The United States has the largest arable landmass of any country in the world and is the 177th-most densely populated. The birth rate has been below the rate needed to sustain the population since 1971 and has just hit an all-time low. In a world of more fluid borders, too, where workers were empowered to leave countries and regions where conditions were poor, it would be easier to organize around improving global labor standards. Institutions of the labor Left, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, have a long history of supporting free migration on ideological grounds, as a natural component of global worker solidarity and empowerment. Immigration is not a problem: The hoarding of resources by the comfortable and greedy, in the U.S. and around the world, is the problem. We should seek to abolish the components of a system that is designed to police and punish the poor and working class, and focus our energies on our real enemy.
On January 3, their first day in power, Democrats passed a spending bill that included $1.3 billion in new border fencing, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer touted as “smart, effective border security.” Sen. Kamala Harris has stated, “We can’t have open borders. We need to have border security, all nations do.” Even Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “We must continually modernize our border security measures.” Sanders, Harris and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand briefly seemed to join the call to “abolish ICE” in response to family separations in summer 2018, but when pressed for detail, variously advocated replacing or restructuring the agency. A bill by Reps. Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal to abolish the agency went nowhere.The present debate over whether there should have a physical wall along the border (Trump) or a “smart wall” of high-tech surveillance (Democrats) is simply one of cost-effectiveness, not a real difference of opinion. Forty-two Senate Democrats and Independents (including presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar) and 213 House Democrats gave in to Trump’s threats of a second government shutdown and voted in February for a bill to increase border funding.
When considering immigration enforcement, it’s important to break it down into a concrete series of actions that occur in the real world every day. Policymakers can talk in a general way about “carrots and sticks,” but the stick means the use of military force to stop ordinary people from crossing an imaginary line in the ground. Border militarization drives people to attempt entry at more and more dangerous and remote southern crossings, where many die in agony from intense desert heat. Enforcement means trapping ordinary people in places of profound poverty and instability. Deportation means physically ripping ordinary people away from their families. Detention, surveillance and Kakfaesque immigration bureaucracies psychologically and physically torture thousands every day. This is a system so fundamentally inhumane that no compromise can be made with it. It is a system for the jailing and exiling of humans who dare to try to live in a different place than the one where they were born. The racist and nationalist dimensions of the present immigration system are not detachable features: They are fundamental to the premise of punishing people for their birthplace.
Xenophobic and fearmongering arguments against immigration have become easier to discredit. There are no statistics to support Trump’s assertions that immigrants disproportionately commit crimes. If you believe in human equality, privileging the economic well-being of U.S.-born workers simply because of their birthplace is arbitrary and unjustifiable. But even for those who do seek to privilege US-born workers, the argument that immigration is inherently “bad for the economy” is easily dispensed with. The American Immigration Council estimates that immigrant-led households have $926.9 billion in collective spending power, and immigrant business owners accounted for 20.3 percent of all self-employed U.S. residents in 2015. A 2014 Economic Policy Institute analysis found that immigrants, though 13 percent of the population, accounted for 15 percent of economic productivity.
Whether undocumented and guest workers under the present system actually lower overall wages, and the extent to which they directly compete against native-born workers, continues to be an unsettled question. Some studies have concluded that increased immigration has negative wage impacts for black and Latino men who did not complete high school. In a meta-analysis of studies going back to the 1990s, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that “particularly when measured over a period of 10 years or more, the impact of immigration on the overall native wage may be small and close to zero. However, estimates for subgroups span a wider range.” The research noted that native workers who have comparable skills to immigrants may experience a lowering of wages, hours or employment rates, although “there are still a number of studies that suggest small to zero effects.” There should be skeptism of those commentators who blame immigrants for lower wages rather point to the corporations that set those wages, as well as those who tout restricting immigration as the best way to redress the black-white wealth gap rather than reparations or other forms of investment in black communities. Currently, little effort is made to ensure that anyone has access to wage and labor protections. ICE’s 2018 budget for its enforcement and removal department was $4.8 billion, while the Department of Labor’s 2018 budget for its wage and hour department was $280 million. We spent 20 times the amount chasing unauthorized immigrants than we did chasing unscrupulous employers. What if, rather than putting resources into preventing unauthorized immigrants from entering the workforce, we put resources toward ensuring that labor standards are actually enforced for all workers?
