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Friday, May 12, 2006

Immigration debate, part 2 of 2

Point: Kara Wild

In response to your points:

1) I completely agree that political/economic reform has to happen in Latin American countries before the demand of their citizens to cross into our country will die down. I think that the United States ought to be giving aid toward their infrastructure, as well as the infrastructures of other undeveloped counties that send us a large number of illegal immigrants. It gives me hope to see democracy slowly taking shape in Mexico, where two of the presidential contenders have vowed to create jobs at home.

At the same time, we don't know how many years it would take for reform to set in, or how thorough it would be. Meanwhile, we are suffering from the effects now. Americans with a high school diploma, who once could count on working certain jobs to get ahead, are struggling to stay afloat. Do we just tell them, "Sorry. Gotta wait until social reform happens in Latin America"?

Moreover, in order to stay consistent, those who argue that people from impoverished countries should settle in the United States would have to advocate for open borders. Otherwise, where do you draw the line? When do you tell illegal immigrants that it is no longer enough that they are impoverished and desperate? I think a more realistic approach would be to acknowledge that while hundreds of millions of impoverished people would like to settle in this country, we can only accept a certain amount if we want to maintain not only a competitive wage, but our superior infrastructure. Even though we're not Europe, we still have an admirable social safety net; but if there is an unchecked number of low-income people vying to use our social programs, the system becomes so strained that no one, legal, illegal, or citizen, gets the help that he or she needs.

2) I agree that American history is dotted with unhealthy strains of nativism, but you need to be careful to distinguish between Confederate flag waving racists who want to build a white Christian America and the much larger group of Americans that supports diversity, but is also sincerely anxious about unfair job competition and the effect of illegal immigrants on our social programs. Concerns about unfair competition from cheap, exploitable labor can be irrational and unhealthy, but they are not inevitably so. For instance, in the years leading to the Civil War, a "free labor ideology... grew up [in the north] that celebrated the dignity of labor and the opportunities available to working men. Slavery was seen as unfair competition for men attempting to better themselves in life." It was largely because of this aversion to easily accessible, exploitable labor that the institution of slavery was toppled.

I'm willing to bet that quite a few people would back a program to legalize the millions already in this country (with penalty fees and an English requirement) if it could be guaranteed that millions more wouldn't sneak in and, ten years from now, demand the same treatment. Otherwise, we would just have the same problems, only the newly legalized individuals would be amongst those facing an uphill battle against exploitable illegal immigrants.

The Tom Tancredos and Minutemen would probably fade into obscurity overnight if just one rational middle-of-the road politician took these workers' concerns seriously. Instead, union workers receive lectures from John McCain about which jobs they will and won't do. Smug liberal activists inform them that concerns about illegal immigration are just distracting them from the "real" issues, as if we were all George W. Bush, incapable of considering more than one issue at a time. Editorials in the Los Angeles Times assure them that their anxieties are nothing more than narrow-minded reactions to economic trends, and that they should just get over it, because the trend will inevitably shift. If that's the case, why bother worrying about anything, much less the long-term effects of George W. Bush's policies on America, because in the grand scheme of things, it won't matter?

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is scared to take any position, except for Ted Kennedy, who compared the recent marches to the Civil Rights Movement. Certainly there's no real plan to stem the flow of illegal immigration, or provide relief to those who are adversely affected. It's this same mixture of blindness and political correctness that caused blue collar workers to flee the Democratic Party in the first place. Now that we have the chance to win them back, why would we want to alienate them all over again?

I think that a solution that takes their concerns seriously, while not hanging all 12 million illegal immigrants out to dry, can be reached. However, it requires politicians to risk the possibility that the most extreme red state and Latino voters will turn away from them because they won't get everything they want. So... I don't expect to see that legislation in the near future, especially given the bills being considered now.

