Millions experience the repressive nature of the U.S. immigration system on a daily basis, lifting its need for reform to a level of urgency. And fixing this broken program is integral to building the unity among U.S. workers that is required to challenge corporate America’s attacks on our wages, rights, public social services, and living conditions.
However, until recently, the Democrats and Republicans largely left immigration reform on the back burner except for campaign speeches and promoting more repressive measures.
Now a bipartisan "Gang of 8" senators and President Obama are promising some type of comprehensive immigration reform, likely to happen early this year. Why the change?
Much has been written about the millions this issue affects and their strength as a voting bloc, seen evidently in the November re-election of President Obama. But this new attention is also a testament to the strength of the immigrant rights movement that erupted in 2006, and its potential to reignite on the streets if a legislative avenue isn't found soon. If it were not for these factors, there would be no movement for change in the halls of political power and no pretense to address immigrants' concerns.
This is because immigration policy has largely been determined by corporate interests. By dividing workers into categories of those with papers and those without, corporations and their legislators have created a desperate subclass. Frequently, undocumented workers are paid under minimum wage, are subject to unsafe working conditions and sexual harassment, can be fired for union activity, have little access to benefits, and live under the threat of deportation.
The number of industries that depend on undocumented immigrant labor include agriculture, food processing, land development and construction, tourism, garment productions, light manufacturing, transportation, retail, health care and domestic services. Without the labor of "illegal" immigrants these industries' shareholders would lose substantial profits.
While corporations realize super profits from this employed subclass of immigrants without papers, their status acts as a drag on the rights, benefits and wages of all workers. In the competition for jobs, big business pits desperate undocumented immigrants against documented workers with higher pay expectations and legal protections. This results in dividing workers and accelerating a race to the bottom.
To provide a cover for this divisive but profitable arrangement, both the Republicans and Democrats promote the stereotype that undocumented immigrants are a drain on society. This does not square with the facts. For instance, according to the National Immigration Forum, undocumented people pay $7 billion in taxes a year for benefits they largely cannot use. Given this gross injustice, and given that their labor constitutes a bedrock of society, it is hard to make the case that "illegal" immigration drains the economy.
What is needed is an immigration policy that will raise the living standards of all workers. In order to do this, it is necessary to eliminate the legal restrictions that often leave undocumented workers living in conditions near slavery. Amnesty, which was the original demand of the immigrant rights movement, would do this. Amnesty means a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that is free of bureaucratic obstacles, prohibitive wait times, unaffordable fees, penalties and back taxes.
Such legislation would remove big business's power to undercut native-born workers' wages and conditions by hiring and super-exploiting immigrants without papers. It would benefit the economy since millions of previously undocumented immigrants would be able to make better wages and have more money to spend.
In addition, immigrant workers have been a source of growth and invigoration for the union movement. Amnesty would open up a vast resource to strengthen Labor.
President Obama and the gang of 8 senators, however, have already ruled out such a simple measure despite its desirable effects. For these politicians, comprehensive immigration reform is a balancing act: they must appease the immigrant communities by throwing them a bone, while not upsetting big business's profitable arrangements.
The bone that is being offered is a big one — a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants. But experience has shown that what such a "path" means for those who want to travel it, and what it will actually be by the time the corporate politicians are done shaping it, can be two very different things. Based on the sketchy proposals already put forward, there are plenty of reasons to be on guard, if not up in arms.
The Proposals So Far
In the proposal put forward by the gang of 8, undocumented immigrants will be expected to pay fines, back taxes, and qualify for a "probationary legal status," according to an undetermined criterion, before being able to apply for permanent residency. Echoing this approach, Obama said of the path to citizenship: "It won't be a quick process, but it will be a fair process."
No path to citizenship will be "fair" if such obstacles prevent millions from applying because they cannot afford to pay and/or get lost in bureaucratic dead-ends. The priorities of those politicians supporting comprehensive immigration reform appear concerned with making a pathway to citizenship more discouraging than realizable.
The senators' proposal also requires an E-verify system for workers to ensure that employers do not hire them if they are "illegal." Chris Calabrese of the ACLU stated the following on the issue:
"The outline's call for employers to be mandated to use E-Verify, an expensive electronic employment-verification system, is a thinly-disguised national ID requirement that undermines the privacy of every American worker while imposing new burdens on businesses. Mandatory E-Verify would not only lead to discrimination against those who look or sound 'foreign,' but also increase the risk of identity theft and make it harder to get a job."
What is perhaps most alarming about the senators’ proposal is that they are calling for increased border security and oversight of those who are here on visas before taking major steps forward on the path to citizenship.
Under Obama’s watch, border security has been beefed up and militarized to an unprecedented degree. This has cost U.S. taxpayers over $100 billion in the last 10 years, with almost 10 Border Patrol agents per mile along the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in a mounting toll of dead and murdered immigrants.
In regard to increasing oversight of those here on visas, over 2 million immigrants will have been deported under Obama by 2014. This exceeds the level of immigrants deported during Bush’s two terms in office and is more than all ejected immigrants combined before 1997. If Obama and the senators were serious about creating a pathway to citizenship, their first mandate would be to stop the deportations.
Fixing the broken immigration system is too important to be left to corporate politicians. It is necessary that immigrant rights organizations, Labor and others who support the demand for "Amnesty Now!" begin to mobilize in the largest marches possible to show undeniable, mass support for this humanitarian solution that will benefit all workers.
The strategy of such efforts should not be to line up behind the Democrats, who have offered only stunted attempts to address immigration reform and will deliver even less if they can get away with it. Rather, grassroots organizing efforts must seek to create broad unity and assert that, regardless of what those in power do, they will continue to build their own strength and not settle for reforms that prioritize corporate interests over workers' needs.Mark Vorpahl is a union steward, social justice activist and writer for Workers Action and Occupy.com. He can be reached at [email protected]