Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Immigration Reform: What’s the Objection?

I just spent (wasted) two valuable prime-time working hours searching the internet in an attempt to discover what the objections are to the senate proposal on immigration reform. I could not find any sensible arguments, so I still don’t know.

Senate bill S 1348 can be reviewed at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/thomas.

The bill would allow illegal immigrants in the country before 2007 to receive renewable four-year visas after paying fees and fines, and eventually get on a path to citizenship.
(Sen. Sessions. Photo: Doug Mills, NY Times)

It would create a guest worker program that would give two-year visas to 400,000 workers a year, (amended to half that number, then further amended to expire after 5 years).

None of those programs would go into effect until additional border agents were hired and the construction of hundreds of miles of border fencing were completed.

Republicans especially are against this bill. Why? I struggled to find out.

Wages and Jobs?
North Dakota Democratic Sen. Dorgan says the guest worker program is part of a strategy to put downward pressure on American wages. Presumably, this “strategy” is pursued by business people, such as mega-farmers, hoteliers, and food processing firms. There might be some truth to that.

But what is the alternative? I just spent $150 in Seattle for one night in a clean but low-end hotel. I had a tiny room with a window overlooking a busy 6-lane highway. The room was colorfully illuminated all night by a giant, neon Pepsi sign across the street. That hotel probably pays $7.93 an hour, the minimum wage, to housekeeping and other staff. Some of the staff, perhaps most, may be legal citizens. It could just be coincidence that most of them speak only Spanish. To fill 100% of those jobs with legals, they probably would have to offer at least twice that, plus some kind of health plan. Since labor is the main cost, it is likely that the price of the room would at least double at the higher rate, probably more than double in order to fill all jobs with solid, low turnover, legal employees. A $250 room in a moderate hotel downtown would probably go for $500 to $800 a night.

Likewise, apples might cost $6 a pound instead of $2. Maybe more, because who would you get to do backbreaking orchard work in rural counties, even at $15? In general, we could probably look to a doubling or tripling of food prices, including fruits, vegetables, cereals and meat and fish.

Would consumers pay up? Maybe they would. Gas prices have tripled recently and nobody seemed to mind. Maybe it would be the same for food and hotels. It would be a heck of a shock to the economy in any case. It’s hard to imagine what it would do to the travel business and the food production and distribution industries. Certainly the people who worked in those industries would still not be able to afford their own product.

Personally, I would eschew hotels altogether at those prices, which would mean severely curtailing domestic travel. I would also alter my food-buying patterns to avoid supermarkets in favor of local growers. I would not even consider a restaurant. If most people did the same, it would radically change the U.S. economy.

If consumers pushed back against the higher prices, which seems likely, the affected industries would move out of the country, for food, or close up shop altogether, for most hotels. That would ripple into the entire travel industry, and much of the entertainment industry as well. In turn, that would drastically affect municipal tax systems in unpredictable ways. I haven’t even considered the effects on restaurants and other industries that are price-supported by illegal workers at low wages. But for sure, a vast number of businesses and jobs would be lost without that support.

But such economic and social upheaval is apparently a fair tradeoff for people like Senator Dorgan. I think it’s far too radical. Can this really be a serious objection to immigration?

Republican senator Sessions of Alabama is among the conservatives resisting the proposed immigration bill. In the New York Times of June 7, he is quoted, “I just don’t think that all 12 million people, including single people who broke the border last December, need to be put on a guaranteed path to citizenship.”

Why don’t these people “need” a path to legitimacy? Because they are law-breakers, criminals. They sneaked into the country and that’s against the law; thus the term “illegal immigrants.” Conservatives, who call the senate bill an “amnesty,” complain that it would reward law-breakers.

Anyone who reads the bill certainly knows that it is not a simple forgive-and-forget amnesty. Assuming that conservatives like Mr. Sessions have read the bill, they must be deliberately misrepresenting it for some reason. The only possible reason would be to hide other motivations, whatever those might be.

But suppose we did construe the bill as a limited form of amnesty. After all, the illegals are here illegally, and even after paying retribution and meeting other conditions, including returning to their home country, the fact that they could eventually return and apply for legal status, could be construed, in a tortured roundabout way, as a kind of amnesty. Let’s just say it is, for sake of argument.

What would be wrong with that? Why is amnesty a bad thing? It has been successful in solving social problems in many countries, notably South Africa of late, but also in the U.S. after our own civil war. What is this knee-jerk reaction against “rewarding” a misdemeanor offense? Could the argument be that it would start us on a slippery slope of rewarding all crimes? That’s just insane.

