Ordering The Tides To Stop

Senators, take my advice. Save yourselves some time, spend those hours on a nice dinner with your family, and do the nation’s immigrants and working people a huge favor: don’t try to resuscitate the immigration bill.

I’ll be honest. My conviction that the bill should be killed comes not from my own careful study of its almost 700 pages, but from scanning press accounts of what the bill contains. The simple fact is that I just can’t bring myself to read the actual text of this latest attempt to ‘solve’ the immigration problem. I’m tired of reading immigration bills, tired of shaking my head in disbelief at the devious ways in which corporate profits, xenophobia and a law-enforcement mentality reign supreme when it comes to immigration.


But I really should plough through this latest White House-designed bill, because each one that has been produced over the last few years has been chilling reading. The most infamous, HR 4437, was so heinous it brought a million people to the streets to protest just over one year ago.


HR 4437 got what it deserved.


But REAL ID passed in 2005, and many similarly harsh but less all-encompassing immigration measures have been tacked on here and there to other pieces of legislation, or have passed as rule or regulation changes.


And these big bipartisan bills keep coming. The nation is hungry for some big change, we’re told. The president is desperate for a legacy, we’re told. And immigrants keep coming in search of work. So attempts to legislate immigration continue.


The problem with this current immigration bill, allegedly the grand compromise of the century, is that it will simply make things worse. Legalization after 13 years, $5,000 and a no-return-guaranteed trip home means most undocumented immigrants will stay in the shadows. We need legalization, but not one that looks like this.


So crack down on the employers, I hear you say! Well, that’s not the answer either. While we have seen some high profile raids over the past year, the American economy is littered with companies that use undocumented labor. It simply wouldn’t be possible to police an expansive employer-sanction system, so toughening the penalty would only be for the sake of appearances, to give the impression that the tough-love was being shared equally around. And past experience has led Latino groups to decry employer sanctions for serving as a tool to allow for racial profiling and discrimination in hiring. Why risk hiring Latinos when their social security card could turn out to be a fake?


Why it is so hard for our lawmakers to learn from failure? Every indicator since the last massive immigration law changes in 1996 shows that things have only gotten worse. More undocumented immigrants are entering the country via the southern border, more migrants are dying in the desert as they make the crossing, more prison beds are being found to detain immigrants and more refugees are being denied asylum. Simultaneously, more manufacturing jobs have been lost to trade policies like NAFTA than at any point in recent history and a good half of all Americans currently live paycheck to paycheck.


There is a crisis in America, but its not immigrants who are to blame.


And a law-enforcement model of dealing with immigration is certainly not working. As quickly as the country finds grounds to arrest, lock up and then deport a non- citizen, there are thousands more immigrants entering, both with papers and without papers. And don’t be fooled into believing that it is only the ‘illegals’ that are being arrested and deported. The detention arsenal of the government targets green card holders, foreign students and guest workers just as aggressively.


So I start from this question-simple and easy: Why are immigrants coming to the U.S.?


Sure, some may be coming here hoping for riches, hoping to make it big, hoping for the American Dream. But the overwhelming majority is not. Some immigrants come because they are fleeing persecution; some to study; and still more come to be reunited with their family. But what connects many immigrants is that they simply cannot make enough money for their family to survive in their home country.


I have spent years researching immigration policies and talking about immigration with citizens and migrants alike. While some immigrants certainly do aspire to stay permanently in the U.S., many wish they could have remained in their home country and earned a living wage there.


But trade policies like NAFTA, CAFTA and free trade agreements with many Caribbean and Asian countries, coupled with IMF and World Bank policies that have gutted social welfare programs in many of these countries have forced millions into migratory patterns to eek out a living. When their village or rural town becomes unviable, most people move to the nearest big city. Cities in all these countries are far from able to provide meaningful employment for the masses and the migration continues until a decent paying job can be found. In this part of the hemisphere, that place is the United States.


Simultaneously, U.S. workers have suffered because employers can hire, en-masse, a workforce that has few rights, no benefits and accepts paltry wages. But somehow, this exploitation of undocumented workers has been transformed into the idea that immigrants are the ones to blame for ‘taking’ plum ‘American’ jobs.


So here’s my solution. Let’s go to the root cause of the problem. Let’s deal with why people can’t stay in their home country and earn a fair wage, and lets then look at why there is a race to the bottom for wages and job conditions here in the U.S. In sum, the domestic immigration problem should be tackled through trade and labor policies.


Left field, I know.


Almost like saying lets drop the war on drugs law- enforcement model and apply a public health strategy to deal with people caught up selling and using drugs. Imagine if we could end, or at the very least massively reform, NAFTA, CAFTA and all the free trade agreements the U.S. has with other nations. Let’s push for fair trade or even take some of the huge budget that is spent on militarizing the southern border (because let’s be real, it hasn’t worked and more money for stadium lights, unmanned drones and border patrol agents is not going to stop people coming in search of work) and lets invest in jobs that will keep people where they want to be: in their home country. If one could earn $7-10 an hour in Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, Peru etc, you watch the flow of undocumented immigrants dry up. And while this may seem a pipe dream, with political will, it is possible.


But fixing trade policies alone is not enough. We also seriously need to tackle the way in which corporate America has built its profit base by forcing down wages and gutting worker benefits in this country. Imagine a world in which the minimum wage was $10 an hour. And no, this does not mean that prices need to rise enormously, it means that CEO pay and shareholder profits need to drop. It means that the gap between the very rich and working people needs to lessen. Because it is not that immigrants are doing the jobs that no Americans will do, it’s that immigrants are doing the jobs that no Americans can afford to do.



Deepa Fernandes is the host of WBAI radio’s “Wakeup Call,” and the author of “Targeted: National Security and the Business of Immigration.” 

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