Both the Republicans and the Democrats recognize that temporary guest workers and undocumented laborers are important to a number of industries, as well as services (including domestic labor and elder care), of which politicians, donors and constituents personally avail themselves. In some industries, like harvesting, fishing and summer resort work, immigrants are often the only willing labor available. In the eyes of employers, the chief advantage of immigrant labor is that immigrants are often easier to coerce and control than citizens. The promise of available work encourages a large number of people to immigrate, but Democratic policymakers are wary that appearing to let too many people in will allow political opponents to stoke nativist sentiments. So the United States pays Mexico (through the billion-dollar Merida Initiative) to stop some people before they get to the border, then menaces and detains the subset that U.S. Border Patrol apprehends in the act of crossing, and then sends Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to round up and deport some of those who get through. These brutal policies keep the unofficial workforce stable, at around 8 million over the past 10 years, and keep undocumented and guest workers fearful enough to refrain from availing themselves of workplace protections. Even the most hardline Republican authored immigration bills avoid imposing serious penalties on employers who use undocumented labor, and have included provisions to expand the guest workforce while further cutting off its access to labor protections. Pro-business open borders advocates like the Cato Institute, envisions immigrants serving as a tier of second-class citizen without access to public benefits. To be fair, some immigrants might prefer to be second-class citizens in the United States rather than struggle in their home countries, as libertarian economists frequently point out.
For those who would improve our immigration system, there are two broad possible approaches. The first, bowing to concerns about unfettered migration, is to replace our existing immigration bureaucracies with better, fairer bureaucracies. The 2009 Ray Marshall plan adopted by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, for example, offered a blueprint for a centralized government commission to assess domestic labor needs and offer visas to fill labor gaps in various sectors. The stated goal was “more rational and flexible flows of foreign workers.” The catch to any such bureaucracy is that, as long as you are restricting where people can live and work, you must enforce those restrictions. The Ray Marshall plan envisioned the continued use of deportation and border policing, as well as the expansion of a biometrically integrated system to keep track of immigrant workers—which represents, in effect, a vast expansion of the surveillance state. Right now, we need to show passports or ID cards at the border; under this new system, we would need our work papers checked (or eyes scanned) anytime we wanted to apply for a new job, and possibly anytime we wanted to enter our workplaces at all. The American Civil Liberties Union is on record opposing the expansion of E-Verify, the existing program to verify work authorization, on the grounds that it “creates a whole new level of intrusive government oversight of daily life—a bureaucratic ‘prove yourself to work’ system that hurts ordinary people.” The Ray Marshall plan proposes amnesty for the current undocumented population but doesn’t acknowledge that, as long as people’s legal work options are restricted, unauthorized migration will inevitably continue, as it did after the 1986 amnesty. If the enforcement system is not dismantled, those new immigrants will live in fear.
Immigration restrictions have devastating human consequences that significantly overshadow the few, highly questionable benefits, and that we should aim to do away with as much of the immigration enforcement system as possible and in no way expand it. If you oppose jailing and deporting people for immigration offenses, you must be in favor of significantly opening up the border, because when negative consequences are reduced, people without authorization will start to move more freely. The Right is well aware that for most of the public, “open borders” triggers a xenophobic fear of invasion.
An easy start is for Democrats to put forward a bill expanding humanitarian categories of immigration relief to encompass people fleeing violence, extreme poverty and natural disasters, and people with long-standing social or family ties to the United States. This is entirely in line with international practice; courts in places like Canada and the EU, for example, routinely use a “balancing test” to decide whether someone is deportable, weighing their immigration offense against other compelling factors in their favor. This approach is so commonsense that many Americans believe it is how our immigration system already works, and that only “criminals” are deported. Migrant-rights groups like Mijente, the Detention Watch Network and United We Dream advocate making long-term shields from deportation—like Temporary Protected Status (TPS), for people from war-torn or disaster-struck countries and Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—into permanent statuses.
The most urgent target for reform is toning down the wildly disproportionate penalties that presently exist for immigration violations. One of these penalties is detention. There should be a complete end to the jailing or civil detention of people for immigration violations alone. Pilot community programs have been shown to be very effective at getting immigrants to show up for court dates, so that is an extremely flimsy excuse for the mass incarceration of immigrants. Deportation is effectively exile, a penalty we impose for no other crime and, in almost all cases, deportation is both cruel and unnecessary.
“Pitting worker against worker is an age-old tactic of the boss to distract us from the real issues, divide us and keep us poor—and we will not fall for it,” read an AFL-CIO immigration policy statement issued in 2017. “The only way to stop the race to the bottom in wages and standards is for working people of all races, religions and immigration status to stand together and demand that corporate power be put in check. This will be done not by deporting immigrants and scapegoating them for the precarious labor market.”
Taken from here