A Nation of Settled Immigrants: An Early View of the Obama Administration’s Immigration Strategy

Worldwide, there are more than 190 million migrants and approximately 20 percent of them reside in the United States, numbers that suggest that migration seriously undergirds the U.S.’ domestic economy and local social conditions. Yet, compared to the drama of Minute Men on the border or the fervor of the international Labor Day marches across the country in 2006, the relative lack of attention on immigration today makes it appear as though the America of 2009 has all but forgotten about what was supposed to be this country’s great immigration debate. This may, however, give a false impression. Debate over immigration concerns remains a pressing issue for advocates of all perspectives on the question with a new found sense of immediacy which has been exacerbated by the worldwide economic recession.

Americans who feel their jobs are threatened by immigrants are pushing for tighter immigration controls and increased border security. The precarious economic situation in which the recession has left many Americans seems to have intensified their opposition to the inflow of migrants from abroad.

Immigrants, as well, are feeling the impact of the recession. Spending is being cut across the board, but undocumented immigrant workers are suffering disproportionately. As economically-straitened middle class citizens decide they don’t really need gardeners or maids, the immigrants who previously filled these roles are left without work, plunging them into a condition of economic insecurity and forcing increasing numbers of them to migrate back to their countries of origin.

Whether they feel that tighter immigration controls are necessary to ensure their job security, or whether they are hoping for a sweeping amnesty to provide access to assistance at a time of economic scarcity, people across the economic and social spectrum continue to have vested interests in American immigration policy. The debate may have cooled off, but it is far from over. Persistent disagreements are simmering, waiting to resurface when Obama’s proposal for immigration reform is unlimbered.

The Obama Administration’s Proposal
During his campaign, President Barack Obama pledged to undertake immigration reform in his first year in office, but both the promised legislative changes and the debate necessary to implement them have yet to occur. Rather, the administration has opted to expand a $1.1 billion program, begun under George W. Bush, to verify the migratory status of incarcerated individuals in an effort to deport more criminal aliens. This tactic affirms an ostensibly existing “zero-tolerance” policy regarding illegal immigration. Furthermore, the administration has resumed construction of a portion of the $8 billion virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The most apparent change from prior policy is the new emphasis on the deportation of criminal aliens – a highly abstract priority that has materialized in a noticeable reduction of traditional workplace raids. Critics accuse the Obama administration of “turn[ing] a blind eye to the ‘non-criminal’ illegal aliens,” granting them an undeserved de facto amnesty. House Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, believes that “having to choose between criminals and non-criminals is a false choice. The administration can and should do both,” because all illegal immigrants are in violation of U.S. law.

It is projected, however, that this new focus will result in increasing the deportation rate of delinquent illegal immigrants ten fold over the course of Obama’s first term in office. And for the millions of individuals living in the United States without papers, the de facto amnesty created by Obama’s “blind eye” could never produce the comprehensive amount of security that would derive from a real, irrevocable amnesty. Their complaint is not that the government isn’t doing enough to prevent immigration; it is that it makes immigration too difficult.

What the State Department Says
Washington’s official line is that “the United States supports safe, orderly and legal migration” with an emphasis on human rights, protection of asylees, “opposition to uncontrolled and illegal migration,” anti-trafficking efforts, and integration of legal immigrants into the fabric of American society. But past and current policies have significantly alienated immigrant populations, forced migrants into illegal statuses, protected only those facing immediate persecution in their home countries, and seriously impeded the exercise of basic human rights.

What it takes to be a Refugee
In early May, the Coast Guard fished 27 people out of the water off the coast of Florida after a boat full of Haitian would-be immigrants sank. Once they recover, the survivors will likely join the ranks of Haitians waiting to be summarily deported. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and it has yet to recuperate from the natural disaster resulting from last year’s multiple hurricanes. Yet, while Cubans are granted automatic asylum due to Washington’s historical political opposition to the island’s government, those Haitians who attempt to escape from the perpetual poverty they face in their island nation have not suffered enough for the State Department to consider them legal refugees.

Approximately one third of the world’s population lives on less than $1 a day. But extreme poverty is not an immediate enough threat to personal security to warrant Washington’s official sympathy, or, indeed, that of most developed immigration destinations. Persistent economic deprivation is neither war nor political turmoil and apparently does not entitle people to the same right to asylum, even though in both instances people are starving. The 20th century has seen far more people lose their lives to poverty than to violent conflict.

Human Rights
The case of Haitian would-be refugees in America is one among many examples of governments rejecting people in need of assistance, which gives rise to the claim of specialists, like Teresa Hayter, that immigration controls, by their very nature, “undermine a long list of human rights,” including the right to not be tortured or subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment, to protection from arbitrary detention, to a fair trial, to family life, and to work. Harry Binswanger also argues for an erosion of immigration controls, as they contradict the principal of individual rights on which this country is built.

The more important of these considerations is the denial of basic human rights to individuals who don’t meet certain requirements. While there may be no internationally recognized right to freedom of movement, there are internationally recognized rights that are routinely violated by numerous states, and that continue to be threatened as long as individuals attempting to escape a variety of difficult circumstances are not permitted to enter other countries. Perhaps the most blatant example of this would be the exclusion of Jews from both the United States and Great Britain in the 1940s, which forced them to be sent back to Germany and the concentration camps.

“Immigration controls also, quite blatantly, discriminate against particular types of migrants.” In other words, they are racist. According to Hayter, immigration controls serve to preserve a world order characterized by international apartheid. This, she argues, is why they, along with the inequalities which they perpetuate on a global scale, should be abolished.

