Immigration Policy that Benefits the American Middle Class
Immigration policy is among the most divisive issues facing the U.S. today, and progressives often don’t know how to talk or think about it. On the one hand, we are faced with racist demagogues who appeal to Americans’ very real economic anxiety to promote harsh and unworkable policies that will benefit no one. On the other hand, immigration advocates make a vital point about the human rights of immigrants, but so far have not successfully addressed mainstream concerns. As progressives, we know that scapegoating undocumented immigrants is wrong, but that doesn’t provide a positive agenda or a way to distinguish which immigration policy proposals will truly move us forward as a nation.
Any debate over immigration policy must be connected to the larger conversation about America's squeezed middle class and the working people striving to attain a middle-class standard of living. Thorough review of the economic, sociological, and demographic evidence leads us to the following conclusion:
An immigration policy that serves the fundamental interests of middle-class Americans must take two realities into account: immigrants’ economic contributions make them indispensable to our nation’s middle class, and, at the same time, a lack of effective rights in the workplace for undocumented immigrants undermines the ability of all working people in America to secure and maintain jobs that provide a middle-class standard of living.
The Drum Major Institute for Public Policy has turned this insight in to a two-part middle-class test.
1) Immigration policy should bolster—not undermine—the critical contribution that iimmigrants make to our economy as workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers and consumers, because:
• On average, immigrants pay more in taxes each year than they use in government services, and these taxes fund programs like Social Security that strengthen and expand the middle class.
• Undocumented immigrants alone are estimated to have contributed nearly $50 billion in federal taxes between 1996 and 2003.
• The middle class relies on the goods and services (pdf) that the authorized and undocumented immigrants in the U.S. now produce.
• By increasing consumer demand, immigrants generate economic growth that benefits the middle class: immigration is a major contributor to the expansion of Hispanic and Asian-American consumer markets (pdf) —an estimated 12 percent of the nation's 2004 purchasing power.
• Immigrants also stimulate the economy by starting small businesses and attracting investment capital (pdf, see page 7) from their countries of origin.
Since the American middle class relies on the economic contributions of immigrants both legal and undocumented, a pro-middle-class immigration policy must not include mass deportation or aim to shut down future immigration arbitrarily.
2) Immigration policy must strengthen the rights of immigrants in the workplace:
• Under current immigration law, immigrant workers compete with their U.S.-born counterparts on an uneven playing field to the detriment of both groups.
• Because employers threaten undocumented immigrants with deportation, these workers cannot effectively assert their rights in the workplace by, for example, asking for raises, complaining about violations of wage and hour or workplace safety laws, or by supporting union organizing drives.
• As long as this cheaper and more compliant pool of immigrant labor is available, employers are all too willing to take advantage of the situation to keep their labor costs down.
• U.S.-born workers are left to either accept the same diminished wages and degraded working conditions as immigrants living under threat of deportation or be shut out of whole industries where employers hire predominantly undocumented immigrants.
When immigrants lack rights in the workplace, labor standards are driven down and all working people have less opportunity to enter or remain part of the middle class. A pro-middle-class immigration policy must therefore guarantee immigrants full labor rights so that employers cannot use deportation as a coercive tool in the labor market.
Applying this test to immigration reform proposals helps to illuminate which policies would actually benefit the vast majority of Americans who are middle class or aspire to be. For example, guest worker programs have frequently been proposed as a means of addressing the nation’s future workforce needs. Yet by permanently isolating immigrant workers into a separate and unequal program, such a system would ensure that guest workers always remain more vulnerable and less secure than the mainstream of American workers, and thus are more exploitable, continuing to threaten American wages and working conditions. In other words, guest worker programs do poorly on part 2 of the middle-class test.
Similarly, New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer’s effort to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants collapsed without a discussion of the extent to which these immigrants have become an inextricable part of our communities, a perspective suggested by part 1 of the middle-class test.
We encourage you to take a look at DMIBlog’s additional coverage of immigration for even more insight on the issue.
ADDENDUM: I am excited about the substantive and generally productive stance taken by the Democratic presidential candidates on immigration in their debate last night. Senator Edwards, in particular, recognized the problem of workplace exploitation and closely linked immigration policy to strengthening and growing the middle class. The one irony arose when Senator Dodd correctly linked immigration to unfair trade. Yet Dodd, along with every other sitting Senator participating in the debate, missed a vote on just such an unfair trade agreement with Peru that very day, presumably because they were preparing for the debate.