Counterpoint: Michelle Klein-Hass

OK, first of your points first. What to do with the underprivileged who either don't have a diploma or have a high school diploma and nothing more? Education, education, education. Our priority should be making the good jobs available to our citizenry by educating our citizenry. Americans are more literate than they have ever been, ever, but the problem is that the good jobs require more literacy than ever before. I would like to point you to the website of Dr. Stephen Krashen, one of the best advocates we have for science-based literacy. (As opposed to the faith-based "literacy" programs imposed on schools by the No Child Left Behind Act.) Krashen was the first to point this out, something which would seem to be axiomatic but which isn't entirely obvious.

The living-wage jobs that are being created in America right now are not the kind that a person with "some high school" or a high school diploma can just ease into. They are professional jobs. They are jobs that require at the very least a BA. What exists for those who are not in that charmed circle? I'll give you four words: "Want fries with that?" And we all know that those kind of jobs are not living-wage jobs. We have a professional sector and a service sector. The manufacturing jobs that brought the generation who came home from World War II into the Middle Class do not exist anymore. That horse has left the barn for China and Thailand and South Korea and places like that, and no amount of locking the barn doors will do us any good.

Wage arbitrage is defined as pitting workforces in the Third World, with lower standards and costs of living, against workforces in the First World, which has a higher standard and higher cost of living. Many of the policies of the Reagan and Bush I administrations encouraged this flight of manufacturers from high-wage to low-wage countries. For a while, wage arbitrage helped, not hurt, the Mexican economy. For a time Mexican and Central American maquiladoras made for better lives for impoverished urban residents South of the Border. However, the race for the bottom continued, and the Mexican and Central American maquiladoras priced themselves out of the market when compared to places like China. The maquiladora boom went bust, and the tide of immigrants washed over the border once more.

Another thing that is pushing Mexicans across the border is the damage that NAFTA has done to Mexican independent farming. It mirrors the same process that is decimating family farms in the United States to enrich big agribusiness. Just as American family farmers are having to sell out and get out of the business, Mexican family farmers are having to sell out to large combines.

By the way, in some respects the Mexican social safety net is better than ours is. People are not leaving Mexico to get better health care or better social welfare. They could stay in Mexico and have a single-payer system that in a lot of respects works better than our own. Mexico has an infant mortality rate more like that in the United States, which is one of the worst in the industrialized world, than to the Third World that Mexico is still numbered with. No, Mexican immigrants are going where the money is. Their use of our horrifying medical system is just incidental: they get sick and have accidents here. It comes with the territory.

To address the exploitation issue, we needn't institute new laws that are punitive of immigrants themselves, but need only enforce laws against the hiring of undocumented workers that are on the books right now. The corporate exploiters who employ compliant, fearful "illegals," paying them less-than-minimum wages for hard, dangerous work or tedious, mind-numbing work need to be busted and busted hard. A stronger labor movement could be helpful, but 12 years of ReaganBush eviscerated the legal protections that were put in place in the 1930s with regard to unionization.

When Wal*Mart was caught with their hands in the cheap labor cookie jar, they were let off with a wagged finger in the face and slapped wrists. "Naughty, naughty!" The management people responsible for the decision to hire undocumented workers on cleaning teams should have gotten jail time, and Wal*Mart should have been fined a King's Ransom for the infractions. The laws to do this are on the books now. However, it comes down to the prime unspoken rule of the George W. Bush administration: It's OK If You Are A Republican. The rentiers who inherited the Wal*Mart empire after the death of Sam Walton are heavy GOP donors. So are the lords of the huge agribusiness combines who have built their businesses on the blood, sweat and tears of generations of undocumented labor. They loves them some Mexican cheap labor. If the laws on the books were enforced, they would have to pay higher wages to attract labor. They would have to play fair. And they don't like to play fair.

