious when one considers the degree to which American agriculture relies on the status quo, the American government has chosen option #1. This is a purely utilitarian decision that can be criticized on several different grounds, but is very easy to understand when the situation is considered in its proper depth. Full and careful consideration of the situation also requires that one admit just how counterproductive and wasteful option #2 really is, in addition to being entirely at odds with the spirit of the laws that govern our nation and tell us how we can and should govern our nation. Even the 'enforcement first' compromise approach to immigration reform offered by John McCain during the presidential election would require an effort and expense not justified by the problems posed. So the choice really becomes between option #1 and option #3.

In all likelihood, because of the real undercurrent of nativism in both political parties (witness both the violent reaction of the GOP against Bush and McCain's varying amnesty and reform proposals and the vicious attacks on her primary opponents over this very issue by Hillary Clinton), it is unlikely that option #3 is forthcoming anytime soon. This particular prejudice is one that heavily colors American thinking across the political dividing line and which cannot be labelled a 'conservative' or 'liberal' vice.

That said, I believe real immigration reform is ultimately the choice that the country must take. We are a country of immigrants, except for what amounts to a tiny handful of the population we are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. The American exclusivity which drive the nativist current that has always inhabited American politics is built on ethnic and religious prejudices which are not the sort of political ideals compatible with America as a country or a concept. Utilitarian economic necessity may force that reform to be a knee-capped guest worker program of the kind proposed by President George W. Bush the final decision America reaches, and if it does that would be better than the situation as it exists now. However, in my opinion, the real solution is the removal of the quotas imposed on immigration to America from Latin America in the wake of WWII. The original thinking behind the original policy was that all of us, from Canada to Argentina, are in some sense 'American' and that our doors should be open to our neighbors. That this is no longer a feeling broadly shared throughout our national society is... upsetting.

Regardless of whether we choose option #1 for many years to come or what form we decide option #3 should take, it is time for another amnesty. The people here are part of our society. They have done jobs we have not wanted to do for pay that we would not be willing to do it, and their willingness to do so is part of what puts food on our table. Anyone who argues against this, Democrat or Republican, is simply wrong. Perhaps they don't understand the real nature of the situation, as many of us simply trying to live our every day lives do not. Perhaps they are something worse, like Tom Tancredo or Virgil Goode. Either way, they are not the people who should be given the forefront in this discussion and it's time America stops simply taking their line at face value without really considering the reality of the situation.

Adopting the slash and burn enforcement policies of nativists would be biting the hand that feeds us.


Sheria said...

Wow! This is one of the most cogent discussions of immigration policy that I've read in some time, and I read a lot on this topic. In my professional life, I've worked intermittently on issues in public education regarding access to post secondary education for young adults classified as illegals. I confess that I'm guilty of being cyclical in my focus on this issue that affects so many young people who do well in public schools and then find themselves denied access to higher education because the federal legal protections regarding access to education do not extend beyond K-12.

I particularly like the historical context that you provide on immigration policy. A thought provoking and well-stated article.

Chris Richards said...

We are all guilty of it. I know I'm guilty of it myself, which is one of the reasons I wrote the article. The nativists come out the loudest during election cycles, and those of us on the other side are frequently guilty of being reactionary... in the sense that we respond to the nativists when they make noise but forget all about it when the ballyhoo is over.

I admit to addressing this issue from a perspective that is largely economic rather than humanitarian, but I admire your efforts in the area of education. The humanitarian side of this issue is terribly important and shouldn't be ignored.