(This is the second in a series of reports by the IRC Americas program that examine the political forces shaping the immigration debate in the United States. All recent immigration policy reports are found at: http://americas.irc-online.org/index/immig/index.php.)
Stark divides mark the American political landscape. Red vs. blue states, the culture war, and the patriots vs. the peaceniks, to say nothing of the deepening economic divides between rich and poor, with the middle class beset with debt and worries about the future. Despite these deep divides, the aphorism that politics makes strange bedfellows holds true—especially in the intensifying debate about immigration.
Organized labor, human rights advocates, the Wall Street Journal, and Corporate America find themselves in bed together in the immigration debate—not only often sharing views about the benefits of immigration flows but also connected through pro-immigration organizations. At the same time, many leftists find that they have more in common with the anti-corporate, pro-worker discourse of anti-immigrant figures like Pat Buchanan than liberals and progressives who avoid talking class politics.
The political left usually can be counted on to criticize the dominant domestic
and foreign policy agenda as representing the interests of corporations over
workers and poor communities. Complaints about the downward pressure on wages
and the corporate practice of using cheap labor to divide the workforce typically
have had a left-wing provenance. In the immigration debate, however, the politics
of class and corporations has muddled traditional political lines.
Any way you look at the immigration debate—from the right or the left,
liberal or conservative, working class or corporate capitalist—the clash
over immigration policy is reconfiguring the political landscape. A Wall
Street Journal article titled “Borderline Republicans” notes
how immigration restrictionist forces on the right are fracturing the Republican
Party. Once again, according to this voice of big business, liberals are to
blame. Republican restrictionists “have teamed up with radical greens
and zero-population-growth-niks to intimidate and defeat other Republicans
willing to defend immigration.” The Wall Street Journal warns: “It
behooves GOP restrictionists to better understand their new bedfellows.”1
Right-wing critics of U.S. immigration and border control polices have,
until recently, been voices in the political wilderness, consigned to the
far margins of both political parties. Today, however, they have pushed their
way into the center of a heated political debate about immigration policy.
Listening to Lou Dobbs and his guests hammer the “Broken Borders” theme
night after night on CNN, it’s clear that the populist right, fear-mongers,
and cultural nationalists have succeeded in establishing the dominant frameworks
for the exploding immigration debate. Equally apparent is that the current
immigration debate has sidelined immigrant advocates. Especially when the
issue is jobs and wage levels, pro-immigration groups increasingly find
themselves fumbling for credible arguments to counter the rising backlash
“Not only do illegal aliens cost the nation tens of billions of dollars
in social services,” says Dobbs, “but they depress wages for American
citizens. American business is exploiting cheap labor and paradoxically doing
so with the blessing of national unions.”2
Many of the immigration restrictionist groups have adopted the term “open
borders lobby” to describe supporters of liberal immigration policies.
Included in this lobby, according to anti-immigration groups, is the Bush
administration itself. Carrying Capacity Network, a nationalist environmental
organization, maintains that the open borders lobby is “powered by well-funded
special interest groups and certain big business lobbyists.”3
Mark Krikorian, who heads the influential anti-immigration Center for Immigration
Studies (CIS), states, “The high-immigration Right works hand-in-glove
with the anti-American Left.” Like many anti-immigration groups, CIS
believes that Corporate America and leftists share a common agenda of open
borders, albeit for different reasons.4
Class Analysis—from the Right
Anti-free trade progressives and unions can take credit for introducing
the issue of outsourcing labor and production. Lately, however, it’s
the right-wing populists and immigration restrictionists who have seized on
the outsourcing issue, characterizing the corporate practice as an insult
to hard-working Americans and the nation itself. For many anti-immigration
groups, the deepening reliance on a foreign-born workforce—both in foreign
outsourcing or the employment at home of illegal, legalized, or guestworker
immigrants—underscores their argument that corporations and pro-immigration
advocates are in cahoots to shaft native-born U.S. workers.
As implausible as it may seem to those with a stereotyped view of the right
wing, the immigration restrictionists have injected class analysis and
critiques of Corporate America into the center of the 21 st century immigration
debate in the United States. While pro-immigration groups focus their defense
of workers on the plight of immigrant workers—a strategy that gains them
few converts and tends to alienate them from legal workers—immigration
restrictionist groups have positioned themselves as the champions of U.S.
For decades, the classic argument of pro-immigration groups and immigrant
advocates has been, as President Bush stated when announcing his guestworker/legalization
plan in late December, that “there are some jobs in America that Americans
won’t do and others are unwilling to do.”5 A
growing sector in the restrictionist movement dismisses this as just another “open
borders” position that doesn’t reflect the harsh reality of domestic
economic and social conditions.
Immigration restrictionist groups like NumbersUSA note that illegal immigrants
actually fill the job slots—in construction, as janitors, in meatpacking,
poultry plants, etc.—that not long ago offered a living wage, benefits,
and were often unionized. In his book, The Case Against Immigration,
NumbersUSA president Roy Beck argues that legal and illegal immigration has
been a key factor in the deterioration of those jobs.
