A reform of the absurd and obsolete immigration laws of the United States is long overdue, and is now finally under discussion.
Tea Party Republicans are acting out the fear and hatred of foreigners which is typical of this faction. Wall Street Democrats and corporate Republicans are attempting to implement the financier program of using foreign workers to drive down domestic wages, further weakening the trade union movement. And as usual, the two Wall Street-controlled political parties are doing everything to obscure the main considerations that ought to guide this reform.
In the view of Alexander Hamilton and other economists of the American System of Political Economy, the wealth of the nation is located first and foremost in the education, training, and experience of its labor force. As Abraham Lincoln put it, the welfare of labor is the most important consideration. The most basic form of capital is human capital, mental capital. In this connection, the willingness of industrious and energetic people from around the world to come to the United States and find work is a tremendous national resource, and one which should not be dilapidated by outbursts of racism or xenophobia.
Without a constant flow of immigrants, the United States would already be condemned to a serious demographic crisis of the type being experienced by Japan, Western Europe, Russia, China, and other parts of the world. Seen from this angle, immigrants are an American national trump card in the effort to create and maintain a modern labor force to meet the demands of international competition in the 21st century. Without immigration, the United States would be facing an uncertain future for want of people in the workforce.
Most Should Become Citizens within a Year
The United States thus needs immigrants just as much as immigrants need the United States. The accepted wisdom is that there are now 11 million undocumented foreign workers in this country, who have an estimated 5 million children who have been born here, and are thus, under the wise provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, automatically US citizens. In addition, there are about 2 million persons who were brought into the United States as young children, and are thus technically illegal through no fault of their own. These are the intended beneficiaries of the still-pending federal DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), and of the twelve DREAM Acts which have passed in states from Texas and California to New York and Maryland. This legislation grants improved access to education and social services, and is long overdue.
The national interest requires that this group of almost 20 million people be regularized, normalized, legalized and naturalized as soon as possible. The target should be to have as many as possible obtain a green card and become citizens within one year, and to wrap up the process of comprehensive naturalization within three years at the very most. This must be full citizenship, and not some discriminatory scheme of second-class status. Newly naturalized immigrants must enjoy full access to all social programs and benefits. Public safety will be enhanced if they take written tests and road tests to obtain driver’s licenses. Public health will be enhanced if they receive the full schedule of immunizations, checkups, and other medical care. National wealth will be increased if they can access educational opportunities - including upgraded language skills - under something like the modern equivalent of a GI Bill Of Rights.
Politicians will protest about the short-term costs, but if undocumented immigrants are kept marginalized, denied basic health care, shut out from educational opportunity, and otherwise discriminated against, how can the United States ever hope to keep pace on the world market?
Naturalization Accompanied by an Increased Minimum Wage
At the same time, labor market measures are needed to guarantee that the naturalization and assimilation of recent immigrants will not lead to a further secular decline in real wages, as measured in average weekly earnings and average hourly earnings. This is in the interest of all working people, including the currently undocumented. (Legalization itself, it should be noted, will make foreign workers harder to bully, blackmail, and exploit.) The one cogent argument against naturalization and assimilation is that recent immigrants can be hired more cheaply, making it possible for employers to drive down wages, bust unions, and the like.
Accordingly, the precondition of immigration reform must be an increase in the federal minimum wage from the current tragically low rate of $7.25 an hour to an interim level of $12 per hour, followed by one dollar per hour increases in successive years until the level of $15 per hour is reached. The existing minimum of $7.25 per hour was enacted in 2009, and reflects a feeble attempt to make up for erosion in buying power during the Bush years.
The peak value of the federal minimum wage was reached in 1968 at about $12 per hour in today’s money. We should also recall that many states have minimum wages which are already higher than the federal norm, such as $8.60 per hour in Vermont, $9.19 per hour in Washington, $8.50 per hour in Connecticut, and $8.00 per hour in California and Massachusetts. Raising the federal minimum wage represents a decision to assign a greater share of the national income to wages, and should no longer be blocked by the apocalyptic scare tactics of reactionary ideologues and propagandists.
Naturally, all these measures must be seen in the context of the comprehensive program for national economic recovery from the current world economic depression which I have outlined in other articles. On a personal note: I have witnessed real economic booms in the least four settings - the United States in the mid-1950s, the Italian miracolo economico in 1964, the West German Wirtschaftswunder in 1967, and the Taiwan boom in 1988.
