Immigration Reforms; Underlying Variables

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Immigration Reforms; Underlying VariablesAref Assaf 

As the US Congress struggles with the issue of illegal immigration, a reasonable assessment of the underlying influences which shapes the conflicting views on this national concern is warranted. For many Republicans, being tough on security and tough on immigration is a natural disposition.  Unquestionably, the Democratic revolt, with the help from some Republicans, over the Dubai port debacle has dealt the President a major defeat. The Republicans are now clamoring to reunify the party to reclaim the national discourse by waging a war on immigration both legal and illegal- all in the name of national security-both economic and political. All anti-immigration activists are now wrapping their anti-immigrant agenda in the flag.

Fears about immigrant terrorists after 9/11, combined with rising concerns about economic security after the end of the 90s’ boom, have diminished the near-term prospects for a liberal immigration reform agenda. Rather than talk about new policies that support broad legalization, amnesty, and family reunification, immigration restrictions has moved to the center of the public debate in many areas of the United States.

A recent newspaper article argued that the immigration issue is not central to the debate amongst many Arab and Muslims circles. While it is true that the matter of the undocumented immigrants requires both humane and practical considerations, for most Arabs and Muslims, the more pressing issue is the denial of civil and political rights of legal immigrants and citizens. The infamous 2001 Patriot Act and the subsequent roundups of thousands of Arabs and Muslims most of whom with legal visas or immigration status has marginalized the focus on the undocumented immigrants. Undoubtedly, ever mindful of 9-11 and the fact that most immigrants are from nonwhite European countries, the national debate on immigration is now framed in the language of fear, patriotism, and national security.

As relates to the immigration bill being discussed in Congress, Arab Americans believe certain sections of the bills would weaken basic rights for everyone in America, while also forcing barriers to legalization.  A closer look at the bills in question raises strong fears about the erosion of civil liberties, due process and the basic implementation of legalization. The harmful provisions would:

– Provide unchecked powers to the Executive Branch;
– Result in long-term separation of families;
– Leave refugees, trafficking victims and other vulnerable populations unprotected; and
– Bar thousands of well-intentioned immigrants from legalizing.
– Unless these harmful provisions are removed, they will erode core American values of protecting civil liberties and human rights for all. (Source: American Arab Anti-Discrimination  Committee)

Until the publication of Samuel Huntington’s book “Who Are We”, the cultural nationalism of the anti-immigrant forces was relegated to the dark corners of the right-wing’s Old Guard. There white supremacists and nativists weaved conspiracy theories and xenophobic fantasies with relatively little mainstream attention. But Huntington, most famous for his previous book The Clash of Civilizations, raised cultural nationalism to a new intellectually acceptable level. “In this new era,” he wrote, “the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico.” Huntington makes the case that unlike previous immigrants, Mexican-Americans are not interested in assimilating. “As their numbers increase,” he observed, “Mexican-Americans feel increasingly comfortable with their own culture and often contemptuous of American culture.”

The anti-immigrant forces are certainly right in their contention that immigration—legal and illegal—is an issue that needs the urgent attention of policymakers. However, by scapegoating immigrants for so many of the country’s ills—environmental degradation, low wages, tax burdens, crime, social disintegration, and even terrorist threats—the new wave of restrictionists are building a vicious backlash movement that is deepening the social, economic, and political divides in the nation. In the process, the anti-immigrant groups are diverting popular attention away from the more fundamental causes of the socio-economic problems that are eroding the substance and spirit of America.

Stereotypes and labels hinder understanding of the intensifying immigration debate in the United States. The debate divides sharply into two sides. On one side stand those who believe that immigration flows should be dramatically restricted. Commonly described as being anti-immigrant, these groups object to the negative label, saying that they oppose uncontrolled immigration, not immigrants themselves.

On the other side of the immigration debate are those who believe that immigration should be regulated but at levels that reflect the reality of both emigration pressures outside the country and labor needs within it. In contrast to those arguing for a clamp down on immigration flows, these forces routinely point to the economic and cultural benefits resulting from the immigrant community, while also noting that the United States has always been a nation of immigrants. Described variously by their opponents as the “pro-immigrant” or “open-borders lobby,” they often assume the immigrants’ right standpoint: opposing governmental and private practices that abuse or exploit illegal as well as legal immigrants.

Those advocating reduced immigration flows can fairly be described as being immigration restrictionists. Like most other policy reformers, the immigration restrictionists have three main bases of operation: policy institutes and think tanks in Washington, D.C.; local citizen movements and organizations; and a loose team of pundits, politicians, and polemicists dedicated to influencing public opinion.

Although immigration restrictionists share a common agenda, they do not operate as a unified political bloc. Anti-immigration forces include partisans of the two main political parties as well as adherents of parties and movements on the political left and right that fall outside mainstream political thinking.
As anti-immigration sentiment rises, the voices advocating a liberal immigration policy confront new challenges.More daunting are challenges facing pro-immigration groups and immigrant advocates as they seek to establish a framework for discussing immigration.If immigrant advocates and immigrants themselves are to move from the sidelines to the center of the intensifying immigration debate, and by doing so help staunch the growing influence of the retrograde restrictionist forces, they must meet five major challenges.