We need to attend to our borders. Both borders. The Al'Qaeda terrorists have used the open, almost non-existent Canadian border to get in to the US to work their deviltry. The guy who was stopped from bombing the Seattle Space Needle and the guy who was stopped from dynamiting LAX were both stopped from the Canadian border. The 9/11 hijackers and Zacharias Moussaoui came into this country from the Canadian border. However, unless Darth Cheney has a cloning facility on Planet Kamino to make new National Guard CloneTroopers, (tm LucasFilm) the current humans in the National Guard are sick, tired and battle-fatigued and stretched horribly thin. We are going to have to create a new infrastructure on both the Canadian and Mexican borders to make them less likely to be violated. And the government currently doesn't have the will to spend enough money to create this infrastructure. It's like the problem we have with our ports. They are soft targets for terrorism right now. Shoring them up would require real money and real hiring of people. That takes political capital and political will the Dubya Administration simply has not been able to conjure up with all their "Mandate" talk in November 2004.

The problem of stubborn unemployment amongst the underclass, the problem of porous borders, the problem of the nudge nudge, wink wink attitude towards employers, the problem of economies next door that need reform and development badly and have for a century, these are big and systemic and complicated and can't be legislated away or wished away into the cornfield. We need government to think big again, to think like FDR did when faced with the Great Depression. A works program would do wonders to accomplish a lot of the things we are both talking about. Take some of these anxious long-term unemployed and retrain them to police our borders. Take some of these people with high school educations and put them to work building a better and more controllable border system on both our northern and southern frontiers. Take some of these folks and give them law enforcement training so they can inspect companies for undocumented, underpaid workers. Allow them to trade their service in these works programs for free-ride scholarships in universities so they can move up into the Middle Class. Start a "Marshall Plan" for economic rebuilding of Mexico and the Central American archipelago.

This of course will take huge amounts of money we don't have. If we hadn't gone on our damn-fool adventure in Iraq and we hadn't given huge tax cuts to the wealthiest 1% of Americans maybe we could have done this, and still had money left over to convert our pitiful, expensive and broken health care system to a healthy single-payer system. Thank you, George W. Bush, for squandering the economy left to you by President Bill Clinton on adventure and cronies and bullshit.

I said it before, I'll say it again: this is a problem that is too big for simple solutions and pat answers. Really addressing it correctly is something nobody has the will to do. And by addressing it I don't mean jackboots and Berlin Walls and mass deportations. The wet dreams of the Tancredos, Sensenbrenners and Simcox-es and Gilchrists of this country are precisely the wrong answer to the problem.

Update 5/13/2006, 9:54 am:
I was remiss in mentioning the worst anti-worker scam that has been perpetrated, which is the H1-B Visa scam against American tech workers. Both the Senate and the House bill jacks up H1-B Visas so that American tech firms can bring in compliant, docile workers from India, Pakistan and the Former Soviet Union to write code and do tech support for peanuts while ignoring the fact that THERE ARE STILL A WHOLE SHIPLOAD OF UNEMPLOYED AMERICAN TECHIES WHO NEED THE WORK. I am a refugee from the tech sector which collapsed under the combined weight of the Dot-Com bust and 9/11.

I left the tech sector because it became clear to me that American companies have taken advantage of the same wage arbitrage conditions that caved in US manufacturing to outsource as much as possible of the tech infrastructure to Mumbai and Moscow and Warsaw and Islamabad. For those jobs that can't be offshored, the companies cry "there are no qualified workers here" and whine for more H1-B workers. Bullshit, there ARE lots of chronically unemployed workers who need work in the tech sector.

I figured that counseling would be a safe professional job to have, in that you really can't offshore it. Whether it be as a school counselor or as a counselor in an assisted living facility or in a clinic for underserved people living with the hazards of life in the ghetto, these are one-on-one, face time, person-to-person kind of jobs. I can't see this being shipped off to Bangalore anytime soon.

The offshoring of vast swaths of the tech sector is a story that is not being talked about in all the furor about "illegals" from South of the Border. These H1-B workers are largely caucasian, from places we don't hear talk about anymore. India. Pakistan. Russia. Poland. Hungary. Rumania. They don't stir the blood as much as Indios from Mexico and Central America. You don't hear Chris Simcox braying for them to be ejected from the US. Because they look too much like Chris Simcox.