The common denominator of every real economic boom is the rapid emergence of a labor shortage once the expansion is fully under way. If a militant political movement can force the Federal Reserve to finance the creation of 30 million new productive jobs in infrastructure, we will quickly find ourselves at full employment for the first time since 1945, and we will be facing exactly such a labor shortage, requiring special efforts to attract foreign workers.
Through this combination of rapid naturalization and assimilation into the workforce, with full access to all social services, plus a robust increase in the minimum wage, a solution can be found which respects the best American traditions. The United States has the extraordinary good fortune of being a nation of immigrants. At the same time, this is traditionally a high wage country where low-wage sweatshops will always be an alien institution. It is time to honor this tradition.
Solve Immigration and Split the GOP at the Same Time
The Republican Party is extremely vulnerable to a rational proposal for immigration reform. On the one hand, the Wall Street financiers who dominate the Washington GOP elite want to maximize immigration as a means of driving down wages and undermining collective-bargaining. But many Republican state party organizations, and a significant part of the militant GOP base, are infected by hatred of foreigners - xenophobia.
In this they are comparable to the infamous Know Nothing Party of the 1850s. The core belief of many Tea Party fanatics is that they are being taxed to support social services for lazy Hispanics whose goal in life is to come to America and get on welfare - despite the fact that, back in the real world, welfare was destroyed by Bill Clinton in 1996 and has not been restored. Republicans also fantasize about a banal suburban utopia from the 1950s as a kind of American paradise lost. Their picture is far too idyllic, and in any case the positive features of the 1950s were largely the result of mature New Deal programs which were in place at that time, but which have now been gutted.
Last year, Mitt Romney concluded that the best way to appeal to the xenophobic-reactionary GOP base was to advocate a policy of reducing undocumented immigrant workers to despair, compelling them to give up on the United States and leave the country. This was his infamous slogan of “self deportation,” which the Hispanic, Asian, and other immigrant communities will hopefully never forget. More than a third of the Republican base considers self deportation much too soft, and demand deportation by the police - a guaranteed one-way ticket to domestic totalitarianism.
As usual, Obama uses his ostensible quest for compromise with the Republicans as a cover for his worst betrayals. The goal here should not be to compromise with the existing Republican leadership, but to recognize that the immigration issue lends itself perhaps more than any other to the smashing of the Republican Party into two parts - a wealthy Wall Street and country club wing who want more foreign workers, and a hard-core of far less affluent rural, small-town, and southern reactionaries who hate foreigners. If the GOP is fractured, and the existing leadership defeated and discredited, many individual urban and northern Republicans in Congress will scurry to save themselves by voting for reform.
Latinos Have First-Hand Experience of Obama’s Treachery
The Hispanic-Latino community has the advantage of being thoroughly disillusioned with Obama. They know from painful experience that Obama is not the Messiah. He ran for president in 2008 with the categorical promise of comprehensive immigration reform during his first term, and then proceeded to repudiate this promise in practice.
Instead, Obama has outdone every previous administration in terms of pure police state terror against undocumented immigrants, with an estimated one million plus deportations so far. At the same time, Latino leaders are aware that Obama owes his second term not to his pretty face, ability as an orator, or personal charisma, but to an avalanche of Hispanic votes. These Latino leaders are in no mood to accept more sellouts from the tenant of the White House.
The main point of dispute is likely to be the so-called “path to citizenship.”
Obama’s proposal calls for illegal immigrants, who want to be citizens, to register, submit biometric data, pass a background check, document proficiency in English, and pay a fine to attain provisional or probationary legal status. But then, these foreign workers would be forced to go to the very end of the bureaucratic line and slowly work their way through the clogged and dysfunctional legal immigration system - a process which could take years or even decades. If the system of legal immigration had been working, the current problems would not exist. Outflanking the current system is the precondition for any serious solution.
Obama has decided to neglect the needs of economic recovery and to partly accept the legalistic-vindictive mindset of many Republicans, who want to punish undocumented workers for the initiative, energy, and intelligence they have shown in outflanking the formalities and coming to the United States. These immigrants have voted with their feet for the United States, and the ordeals and humiliations they have undergone in their lives up to now constitute more than enough punishment for their legal peccadilloes. The Obama White House should come up with an estimate of the billions of dollars in useless additional costs generated by such a glacial and punitive approach, including the loss of international goodwill.
If the undocumented workers decided to stage a plebeian secession (like the one Menenius Agrippa, consul of the Roman Republic, had to deal with in 503 BC) and simply leave the country, significant parts of the US economy would simply collapse. Is this what the two bankrupt political parties really want?
