What’s your problem with immigration?

Right now the media is abuzz with discussions of Bush’s proposed immigration plan: spend $1.9 billion to build a fence along a couple hundred miles of US/Mexico border, beef up security by adding National Guard troops (CNN reports it could be as many as 6000), in the name of modernizing the border region and controlling illegal immigration.

This is a terrible, awful, xenophobic idea. For one thing, this kind of border militarization goes better with blocking invading armies, not keeping out low-wage workers. For another, I am not at all convinced we need to keep more people out. Heavier security on this border hasn’t kept people from trying to get into the US. We just kill more of them in the attempt. We create increased criminal activity as the penalties get higher. I don’t think this is even slightly morally justifiable, given that what we’re talking about is not keeping out drug smugglers or terrorists or criminals, but laborers. [1]

Here’s what I want to see. Give everyone who wants to come up from Mexico and work a temporary visa (do a basic check against the list of people who aren’t allowed into the US, of course). Offer the same to Canada if they make it reciprocal. If they show up with families, by all means enroll the kids in local schools. [2] If people find work, give them an extension on the work permit. Give them access to government services after they’ve paid in to the system via taxes for a certain number of months. Spend all the money that’s going into treating the border like a war zone on labor law enforcement instead.

I can’t really find an economic downside to this. If too many workers show up for the number of jobs available, people will go home. The cost of living is cheaper in Mexico. This isn’t allowing people to “jump the line” and get work in the US easier, because there are few legal options for unskilled laborers wanting to come to the US to work. It should cut down on crime by eliminating the market for criminal organizations that smuggle people over. Immigrants will spend money in the communities where they live, so that ought to make local businesses happy. And if you strictly enforce wage laws and punish any business that underpays or abuses its employees, immigrant labor can’t undercut the value of local labor. Supply and demand says that the cost of unskilled labor could get cheaper, but I think that should be treated as a separate issue, with better minimum wage requirements (it shouldn’t be legal to pay a full-time worker too little to buy food and housing) and educational opportunities so unskilled workers can move on up.

This means the only argument left is the cultural one. Anyone who is still freaked out about Spanish-speaking brown people moving into their town and ruining their way of life needs to take a deep breath and get the hell over it. This is not the end of the world. Where is your family from originally, again? And what kind of reception did they get when they arrived? This is an old, old, old story. Anti-Irish and anti-German news clippings are kind of funny to read now, but it’s all the same thing. Except I’m not sure the Germans or Irish encountered crazy border militias on their way in.

[1] Is this a good time to remind everyone that the 9/11 attackers were in the country legally? Or that the London bombers were homegrown? Our issues with terrorism have little to do with our border security.

[2] Look at Europe right now and you’ll see exactly why this is important. They’re struggling with large immigrant populations that never really assimilated into the local culture. The best way I know of to address this is to get everyone in the same schools. Our educational system doesn’t just teach reading and math, it teaches history, social expectations (admittedly it doesn’t always do a good job of this one), and other things that make people citizens of the same place. If done too aggressively it can alienate kids from their families, but I think a balanced approach is possible. And bilingual kids are often able to help their parents navigate when English is required.

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One response to “What’s your problem with immigration?

  1. KariSueSpagleBagel

    I agree with you that the border patrol measures Bush proposed are xenophobic, useless, and definitely just a lame attempt at placating the uber-nationalist militia types who make up a part of the Republican base.

    Two points:
    “Immigrants will spend money in the communities where they live, so that ought to make local businesses happy.”

    True, they spend *some* money in their communities, but most of them are spending the bare minimum needed to live and sending as much as they can back to their families. I’m not offering this as a point against your arguments, just pointing out that there’s not quite as much economic upside to their labor as one might think. Given how risky it is to even get in to this country to work illegally, most immigrants don’t bring their families along for the trip…they come alone, work hard, and send money back to support the families they left behind.

    “And if you strictly enforce wage laws and punish any business that underpays or abuses its employees, immigrant labor can’t undercut the value of local labor.”

    …Which is exactly why they won’t strictly enforce wage laws and punish businesses who use illegal labor. Bush *knows* that a lot of businesses, big & small, depend on cheap labor. They WANT to undercut the value of local labor so that their profit margins stay bigger. That’s why the administration would rather build ineffective fences and implement policies full of loopholes: to placate the people who think that terrorists are going to cross the border and attack them in their bedrooms, while still allowing for the free flow of labor to keep the business interests happy.

    “..better minimum wage requirements (it shouldn’t be legal to pay a full-time worker too little to buy food and housing)”

    AMEN, sister! The minimum wage in this country is disgraceful. The fact that it has not been raised in nearly ten years (during which time, inflation has effectively reduced the purchasing power of this salary by 20%), while giving themselves four raises during the same period of time, is a case study in classism. In my opinion, the next revolution in this country will be a class war when the ever growing group of poverty-stricken individuals with no paths to sustainable incomes finally reaches its collective breaking point.
    Even though I know it’s mostly a political move, I ADORE this legislation proposed by Sen. Clinton recently, to tie minimum wage to congressional pay increases, so that they can’t raise their own salaries without giving the same percentage bump to the minimum wage. Rock on!