Making the Immigration Argument in a New Economic Reality

Today at MigraMatters, Duke has a really thoughtful post about the incoming administration (whoever that may be) and how they could deal with immigration sensibly and comprehensively. It is a must-read.

Come January 20, 2009 a new administration will take office in perhaps the most precarious times the nation has faced since the 1930's. Fighting two seemingly endless wars and with an economy on the verge of collapse, it is not an enviable position for any leader.

While both candidates have avoided the immigration debate like the plague during the campaign, it has moved down the list of important issues for voters, replaced by more pressing issues like healthcare or the economy. But in order to address these more pressing concerns in any meaningful way, the new government will need to tackle immigration once and for all.

We cannot talk about supplying health care for 46 million uninsured Americans, and perhaps double that number that are underinsured, without addressing what is to become of the health needs of an additional 12mil undocumented immigrants. We cannot talk about fixing a broken economy and real economic justice for working Americans without addressing the 8 million workers living in the shadows and working in an underground economy. The opponents of any kind of real economic change or healthcare reform will surely use the old canards about "illegal immigrants" to not only distract the American public from addressing the real problems that need to be addressed, but as an excuse to derail real reforms and change. It is for this reason that immigration reform must be dealt with sooner rather than later.

But after years of toxic and divisive debate, are the American people ready for a real and practical discussion of this issue? Or will they get bogged down, as in the past, in meaningless sloganeering and petty tribalism and xenophobia?

I think the answer depends not on the actions of the anti-immigrants right, who will inevitably try to turn all the collective fears and insecurities of the American public towards the immigrant population, but on the actions those looking for truly rational, fair, and practical reform.

It's safe to assume that no matter what happens in the Presidential race (although it appears we have a pretty good idea how that will end up), the American people are demanding change.

Additionally, both houses of Congress will be vastly different than they are today. Perhaps at no time in recent memory has there been a greater mandate for Washington to effect change of a seismic nature than the one that is about to be delivered.

Against this backdrop, those looking for meaningful immigration reform must see this as a new opportunity to reframe the debate. If they fail to do so, anti-immigrant forces will surely do it for them.

Six months from now we will be faced with a new paradigm.

Either immigration reform becomes just one part of comprehensive plan to revitalize a new 21st century America … just one component of an aggressive plan to address not only the nation's economic health but it future direction, or the anti-immigrant forces will have prevailed and we will be mired down in a divisive debate that will stunt all other reforms.

For us to reframe the debate, we have to acknowledge that current economic conditions put this issue in a precarious position and that increased blowback from the right is inevitable.

I would suggest that rather than trying to counter right wing framing (ie: immigrants are an economic drain, and in tough times we need to limit immigration and crack down on the undocumented), we should turn the presumed "strengths" of their arguments back in on them... sort of an "immigration debate jujitsu".

We have spent vast resources trying to debunk right wing framing, yet it still prevails. I suggest we need to turn this argument inside out to effectively make the case for meaningful reform.


Over the past 20 years we have continually increased spending on added border security, yet the numbers of the undocumented have continued to increase. Only now, with an economic downturn have we seen decreasing numbers. This of course is the result of basic free market principles.

But in a current economic crisis we can no longer afford to spend vast sums of money on failed security measures like walls and random high-profile (and high cost) "show raids" that target a few hundred undocumented immigrants who unluckily work at the wrong place at the wrong time.

These raids have only led to misery and destruction of hard working families. They have done nothing to curb the flow of undocumented workers.

Additionally the costs of detaining and processing even these relatively few undocumented immigrants has been astronomical...if these policies were taken to the wide-scale levels that would be required to forcibly remove over 12 million as suggested by those who oppose meaningful reform...the costs would make the recent economic bailout efforts look minor in comparison.

We need instead practical reform so that law enforcement dollars can be spent protecting citizens from criminal elements both domestic and foreign as opposed to prosecuting and persecuting hard working immigrants. We need to reform the system so that those who wish to come here to work and make a better life are able to do so legally. With wait times for new arrivals reaching 20 years, and no provisions made for those in many countries to ever enter legally, all the money the government could print will never be enough to seal the border.