The first challenge is to gain credibility as advocates for an immigration policy that considers the totality of U.S. national interests—not just the needs and problems of immigrants or the demands of business for new foreign sources of cheap and skilled labor. Marshalling the same facts and figures used by the Wall Street Journal and Corporate America, as pro-immigration advocates often do to describe the net economic benefits of immigration, falls far short of what is needed if immigration reformers are to gain the attention and support of the U.S. public. Macroeconomic figures that show immigrants boosting national economic growth provide little solace to workers who see immigrants holding jobs they or their parents once had, or who find themselves competing in a labor market where immigrant workers are willing to work longer, harder, and for substantially lower wages.

A second, closely related challenge is helping U.S. citizens realize that their communities are communities that include a wide variety of immigrants and that this mix is a healthy one. It’s likely that most U.S. citizens already know from personal experience that immigrants play a vital role in their communities, yet restrictionist groups and media personalities have convinced many that immigrants are not only a negative influence but are expendable—that the U.S. government could and should deport 10-11 million illegal residents with no ill effects. Part of the bill of goods that restrictionist voices offer is nostalgia for a society that never existed—one with full employment and where everyone shared the same culture and values.

The challenge, then, is to offer a progressive vision of a healthy, multiethnic, multicultural society. Such a society would collectively move forward with policies to assure full employment, protect labor rights, and provide basic social services to all, without unfairly burdening the middle class, while at the same time facilitating social integration and a sense of community through language instruction and good basic education.

The third challenge that immigration advocates face is overcoming their hesitation to describe the immigration problem as a class problem. The first step in injecting class analysis into their advocacy is to disentangle themselves from business—whether it be Fortune 500 corporations, the National Association of Manufacturers, agribusiness, high-tech firms that increasingly rely on skilled foreign workers, or even the strong lobby of immigration lawyers—which often support liberal immigration policies based on their vested professional interests.

Corporate, pro-immigration positions often coincide with those of immigrants and immigrant advocates. But failing to distinguish between immigration reform motivated by a desire for cheap labor and immigration reform advocated attaining a just society make the entire pro-immigration movement extremely vulnerable to the critique that it is an open borders lobby.

The fourth challenge is one faced by more than just immigrant advocates. It is the challenge of integrating legitimate concerns and demands into a new agenda for national economic development. As it is, U.S. economic development is defined almost exclusively in traditional macroeconomic terms such as rates of economic growth, productivity, inventory levels, retail sales, housing starts, etc.

If pro-immigration advocates are to stem the rising forces of anti-immigrant backlash that are sweeping the United States and gaining momentum throughout the world, they must ally themselves with other policy reformers who are beginning to make the case that development must be redefined to mean full employment, livable wages, an organized workforce, a highly educated society, and environmental protection and restoration. By failing to situate their demands within the context of a new national development policy that is not beholden to narrow business interests, immigrants and immigration advocates risk not only losing the immigration reform debate but contributing to an ominous economic and political future—one that will likely be characterized by some mixture of harsh restrictionism and a cut-throat national economy where all workers, legal and illegal, compete for jobs that don’t offer a living wage or basic benefits.

The fifth main challenge is connecting the dots between immigration policy and foreign policy. In their advocacy and education, anti-immigrant forces don’t hesitate to describe the immigration problem as an international one—painting a picture of the United States beset by a non-stop invasion of the world’s poor, fleeing war, corrupt governments, and the lack of opportunity at home. The simplicity of their recommended solutions—walling the United States in and deporting all those without residency papers—appeals to those who believe that to retain the present standard of living, this country should be less connected to the rest of the world, creating a Fortress America.

Those who oppose the fear and hate politics coursing through the immigration debate cannot deny the reality that the United States still represents the “land of opportunity” for people of an increasing number of countries. But also true is that most of the would-be emigrants would prefer to live and work in their home countries if economic and social conditions improved.

This challenge, then, is also a challenge for U.S. foreign policy, other industrialized nations, and the international economic institutions—namely to support measures that contribute to broad and sustainable development in Mexico, the Central American nations, and other “sending” countries, rather than economic reforms that obstruct or undermine true development. What needs to be said, loud and clear, is that there is no existing or proposed immigration policy—whether highly restrictive or liberal—that will work, unless it works in conjunction with a foreign policy based on good neighbor principles and a deep appreciation of interconnectedness.

At the same time, though, the burden of addressing the immigration crisis, whether in the United States or any other receiving nation, is first the responsibility of the sending nations. Yes, nations such as Mexico should criticize the abusive treatment of their nationals, but such complaints ring hollow if they are not backed by national development policies that aim to keep their own citizens at home rather than policies that directly or indirectly contribute to their expulsion from their homes.

Longer and higher border walls, amnesty, guest worker programs, and proposed earned citizenship programs are all temporary fixes. Immigration policy and border control strategies that ignore the power of the forces of supply and demand while at the same time narrowly framing immigration policy as only a U.S. domestic policy problem are doomed to fail.


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