DMI Blog

Amy Taylor

Pro-Immigrant Populism

Below is Andrea Batista Schlesinger's article from the March 5, 2007 issue of The Nation. We thank The Nation for allowing us to reprint the article here.

Our first priority must be to secure ports and borders to keep out terror threats, illegal drugs and illegal immigrants.... People who want to come to America should follow the rules--and we should enforce them. There should be no cuts in line. Moreover, hiring illegal aliens is no joking matter.... We need to enforce the law on employers who hire illegal immigrants no matter who they are. It's not just a matter of fairness--it's a question of national security.

Who said it: Lou Dobbs? Tom Tancredo? No, Democratic Senator Jon Tester from Montana, one of the "new populists" elected to the Senate in the midterm rout of 2006.

These populists were elected in large part because they responded to the economic anxiety of working- and middle-class people, offering a critique of globalization's impact on the lives and livelihoods of American workers. They tapped into frustration with a "free" trade policy that has benefited multinational corporations while driving down the standard of living for workers here and abroad. But when it came to immigration, the populists opted for fiery protectionist rhetoric instead of appealing both to Americans and immigrants as workers with common interests. They opted for fences instead of proposals that would align immigration policy with the real needs of the economy.

Tester's position, which ranges from irrelevant to inaccurate, is a perfect example. The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants are from Latin America and are here to work in factories and the construction and service industries. They are not a terror threat. There are significantly fewer visas than there are jobs. Opposing any pathway to legalization would harm American workers because it would inevitably result in several million immigrant workers remaining here in an underground economy that undermines US labor standards and wages. Tester doesn't answer any critical questions about what to do with the 12 million undocumented immigrants here, their role in the economy, the policy that created this situation in the first place or how the immigration debate relates to the precarious position of US workers. And that's a shame, because out of this debate can come a coalition of workers--native and immigrant--ready to tackle the fierce stranglehold of the big-business lobby on our government.

Some Democratic strategists have argued that passing immigration reform is important because it will appeal to the growing Latino electorate. That's true as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that Latinos can be brought into the fold not just as an ethnic group but as a group of workers. They can and should be mobilized not only around legalization and family reunification but around the fallacies of "free" trade and the need to rein in rapacious corporations.

Building support for an immigration reform vision that appeals to US and immigrant workers alike requires both groups to conceive of their interests more broadly. Latinos should be upset when the National Labor Relations Board makes it harder to join a union. US workers should be upset about regressive immigration policy. If we're going to stop the race to the bottom that provides more and cheaper labor to big business, this coalition needs to start acting from a place of shared interest.

How do we get American workers on board? We make the case that they have been harmed by the collusion of government and big business, and that an immigration policy that strengthens the rights of immigrants in the workplace will protect them as well.

The populists got it right that the middle class is increasingly squeezed. The wages of working people have barely budged, while the costs of everything from higher education to healthcare have skyrocketed. The things that used to protect us--strong unions, a progressive government that viewed its responsibility as making things easier for people, not for industry--have disappeared. So it is natural that American workers would be threatened by a large pool of people who accept jobs that pay peanuts. That is threatening! But the question is, What do we do with that threat? The truth is that the 12 million unauthorized immigrants here today aren't going anywhere, and we have to make sure they're incorporated into our economy in a way that doesn't undermine US workers.

Any immigration policy has to recognize the critical role immigrants play in our economy. Immigrants--authorized and unauthorized--are consumers, entrepreneurs, workers. They pay more in taxes than they receive in services. They resuscitate struggling neighborhoods. They keep our Social Security system solvent. They provide the services that the middle class relies on from morning until night. But if we want to avoid a race to the bottom between native and immigrant workers, we must create a policy that strengthens the workplace rights of immigrant workers. Simply put, when some workers labor without protected rights, the protected rights of all workers are jeopardized. After all, for most employers faced with a choice between a legal worker with rights and recourse, and one they can exploit with impunity, the choice is all too obvious.

To build this larger coalition, the new populists have to keep in mind that comprehensive doesn't equal progressive. A bill may be comprehensive but still create a class of exploited workers through its overly complicated legalization process. Proposals that require immigrants to go here, go there and then become eligible for legalization will fail American workers because unauthorized immigrants will remain working in the underground economy, bringing down the wages of native workers. A bill may be comprehensive but still create a guest-worker program that institutionalizes an underclass of workers who lack full rights, who will never fully invest in the US economy, who will always be at the beck and call of employers.

It's also wrong to suggest that we need immigration reform because only immigrants will do the "bad" jobs (or as Karl Rove put it, because "I don't want my 17-year-old son to have to pick tomatoes or make beds in Las Vegas"). We have to work to make those bad jobs good jobs, as we have many times in the history of our country. So we strengthen the rights of people in these industries and we make the jobs better. At that point, it's possible this will lead to an increased demand on the part of native workers for them. If so, so be it. But at least we'll know what our economy really needs and create immigration policy from that perspective, not from the agenda of the US Chamber of Commerce.

The populist bottom line: Who does policy serve? Ultimately, we should deal with immigration policy as we should with globalization, by asking the first question: Whose interests are in the driver's seat? A corporate interest that's driven solely by having a force of workers to exploit? A nativist interest that's worried more about some "culture" of America than whether Americans can put food on the table? Or a pro-worker interest that prizes the dignity of all workers?

Andrea Batista Schlesinger
February 15, 2007
Executive Director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy

Amy Taylor: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 11:55 AM, Feb 20, 2007 in Immigration | Middle-class squeeze | Politics
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