Equality First: An alternative approach to immigration

July 30, 2009

By Neil Harvey
In all of the discussion regarding immigration in recent years, one concept seems to have been forgotten: equality. Border security has taken precedence over many other considerations, and “legalization” has often been reduced to the provision of second-class status of temporary guest workers. Full legalization has been opposed by many on the pretext that it would reward law-breakers and open the country to a flood of new migrants. In all of this discussion, there is an underlying assumption that the rights of immigrants should not be equal to those of citizens. Instead, greater emphasis has been given to enforcing this hierarchy, and changes in attitude are only achieved when thousands of people march and demand equal treatment. This is not unlike previous struggles for civil rights, when enforcement of unjust laws was challenged in the streets and, finally, in the halls of government. With a new administration, there has been some expectation that immigration reform will once again be debated in Congress later this year. As we approach this topic again, it is necessary to point out some of the dangers of repeating past mistakes and propose a different approach, one that places equality front and center.
The dangers of repeating past mistakes are apparent in recent remarks made by Alan Bersin, special border czar of the Obama administration. At a “Listening Session” with border representatives in El Paso in early June, Bersin stressed the importance of enforcement measures first and foremost. He claimed that “political reality” demanded such an approach, one that would entail three pre-conditions for later progress on comprehensive immigration reform: (1) tough border enforcement measures, in collaboration with Border Patrol; (2) enforcement in the workplace, meaning employer sanctions, in order to deter people trying to find work without proper documents; and (3) interior enforcement, including the deportation of undocumented persons who have committed serious crimes.
The political reality to which Bersin refers is the assumption that Congress will require proof that the administration is taking strong steps on the enforcement issues first before considering immigration reform. The fact that the administration has so far offered little detail on its reform proposals leaves many wondering if there really will be a change in policy, or simply more resources put into enforcement. Bersin’s proposals also ignore the abuse of these enforcement measures that has been well documented in recent years. For example, David Bacon’s book Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, Boston: Beacon Press, 2008) provides detailed accounts of how employers have used the threat of sanctions to fire workers and curb union organizing. The administration’s acceptance of an enforcement-first strategy also leaves out too many other perspectives in this debate. This is evident in the composition of a 21-member Homeland Security Advisory Council Southwest Border Task Force created in June. Most of the participants are representatives of private business and law-enforcement agencies, without significant balance from advocates for civil liberties, labor rights or the border environment.
The consequences of prior enforcement strategies in the past 15 years are well known. They include the channeling of migrants away from busy urban centers such as El Paso and San Diego to the inhospitable desert areas of Arizona, leading to the deaths of thousands of people and the rise in human trafficking, along with the monies received by the traffickers. Under the Bush administration, expansion of wall construction became a calculated way of winning votes in districts far from the border itself, relying on ignorance and anti-immigrant sentiment to make the government appear in control of the border. In the process, dozens of environmental and other laws were waived to make way for wall construction.
In 2009, the immigration debate must learn lessons and move beyond an enforcement-first approach. The issue should be reframed in terms of how to promote greater equality – between the U.S. and Mexican economies, and among workers from different nations. Such an approach could take lessons from the evolution of the European Union. European integration occurred with a policy of open borders for movement of workers of member states, while also investing in poorer regions through a common fund. In contrast, the integration model between the U.S., Mexico and Canada (embodied in the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993) has excluded migration issues from its framework and has only provided very limited investment funds for border environmental projects. The right of labor mobility would mean that legalization could not be reduced to simply expanding temporary guest worker visas, but would increase the number of permanent residency visas, thereby providing all with the same rights. This step would remove the power of employers to use an employee’s lack of papers as a means to fire workers, and would benefit all employees who try to organize for improved conditions. As long as employers have access to a pool of cheap labor without the same rights as citizens, it will be harder to organize for improved contracts for anyone.
It might be argued that freedom of movement would lead to a flood of impoverished people from Mexico and other countries, but this is not inevitable. If the benefits of economic integration were more fairly distributed and democratically managed, then the opportunities for dignified work would increase in migrants’ home communities. The fact that the Republic of Ireland has become a country that attracts immigrants rather than a country of emigrants is an indication of the possibilities for balanced regional development that can begin to achieve greater equality. However, this model cannot subsequently close itself off from migrants from countries outside the European Union. Instead of reverting to enforcement-first strategy, as is currently occurring throughout Europe, we need a new global set of policies that will address the major causes of displacement and inequality today.
If immigration reform in the U.S. is to be any different from the enforcement/guest worker package, an alternative approach must include the following considerations: (1) migrants are not just workers but human beings; (2) immigration is not just a U.S. issue and cannot be resolved unilaterally; (3) negotiations must include significant and diverse input from representatives beyond business and law-enforcement officials and must make room for the perspectives of immigrants themselves; and, (4) migration cannot be divorced from the broader issue of creating more equal economic ties in the world, starting with the revision or replacement of NAFTA and similar trade mechanisms.
Neil Harvey is a Professor in the Department of Government and Director of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University.

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