Senate Gang of Eight: Decades to Get Citizenship
In the Senate, the bipartisan Gang of Eight has advanced a proposal of its own. This group includes Republicans McCain, Flake, Graham, and the Cuban-American demagogue Rubio. These are joined by Democrats Schumer, Durbin, Menendez, and Bennett of Colorado. The proposal from this group is significantly worse than Obama’s. Under this plan, undocumented workers would be required to come forward, pay fines and back taxes, and certify knowledge of English. They would then be granted probationary legal status. Their ability to exit this gray area and receive a green card would depend on two events utterly outside their own control. First, it would have to be shown that employers are no longer hiring illegal workers, but only legal ones.
The second step would be the verdict of a special commission, composed of border state governors and other local officials, who would issue a finding as to whether the border is secure. Obviously, any Tea Party reactionaries on this commission would have every reason to block citizenship for millions of workers by simply claiming that the border is not secure. This is not a theoretical danger: as things stand today, Arizona’s racist Republican Governor Jan Brewer, the sponsor of an anti-immigrant witch-hunt in her state, would be a member of this commission. Some of the Gang of Eight claimed that the ultimate verdict on border security would come from the federal Department of Homeland Security, but this remains to be seen.
House GOP: Undocumented Workers Can Never Become Citizens, Never Vote
The House Republican position, as articulated by Tea Party Mormon Raul Labrador of Idaho and others, is that illegal immigrants can never be allowed to become US citizens. An amnesty, they rant, rewards illegal behavior and is thus out of the question. The most the illegals can hope for is to avoid deportation and be allowed to stay, inhabiting an eternal legal limbo from which there will be no escape. Republican leaders regard this outrageous monstrosity as a compromise position, since it does not include the mass deportations which much of the GOP rank and file ardently desire.
The Republicans want to have their cake and eat it too: they want plenty of desperate, impoverished foreign laborers to lower the prevailing wage scales, but at the same time they want a guarantee that these foreign workers will never be able to vote, since they may well decide to punish their Republican tormentors.
Cal Thomas, the reactionary commentator, proposed on WMAL radio in the nation’s capital that foreign workers could be offered long-term second-class citizenship, including the denial of the right to vote for at least 20 years! The Republican intent is clearly to create a permanent underclass of inferior beings whose presence could be used to drag the rest of the society down into servitude and immiseration.
The Republican base is obsessed with the idea that undocumented workers have violated US laws, and cannot be allowed to escape draconian punishment - lex dura sed lex, as it were. Interestingly, this Republican passion for a legality does not extend to the antitrust laws, the securities laws, the labor and child labor laws, and other parts of the federal penal code. Nor do they care very much about the legal and undeclared wars.
So far not one Wall Street banker or hedge fund operator has been sent to jail for the crime of the century, the 2008 world derivatives and banking panic, and Republican protests against this state of affairs have been few and far between. Having failed to unleash the full vigor of the law against the malefactors of great wealth and economic royalists, the Republicans demand no mercy for some of the poorest and most defenseless elements of society - upon whom the future of the nation in part will depend. Punishing illegal immigrants would thus amount to a colossal exercise in selective and vindictive prosecution, and must be rejected.
The inherent hypocrisy of the legalistic approach is also that powerful US corporate interests, over recent decades, have actively promoted the non-enforcement of the immigration laws because of their structural desire to drive down wages. Undocumented foreign workers are ultimately guilty of nothing more than recognizing this rather obvious fact, and trying to take advantage of it for their own betterment.
Dangers of the “Guest Worker” Program
Another dangerous idea being pushed by the Obama White House is the notion of a guest worker program that would allow temporary residence for foreigners working in highly skilled technical occupations and also in low-skilled agricultural jobs. On this point, Obama is working with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, whose record is littered with sellouts, and with the arch-reactionary US Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue. Donohue, joined by predatory employers like AOL founder Steve Case, is demanding “maximum flexibility” for employers to obtain temporary visas for new hires in engineering and farming. Obama voted to kill the existing temporary visa program in 2007, but he and Trumka look ready to capitulate this time around, perhaps joined by the SEIU.
Guest workers can never escape their inherent second-class status. If they protest wage cuts, poor working conditions, or individual grievances, they can be immediately sent home. They inevitably represent a threat to the rights and well-being of other workers. Temporary visas must therefore be limited to the most exceptional circumstances, and no permanent guest worker program should be allowed.
These issues are expected to figure prominently in Obama’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday, February 12. The Republican reply will be given by Rubio, who will also deliver a sales pitch in Spanish in the hopes of reviving the GOP’s image among the Hispanic demographic.