America-Firsters and Globalization
In spite of the convincing nature of many of the rights-based arguments against border controls, the United States contains a spirited population of rabidly anti-immigrant, self-denominating patriots. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, keeps an updated link to “Examples of Serious Crimes of Illegal Aliens: News accounts of crimes that could have been prevented if the alien had been deported or stopped from entering the country illegally,” on their website, and maintains that “illegal alien[s…] are costly to the American tax payer.” Andy Arnold calls these people “America-firsters” because they subscribe to the idea that “American jobs and American citizenship rights belong to Americans.” But their logic may be seriously flawed.

Firstly, as Binswanger points out, there is no right to protection from job competition – especially not in America. Secondly, as Roger Lowenstein observes, globalization is just as much to blame for American job loss as immigration, if not more. Globalization has eroded borders on goods, services, information, labor, and virtually everything but humans. There is no virtual fence being built around American corporations to prevent them from outsourcing jobs to China or India where labor is even cheaper than imported Mexican labor.

The Economics of Immigration
It should be noted that there are valid economic arguments on both sides of the debate. Economists generally agree that, on the whole, immigration benefits the economy. But disagreement does lie in the analysis of the distribution of the relative impact of immigration. While immigration allows middle class soccer moms to pay less for household help, American housecleaners theoretically face more job competition and lower wages.

However, there is debate over the extent of the impact on poor Americans. Economist George Borjas believes that, using the theory of supply and demand, he has proved that immigrants hurt native workers – an increase in the unskilled labor force translates to a greater supply of such labor and subsequently lower wages. Conversely, economist David Card maintains that from an economic standpoint, the impact of immigration is negligible.

According to Card, 21 million immigrants held jobs in the United States in 2006, yet there were only 7 million unemployed U.S. citizens. Therefore, most immigrants could not possibly have “taken” jobs from Americans. At least 14 million immigrants, he says, were working in jobs that wouldn’t have existed if there were no immigrant presence. To Card, this shows that, although the Supply curve shifts out, “the Demand curve also shifts out,” effectively balancing the effect on the market.

Furthermore, Mexican immigrants, who are both the largest and probably the most stigmatized immigrant group in the United States, tend to seek jobs that most Americans are too educated to do.

Profile of an Immigrant
More than 30 percent of immigrants to the United States are of Mexican origin and more than 60 percent of Mexican immigrants are high school dropouts. In this sense, Luciano S fits the profile of a typical undocumented worker in the United States.

At 17, he dropped out of high school and paid a coyote $1200 to arrange his passage on foot from Mexicali to Los Angeles. His situation in Mexico was not desperate, but he was tired of life in that country and the financial hardship his family was facing at the time. He planned to stay and work for two years, save money and go back home to study, so there seemed to be no need to go through the hassle of all the paperwork required to obtain a visa. Now, nine years later, he regrets that decision.

His life would be much easier if he were in the U.S. legally. With the onset of the recession he has seen a reduction in work hours induced by a reduction in jobs and mounting credit card bills. Yet when asked if he would consider returning to Mexico, he replies, “But what would I do in Mexico if I don’t have anything?” Luciano prefers to stay and look for work in the United States where, “one way or another, there is work.” That is more than he can say about Mexico.

After nine years in the United States, Luciano says he sometimes feels as if he had been born and raised in this country. He doesn’t want to leave – not even to see his parents, who he misses very much – because it would be too difficult to get back in. He knows that, even without papers, his life is better in America than it would be in Mexico. And he has not yet given up hope that future immigration reform in this country will benefit him.

Although he has not seen anything concrete from the Obama administration in terms of immigration reform, Luciano is waiting to pass judgment until after he sees its proposal. Ideally, he would like to see an amnesty similar to the one granted in 1986. “First amnesty; then reform,” he says. Before you can change policy for newcomers you must address the issue presented by those already in the country. But reform is also necessary, because, as Luciano says, “even if they close the border, immigration won’t stop.” Policy makers have to develop policies that deal with reality.

“Economic salvation is in immigration reform,” Luciano jokes, referring to the economic boost that all the fines would give to the U.S. Treasury. This is, of course, in addition to the money that Luciano and millions of other undocumented immigrants have been consistently paying into the coffers of the U.S. government, mostly in the form of social security. Perhaps this economic contribution is a factor in the difficulty economists seem to have in finding real evidence of actual harm that is traceable to immigration.

Where to go now
Regardless, “immigration policy has never been based on economics.” Although economic fears have played a role in the rejectionist sentiment exhibited in the exclusionary acts against the Chinese in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the quotas aimed at Southern and Eastern Europeans in the 1920s, and the current outcry against illegal immigrants from Mexico, xenophobia has actually been a much greater driving force behind all of these waves of anti-immigrant sentiment. This is illustrated by Luciano’s question: “Why when they talk about illegal immigrants do they only mean Mexicans?”

Xenophobia and racism need to be identified and rejected in any comprehensive immigration reform package. Obama has said that “if the American people don’t feel like you can secure the borders, then it’s hard to strike a deal” that includes a path to citizenship for those who are already here.

But this is the wrong jumping off point for immigration reform, which needs to take a more human approach. While the validity of international borders is disputable, they are generally recognized. But the vulnerability, in human terms, of those affected by Washington’s immigration policy must also be recognized and respected. There is a distinction between civil and criminal law, and crossing the border is not a criminal offense. No country should be more aware of this than the United States, a nation built and made prosperous by immigrants. As Arlington, Texas Police Chief T. Bowman said at a press conference on the impact of legislation allowing police to conduct immigration related investigations, “Justice” is more than “just ICE” – the U.S. Homeland Security agency responsible for deportation.

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