Kennedy-McCain Bill

The past two months have witnessed an explosion in the immigrant rights movement in America. When Representative Sensenbrenner introduced his bill, proposing the large scale deportation of undocumented immigrants, little did he suspect that millions of people would come out on the streets in protest. Los Angeles and Chicago saw the largest demonstrations in their history. Soon other cities followed suit. This movement, full of energy and enthusiasm, holds out the promise of radically changing America.

    Predictably, conservative sections of the immigrant leadership have tried to rein in the militant tendencies of this popular outburst. Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, explained that May 1st could be a made a  ‘win-win ‘ day [1] while urging workers to reject calls for a nationwide strike! Earlier, Mahony had written “Only comprehensive reform … embodied in the principles of … the Secure America and Orderly Immigration bill, will help solve our current immigration crisis.” [2] In this article, I will attempt to analyze this viewpoint. I will argue that the “Secure America and Order Immigration bill” introduced by Kennedy and McCain is deeply ï¬â€šawed and it would be a serious mistake for the immigrant rights movement to look to this piece of legislation for relief.

    A good summary of the Kennedy-McCain(K-M) proposals may be found at the Library of Congress website [3]. Brieï¬â€šy, the bill establishes a new visa type to facilitate future legal immigration. It also offers undocumented immigrants, already present in the country, an opportunity to legalize their status for 6 years with a chance at permanent residency later. While introducing the bill, McCain said “Homeland security is our nation’s number one priority” [4] and, indeed the first section of the bill deals with increased border security.

    A quick look at the actual provisions of the bill [5] reveals serious problems. First, consider the opportunities for future legal immigration. The bill proposes the creation of 400,000 new H5-A visas for  ‘low-skilled workers’. However, according to the latest data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of undocumented immigrants over the past 5 years averaged 850,000 per year [6]. Even assuming a steady rate of increase in the number of visas by 15% each year, it will take at least 6 years for the number of visas to catch up with the number of immigrants. Unless K-M plan to apprehend and turn back hundreds of thousands of people at the border, in a few years there will be several million additional undocumented workers in the US.

    Second, the bill ties legal status in the US to employment. If a person is unemployed for 45 days, s/he must leave the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [7], 10.9% of the Hispanic workforce was unemployed at some point during 2004, with the median length of unemployment being 16 weeks(112 days). Within a few years, there would be several million H-5A immigrants in the US. Hence, the 45 day provision would put two to three hundred thousand people at risk of deportation each year [8]. This estimate is quite possibly conservative since it is well known that young workers are subject to a greater incidence of unemployment than older workers [9] and the H-5A population is likely to be younger than the rest of the Hispanic population.
    Third consider the clauses dealing with family unification. Currently, US laws place per-country limits on family sponsored visas [10]. Not more than 33,600 family preference visas per year may be given to any one country. The K-M bill raises this limit to 48,000. Given that half a million Mexicans migrate into the US each year, this reform is grossly inadequate.

    The senators recognized, probably intuitively, that any attempt at large-scale deportation would be foolish. So, the bill legalizes the presence of undocumented immigrants in the US for a period of up to six years by granting them the status of ‘H5-B non-immigrants’. It is hard to critique this in detail, since the exact modalities of the ‘H5-B’ visa are somewhat unclear. It is evident, nevertheless that this is a recipe for creating second-class citizens who would live in constant fear of losing their status. ‘Two offences’, according to the Immigration and Nationality Act lead to automatic loss of status [11].

    At the end of this mandatory six-year long humiliation, immigrants would be allowed to petition the government for permanent residency. The K-M bill never discusses the issue of accepting the immigrants as full citizens. So, it is a mistake to claim, as some do, that the K-M bill includes a ‘path to citizenship’.

