After years of suffering the damage that such social issues as affirmative action or gay rights inflicted on efforts to construct progressive majorities, some progressives may take perverse satisfaction in the divisions immigration has sown among Republican stalwarts. That pleasure should be short-lived. Lives are at stake and divisions over immigration, like the phenomenon itself, seem to cross usual political boundaries.
Even usually liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, though celebrating the contribution that immigration has made to our nation, has suggested that unless immigration is limited, ethnic tensions will further undermine the commitment of Americans to even a minimal safety net. Others across the political spectrum complain that immigrants are law breakers. Easing their path to citizenship erodes the rule of law.
These perspectives pay insufficient attention to the broad context in which this debate occurs. If the US was once a nation of immigrants, the whole world today is experiencing massive population displacements. The policy goals of many economic elites, with US political and business leaders at their head, have been a major factor driving this displacement.
Mexico itself is not merely an exporter of its surplus population. It has also absorbed substantial population flows from Central and South America in consequence of a quarter-century of political turmoil in which US interests have played a major role.
A succession of corrupt Mexican governments under the one party leadership of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) long enjoyed the active political and economic support of the United States government. No serious observer doubts that the defeat of the moderate leftist Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas was due to PRI fraud. Nonetheless, a US government that had felt free to crush even moderate-left forces in Latin America over a generation said nothing.
Mexican policy is hardly made in Mexico any more. World Bank and International Monetary Fund executives have imposed strict austerity standards. These are representative bodies, but dollars rather than people vote. Since the US has more dollars, it sets the tone for both institutions.
NAFTA, rammed down the throat of Mexicans by their US-supported government, has also been a major factor in increasing economic disparities within each of the signatory nations. Immigrants' damage to US wages is a regular part of discourse, but there is much less discussion of the way corporate outsourcing hurts working class wages everywhere.
Since the passage of NAFTA, factory wages in Mexico have declined 10%, and worse still, the government has ended subsidies for bean and corn production, making these staples of the diet too expensive to produce or purchase for many Mexicans. It is nice to speak of the lawless incursions, but is violation of law to save one's family from literal or near starvation unethical? (A friend recently reminded me that in a sense the Mexicans crossing our borders today might be thought of as reclaiming land originally stolen from Mexico in the Mexican War.)
The United States as a nation was born out of its own resistance to established law. British authorities denied their colonies basic political rights and even minimal economic opportunity. Respect for law is important, but it must be tempered by the acknowledgment that law has its limits. Law must be revised when it inflicts ever more obvious harms.
The vast incursions of large numbers of immigrants concentrated in particular communities, such as the US Southwest, surely puts a strain on public services. At a minimum, federal support for communities disproportionately affected by national problems and policies is appropriate. In the long run, however, the right of multinational firms to shuffle resources around the world and to pit domestic labor forces against each other needs to be challenged.
The real question for progressives is this: Are reforms of international trade treaties and establishment of an adequate safety net more likely if we somehow expel most immigrants? I think not. Cross-border collaboration among labor groups offers the best hope of intensifying the push for rights here and for reform of trade agreements.
Domestically, the effect that immigrant workers have on US working class wages depends on the content of current labor rights, who is granted these rights and how they are enforced. Immigration reform and workplace reform go together. If every immigrant worker received, merely by the fact of having a job, full access to minimum-wage protection, rights to union organizing and access to occupational health and safety guarantees, it would be harder for employers to use such workers as tools to beat down wage standards for all. The supply of good jobs in this economy is not finite, and if all workers are fairly compensated, consumer demand will generate new jobs.
Earlier generations of immigrants coming from desperate impoverishment in such nations as Ireland and Italy were much vilified in their time. Nonetheless, they made substantial contributions to our economic growth. Just as importantly, they were vital in the formation of unions and in the fight for the forty-hour work week. The current wave of demonstrations illustrates the contribution immigrant workers are making to our lives and politics. It is all too easy to say these demonstrators are merely acting in their own immediate self-interest. But hundreds of thousands have risked arrest and deportation. Any single individual immigrant could simply "free ride" and let his or her fellows take the risks.
The Black Commentator recently pointed out: "In the countries they 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. In Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia and Brazil, in South Korea and Columbia, farm, factory and service workers join unions by the millions and fight for their own rights, often at great personal cost."
The sheer number of those who turned out is indicative of the depth of shared political commitment. This resource is best nurtured by extending economic rights now along with a clear path to citizenship.
John Buell (email@example.com) 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 [New York University Press].