The US Senate is putting immigration law on its front burner this week. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has passed legislation significantly increasing criminal penalties for immigration law violations. In response, thousands of immigrant supporters have taken to the streets in protest.
Immigration, like a coin, has two sides, political and economic. Politicians, being shrewd by nature, can make anything into a political issue. Economics is the engine that necessarily drives society. Both politics and economics ebb and flow naturally. That natural process is subject to further manipulation by politicians.
Current US immigration concern overwhelmingly involves Mexicans. The Library of Congress has an interesting short history of US-Mexico involvement. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, it took the US only 25 years to provoke a war with Mexico, quickly secure a military victory and then, with the gun still to the head, negotiate a land steal as part of a peace treaty, paying a token $15 million for what is now California, Texas, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. With the land came lots of Mexican residents, who acquired US citizenship in the process, and then almost as promptly lost their land to non-Mexican Americans.
How a politician plays the immigration cards depends on whose vote is being sought. The current Republican base includes voters with conflicting attitudes on Mexican immigration. The traditional business base wants to have cheap immigrant labor to drive down costs and undermine unions. The righteous law and order voters want strict enforcement of the laws and harsh treatment for violators, including employers. Bush has tried to walk a line between these two with the guest worker proposal, encouraging illegal immigrants to make themselves legal so they can work the jobs “Americans are not willing to do”. The Bush proposal is satisfactory to employers, but criticized by law and order types as amnesty. With Republicans in control of the government, Democrats are somewhat content to lay back and watch Republicans flounder over immigration. Senator Kennedy has joined with John McCain to propose their version of a guest worker law.
At least since the Newt Gingrich Republicans slithered into Congress in 1994, the GOP has managed to keep the political side of the coin facing up. Better late than never, the coin needs to be flipped to its economic side. The Mexican immigration issue can be much more honestly resolved based on economics than on politics. Start with the phoney Bush framing of the issue as about “jobs Americans are not willing to do”. That misrepresentation and slander of American workers needs to be corrected. I suggest framing it as “jobs Americans cannot make a living doing”, or “ jobs American employers are not willing to pay a fair American wage to have done”.
Workers can obtain decent wages, hours and working conditions by two methods: negotiation with employers; and protection by legally required minimums. More than 30 years ago, Cesar Chavez led a heroic struggle to successfully negotiate on behalf of migrant farm workers. Republicans, starting with Reagan, have unfortunately been able to undermine unionism to the point where negotiation on behalf of workers is hardly viable. In the absence of negotiating power, the law needs to step in to bring the minimum wage, hours and working conditions up to date, to make all jobs ones which “Americans can make a decent living doing”. Such updates can be combined with a program to register alien workers through Social Security, putting the burden of document verification on the government, only requiring employers to report the alien social security number to the government.
There may be around nine million Mexicans illegally in the US. Many are here because employers and the government encouraged them and turned a blind eye to immigration violations. They should not be punished for American duplicity. Some sort of amnesty seems the only sensible way to resolve the conflicts of their presence. With decent wage payments being required, enough willing Americans and amnesty registered Mexicans should be available to fill the needs of employers. To prevent the flow of jobs across the border and to raise the standards for workers in Mexico, trade agreement between the US and Mexico should be re-negotiated. A Mexican who stays in Mexico should be able to achieve a standard of living comparable to a Mexican worker in the US. Prices of similar goods produced in the US and Mexico should also be comparable.
As I started writing this, I wondered what the current quota was for legal Mexican immigration to the US. I quickly learned immigration quotas based on country of origin were abolished in 1965. I also wondered about the origin of the law that says anyone born in the US is a US citizen, even if their parents were aliens. I found that the 14th amendment to the US Constitution is the source, having been adopted at the end of the War of the Rebellion [aka Civil War] to guarantee citizenship to the newly freed slaves. Their ancestors had been brought to America as “involuntary guest workers” to also do "jobs Americans were not willing to do” - work for life as an enslaved human, whose very humanity was denied by the enslaver and by the American government that enabled such inhumanity.