    In addition to these questions of implementation, the Kennedy-McCain bill overlooks three central issues. First, there is the issue of capitalism! One has often heard, over the past two months, comparisons of the taxes immigrants pay with the social spending they receive. Such comparisons miss the point entirely. As is obvious to any observer of the US economy, under the current (capitalist) system, immigrants are among the most intensely exploited of all workers. This means that while they contribute a lot of labor, the wages they receive in compensation are tiny. If one were to properly tally all the work immigrants do, one would find that it not only overwhelms the proportion of social welfare they receive but is more than enough for them to be provided with comprehensive health-care and many other benefits. In this light, the Kennedy-McCain proposal to ask the Mexican government to foot part of the bill for immigrant health-care is preposterous.

    Second, there is the question of imperialism. For the past 200 years, the American government has plundered Latin America and the Caribbean. Capitalist development in North America could not have taken place without the extraction of surplus from other countries. Conversely, this exploitation is also one of the leading causes of poverty in the countries that provide an immigrant population to the US. There is no moral principle that can justify the closure of American borders to victims of American policies.

    Third, there is the question of nationalism. A broad argument against current immigration policy must include a radical challenge to the concept of a nation-state. Indeed, imperialist powers have been hypocritically arguing for the past 15 years that human rights supersede sovereignty. I propose that we turn this argument on its head. The right to life and employment is an uncontroversial human right. To accommodate this right, the American nation-state must concede part of its sovereignty.

    The perspective, that US imperialism is responsible for immigration and that far from having a right to assert its sovereignty, the US must respect immigrants for the work they do, has immediate consequences. First, it invalidates proposals to militarize the border [12]. Second, it is apparent that the civic-responsibility and English-speaking clauses in the K-M bill are an unacceptable attempt to impose Anglo-Saxon heritage on the immigrant population. Third, K-M’s claims to promote economic development in Mexico ring hollow. How can poverty alleviation occur while successive bipartisan administrations continue to push through disastrous free-trade agreements with Mexico? Samir Amin’s critique of the millennium development goals is amply applicable here. These proposals are “nothing but empty incantations as long as the policies that generate poverty are not analyzed and denounced and alternatives proposed. [13]

    In summary, the Kennedy McCain bill is a series of insufficient and unworkable proposals. Immigrant rights supporters should reject this bill. Rather than relying on minimal legislative reform, we must work to build the movement till it becomes an organized political force capable of winning concessions not only for itself but for people all over the world.

Notes and References

[1] “Positive Action For Positive Change: Suggestions Toward Promoting Immigration Reform On Monday, May 1st, 2006″, Archdiocesan News Archive, April 19,2006
[2] “Called by God to Help”, Roger Mahony, The New York Times, March 22, 2006.
[3] Congressional Record Summary of S1033: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:SN01033:@@@D&summ2=m&
[4] Press Advisory from the Oï¬Æ’ce of Senator Kennedy, “Members of Congress Introduce Comprehensive Border Security & Immigration Reform Bill” (May 12,2005).
http://kennedy.senate.gov/ kennedy/statements/05/05/2005512A04.html
[5] Full text of S1033: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c109:S.1033:
[6] “Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.” ,Jeï¬â‚¬rey S. Passel, Pew Hispanic Center, March 2006
[7] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/work.t04.htm
[8] If we assume that number of H-5A visas that are given out each year will stabilize at 800,000/year with each visa being valid for 6 years, this leads to an estimate of a stable H-5A population in the US of size 4,800,000. Even if 5% of these workers are threatened with deportation, that number is 240,000.
[9] National Longitudinal  Survey of Youth
[10] See K-M, Title VI: ‘Family Unity and Backlog Reduction’.
Also see Immigration and Nationality Act:Section 202(a)
[11] See K-M, Title VII:  ‘H-5B Nonimmigrants’ and the Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 212(a)(2). Of course, in line with other paleolithic drug laws, posession of marijuana could also lead to deportation.
[12] In the first section of their bill, Kennedy and McCain gleefully write about the new aerial surveillance technologies they plan to introduce on the border. One must remark on the almost childish fascination that US oï¬Æ’cials share for ineffective high-tech military gadgets.
[13] “The Millennium Development Goals: A Critique from the South”, Samir Amin, Monthly Review, March 2006.

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