John Buell

Scapegoating Immigrants

On the surface, Maine has little in common with Arizona, where I briefly vacation each spring. Arizona's business climate is supposed to be as kind to aspiring entrepreneurs as the weather is to allergy sufferers. Yet appearances can be deceiving. All is not happy in the valley of the sun. In our increasingly connected world, Arizona's discontents are already subtly spilling into Maine politics.

Despite its notoriously low taxes and lax business regulation, Arizona has trailed well below national averages in real per capita personal income growth in recent years. In a series of business columns for the Arizona Republic, Jon Talton has pointed out that the state's economic gains have been triggered more by population growth than by developing new technologies and creating high-wage, high-skilled jobs. The state's future seems increasingly threatened by a possible bubble in the housing market, water shortages, pollution and snarled traffic.

In a sluggish and insecure economy, "illegal immigrants" have become the hot-button issue. Right-wing Republicans in this archetypal Republican state advocate stricter enforcement of immigration laws, an ever more militarized border and even sanctions on business leaders for hiring illegal immigrants. Such proposals risk fracturing the Republican Party's long-standing coalition of social conservatives and business leaders. The latter see little lost in attacks on affirmative action, crime or abortion rights, but taking away a source of easily exploitable labor arouses deep fears.

As Congress debates broad overhaul of immigration law, members of New England's Congressional delegation from both parties have introduced legislation to expand the number of visas granted to temporary workers. The Boston Globe has commented, correctly in my view, that the fate of this proposal may hinge on resolution of larger immigration issues.

The debate on temporary worker visas follows a pattern well traveled in the Southwest. In New England, many business owners argue that they can't get help because the young people who formerly waited tables or cleaned cabins now seek internships in law offices. Many also go back to school before the end of the tourist season. In the Southwest, the argument is that US citizens are no longer willing to pick the fruit or clean the pools. Businesses in both cases claim they must turn to outsiders.

Yet if temporary shortages really are a problem, it is one that the market can play a role in solving. Wages will go up; some college students will choose cabins over law offices or even defer college for a year. Owners of tourist businesses will have more of an incentive to enhance worker productivity. State policies, including training programs for both workers and entrepreneurs, could enhance these trends. In the Southwest, increasing wages and better working conditions in pool maintenance and landscaping jobs will entice many US citizens.

In New England there is little besides anecdotes from a few high-end businesses to suggest that tourist employee wages are soaring or have caused a profit decline. An expanded visa program could threaten wage gains by tourist employees. Employers are really asking for the right to import enough labor to keep the labor market permanently depressed.

Nonetheless, excluding temporary seasonal workers in New England or the "illegal" immigrants in the Southwest is unjust to the growing number of workers displaced by corporate globalization. It is even counterproductive to the interests of working class Americans. Bowdoin College economist David Vail, a longtime student of the industry, points out that "east European recruits often have some years of experience in tourism services and they are hungry both for the good money, the training in English and the US living experience."

In the most thoughtful report I have seen on this topic, the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy ( reminds us that the pool of jobs -- even good jobs -- is not fixed. Immigrants bring skills and interests that under the right circumstances enhance business productivity, contribute to business innovation and even help create new markets. When they and other workers are compensated at the level their skills and hard work merit, they in turn create new consumer demand.

It is only when immigrants are denied basic economic rights that their presence in the workforce can harm middle- and working-class citizens. A broader fix to the politics of immigration should involve some genuine tradeoffs. Businesses both here and in the Southwest should be able to hire more temporary and long-term immigrants. But the quid pro quo should be stronger minimum wage protection, unemployment compensation for all seasonal workers, stronger whistleblower protection and full rights under US labor law for workers of any nationality. No worker should face deportation merely because he or she has reported a violation of labor law. Nor should temporary visas be tied to particular jobs or a limited set of employers who have applied for those workers. When visa programs are the modern equivalent of indentured servitude, they allow businesses to lowball workers and drive wages down across the board.

Amnesty and a clear path to citizenship also need to be part of the mix. In a broader sense, generations of immigrants moving to this country have made contributions that go well beyond economics. The Black Commentator recently pointed out: "In the countries [immigrants] hail from there are traditions of working-class militancy and solidarity deeper and more widespread than anything here, and traditions of broad left-wing social movements tougher and more enduring than we see here in the US." The American labor movement's emphasis on shorter-hours legislation in the 1930s owed a great deal to immigrant workers.

Absent broad-based reform, look for harsher border enforcement as a sop to Bush's cultural conservatives even as more businesses across the country continue to hire increasingly demonized and vulnerable immigrants.

John Buell ( is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News and coauthor, with Tom DeLuca, of Liars, Cheaters, Evil Doers: Demonization and the End of Civil Discourse in American Politics. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2006

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