We need the tax revenues/ Out of the shadows:

All those living and working in this country need to have the opportunity to contribute equally to the nations well being. We can no longer afford to have whole segments of the economy operating underground. Unscrupulous employers can no longer be allowed to use lack of immigration status as a means to cheat both employees and the American people. We have all seen the deplorable working conditions and the labor, health, safety violations, that have occurred in the few high profile "show raids" that have taken place. Not to mention the questionable record keeping and accounting practices that hide profits from taxation.

While not all undocumented workers work under such horrid conditions, with the vast majority working for the small businesses that line many American main streets, the very nature of their immigration status forces otherwise law abiding employers to skirt the law and engage in questionable practices to fill their labor needs.

Like the policies of Prohibition in the 20's and 30's, today's failed immigration system makes "criminals" out of million of hard working people both native and foreign born. And like Prohibition, has set the stage for an underground economy that allows the truly criminal and unscrupulous to cheat and steal from the American people.

The only way to remove 12million people from the underground economy is to make them full, participating, members of society and bring them out of the shadows by allowing them access to legal status.

This is not a matter of granting "amnesty" to those who have entered without authorization …. It's a matter of recognizing the reality that 12mil people living productive lives and working in this economy are not about to pick up and leave simply because ant-immigrant forces want them to … and that we all benefit by having them contributing fully in the light of day.

Economic Justice/ Workers Rights:

After a decade of stagnating wages, tax policies that favor the wealthiest Americans while penalizing the vast majority of working people, and an American dream that seems to be slipping out of reach for most working Americans, we need to once again restore the rights of working families to make a better life.

All workers, regardless of immigration status, deserve a safe workplace, a wage they can live on and support their families, the ability to make a better life for their children and provide them with a quality education, and the ability to access affordable healthcare. These are basic rights. These are the rights American workers fought long and hard to achieve. From the beginnings of the union movement in the nineteenth century, until nearly the end of the 20th, each generation of workers fought to make life better for the next. … and they succeeded.

But in the last 30 years American workers have been moving backwards rather than moving forward.

While the contributing factors to this decline in worker's standard of living are many, from outsourcing to union busting, deregulation to the dismantling of the progressive tax system, for us to turn this tide and return to the road towards economic justice, we need to include all workers. As long as nearly eight million workers are left out in the cold, and demagogues can turn worker against worker, no equity will be achieved.

In those industries that rely heavily on immigrant labor, this is most important.

The conditions we have seen in the factories and meatpacking plants that have been targeted by ICE speak volumes. Those conditions exist not because there are easily exploitable workers available….the exploitable workers are there because they are the only ones left willing to work under those horrendous conditions. They go where the work is, be it rural Iowa or N. Carolina.

Having driven out the unions with union busting tactics, or relocating to rural, right to work states with little regulation and government oversight, and high poverty rates, these companies proceeded to chip away at worker protections and rights until only the most exploitable and vulnerable in society would work there.

The largest pork processing plant in the nation, Smithfield's facility in Tar Heel, N. Carolina, readily hires a mix of undocumented workers, and prison labor to fill its labor needs. This is because conditions are so deplorable only those with little or no other options will work there.

This cycle needs to end.

To raise the standards for all workers, the vulnerability that comes with undocumented status must end. Once these workers are brought out of the shadows and allowed to join with all other workers to demand the conditions and compensation due them, all workers will benefit.


This is just a start at examining possible framing changes that will move the immigration debate away from one dominated by restrictionists to one based on reality and progressive ideas.

Of course there are many more areas to explore such as Globalization and Neo-Liberal economic policies that drive migration globally and lower standards for all workers, including those in first-world nations. Or the need to address economic and social justice in sender nations and the role US policy plays in that dynamic. And these are other areas where new framing is needed.

Despite all the divisive rhetoric we’ve heard during this election cycle, and the reliance of some on the old attack politics of the past, it's becoming more and more evident that the majority of the American public are rejecting the calls to tribalism and simplistic slogans. They want meaningful and practical change, and are willing to listen, learn, and work towards that change. Never before in recent memory have the American people been so engaged. Certainly, the economy, the war, the heath care crisis, and many other problems have helped to wake them from their years of complacency. But, no matter what the reason, they have awakened from a long sleep and are ready to work for change.

If we are to be part of that change and make immigration reform part of a New Deal for the 21st century, we will need to take the lead, and make the American people understand that immigration reform is part and parcel of any real and meaningful change for the future.