The reaction against amnesty seems to amount to nothing more than petulant pride, as if the granters of such “rewards” would be somehow diminished by it. But it is not clear how they would be diminished. The objection on grounds of amnesty is an immature and irrational emotional reaction, not a reasonable objection.

Is there a hidden racist agenda in objection to immigration reform? Are conservatives afraid of being overrun by hoards of brown people?

I think there is a lot of that sentiment, although it cannot be spoken in polite company. I gather that impression from remarks overheard in border states such as California and Arizona.

I also get this impression from my own experience driving north between San Diego and Los Angeles through the hills east of the coastal freeways, or coming north into Tucson from the border. There are numerous Border Patrol checkpoints, through which every vehicle must pass in single file. The uniformed, weapon-bearing, mirror-sunglassed officer looks through your windshield to see if the driver is brown or white, and being white, I get waved through on a rolling stop with a flick of the finger. No words are exchanged.

These checkpoints are humiliating to me as an American, and they don’t even inconvenience me. If the Border Patrol at least compared my ID to a database of bad guys, I would feel there something more at stake than pure racism.

According to Wikipedia, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization that advocates reform of U.S. immigration policies to improve border security and stop illegal immigration, and to reduce even legal immigration into the United States to around 300,000 people a year. In 2005, an article in the liberal political magazine, The American Prospect, called FAIR "the anti-immigration movement’s most powerful institution".

Yet disturbingly, according to the article, FAIR has been criticized for accepting contributions from the Pioneer Fund, which was described by a Wall Street Journal editorial as a "white-supremacist outfit devoted to racial purity through eugenics.”

One must not accuse all objectors to immigration reform of being racists because of a few associations like the one mentioned above, but we can at least observe that racism is a documented component of some immigration reform sentiment.

Another objection to immigration reform is the hint of old-fashioned xenophobia, irrational fear of someone different. It’s just this side of racism, not yet as pernicious. I heard some Senator on television (didn’t get his name), whining that when he was on vacation in a small town in a border state he could not find a store where English was spoken. He was apparently horrified at the prospect of bilingualism or multilingualism in America. Why? Presumably because he doesn’t happen to speak any languages but English.

Bilingualism is already a fact of life in the Southwest. The population of Los Angeles is 53% Latino now. And anyway, what is wrong with bilingualism? It enriches the mind and the culture in general.

I think this objection boils down to an irrational fear reaction. I saw a telling comment on some news blog: “Send all the illegals back to fix their own countries and not ruin ours by trying to make us like them......I AM NOT SPANISH AND DON'T WANT them here!”

I can sympathize with the fear that ignorance breeds, but it surely cannot be taken as a rational reason to oppose immigration reform.

I could find only one sensible reason for opposing immigration reform, but it is not one that any critic of the senate bill cites. That reason is that most Americans are against immigration of all kinds, legal or illegal, and have been for a long time, even though most Americans are descended from recent immigrants. It’s the “close the door behind me” (CDBM) syndrome. Every national poll on the topic since 1976 has shown that a majority of Americans desire to cut immigration.

A recent Roper poll found that 70 per cent of all Americans wanted immigration levels between zero and 300,000 people annually. America's long-term immigration tradition before Congress changed the law in 1965 was a little over 200,000 a year; it was 178,000 a year for the forty years before that.

The Roper survey also found that among affluent Americans, only 11 per cent favored immigration levels above 300,000, and among Americans who identify themselves as Republican, sentiment runs 20 to 1 against the current immigration level of about 600,000.

In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 30% of Americans oppose the senate bill and 11% favor it. (The rest don’t know enough to have an opinion). Among critics, 39% cite "amnesty" as a reason for their opposition.

The plain fact is that most Americans do not support any kind of immigration. Politicians, as elected officials of the people, according to one theory of government, have the duty to express the will of their electorate and therefore they should loudly and vociferously oppose any immigration reform that amounts to anything other than a policy of shut the doors and close the windows on America. That’s what the people want.

Yet according to a slightly more sophisticated theory of government, politicians are leaders. As leaders it is their duty to explain to their constituents that their own self-interests are not well-served by ignorance, fear and racism. Unfortunately, instead of leadership, we see only posturing and hear only euphemism.

If anti-immigration conservatives were honest, they would state that their objection to the senate bill is the “closed door” policy that their constituents want. No one could accuse them of dark and dishonest motives if they did that.

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