According to NumbersUSA, “The 500% increase in immigration numbers
has played an integral part in destroying middle-class occupations and turning
them into minimum-wage jobs.” Beck contends that liberal immigration
policy has reduced economic opportunity for black Americans, deepened the
poverty of farm workers, destroyed the health of poultry plant employees,
and turned many construction, manufacturing, and service jobs into “work
Americans won’t do.”6 NumbersUSA
helped found the Coalition for the Future American Worker. Both organizations
vehemently oppose visas for high-tech immigrant workers. NumbersUSA charges
that the new pro-immigration policies adopted by the AFL-CIO under President
John Sweeny and by other U.S. labor unions that organize immigrant workers
may be providing a short-term boost to organized labor but are undermining
the overall position of the U.S. workforce. 7
Left-of-center reporters and analysts have, of course, also noted this phenomenon,
yet it’s the immigration restrictionist groups that have successfully
turned this common observation into a powerful argument for aggressively
nationalistic immigration reform.
As a result, pro-immigration advocates have recently begun to modify their
standard argument on the jobs issue. Instead of contending that immigrants
take jobs that other U.S. residents don’t want because of the lowly
nature of the job or because there are not enough documented residents
to meet the labor demand, the pro-immigration camp is now offering a more
sophisticated labor argument.
For the last three decades or more, pro-immigration voices made the case
that immigrants did not constitute a threat to native workers because they
took jobs, such as field hands, roofers, and dishwashers in restaurants,
that U.S. citizens no longer wanted because of the low wages and poor working
conditions associated with such low-skilled work. But the increasing presence
of immigrants in a wide range of job sectors—from services and agriculture to traditional
and high-tech industries—dominated until the last couple of decades
by citizen workers has undermined the traditional pro-immigration arguments.
In the new context of economic globalization and of increased interest in
organizing immigrant workforces, immigration advocates have advanced a
set of revised pro-immigration arguments. Couched in pro-worker terms,
these arguments appeal mostly to the immigrant workforce and have thus far
failed to persuade the U.S. workforce at large.
Workers of the Global Economy
Organized labor and other pro-immigration sectors now argue that immigrants
take jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want not because they are undignified
jobs, but because these jobs pay unlivable wages and provide no benefits.
What’s necessary, according to pro-immigration groups, is that all workers,
whether citizens or not, join together to demand livable wages, better
working conditions, and a basic benefit package. Rather than join with immigration
foes in demanding that borders be sealed and all undocumented workers be
deported, pro-immigration and immigrant groups now argue that the only way
to stop the downward pressure on wages and working conditions is to guarantee
the rights of all workers to organize and fight for fair compensation for
“In a global economy, in which employers pit workers against each
other, the fate of both native-born workers and immigrant workers are linked,” wrote
James Parks in the AFL-CIO magazine. “Employers that try to exploit
immigrant workers are the same ones that fight all workers’ rights.
The most effective way to counter the strength and financial resources
of exploitative employers is through a strong union movement that includes
all workers, regardless of where they were born, their race, gender, or sexual
This view represents a change from past positions. Until the 1990s, organized
labor numbered among the leading anti-immigrant forces. Immigrant workers
were considered “scabs” who took work from legal workers, even
by such largely Latino unions as the United Farm Workers.
As an Arizona Republic report on immigration issues recalled, “Cesar
Chavez, a labor leader intent on protecting union membership, was as effective
a surrogate for the INS as ever existed. Indeed, Chavez and the United
Farm Workers Union he headed routinely reported, to the INS, for deportation,
suspected illegal immigrants who served as strikebreakers or refused to unionize.”9 Bert
Corona, founder of the bracero advocacy group Hermandad Mexicana, repeatedly
criticized Chavez and the UFW during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s for advocating
INS (Immigration & Naturalization Service) roundups and deportation of
illegal workers in California.10
Anti-immigration groups frequently point out the labor movement’s
history in supporting anti-immigration policy reform. Vernon Briggs, a labor
history scholar associated with the Center for Immigration Studies writes, “At
every juncture, and with no exception prior to the 1980s, the union movement
either directly instigated or strongly supported every legislative initiative
enacted by Congress to restrict immigration and to enforce its policy provisions.”11
Today, the AFL-CIO has changed sides in the face-off between anti- and pro-immigration
groups and embraced immigrant organizing as the future of organized labor.
To a large extent, the AFL-CIO and U.S. unions have accepted that they stand
little chance of making significant inroads or even halting the decline of
unionization in what remains of the industrial base that employs citizen workers.
Instead, they have focused new organizing drives on manufacturing and service
industries with large immigrant bases.
AFL-CIO Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson recently affirmed this turnabout
in perspective: “The fact that millions of immigrant workers in our
economy are forced to accept low wages, no benefits, and outrageous working
conditions, is something that negatively affects us all. For these reasons
we must push for a strong blanket standard of treatment that will not make
exceptions and that will benefit the middle-class as a whole.”12
Many see this as a return to labor’s early roots when unions focused
on organizing the immigrant workforce that came to America in the late 19
th and early 20 th centuries—a time when unions, especially textile
workers, were largely ethnic groupings. Early in this century, the United
Auto Workers and United Steel Workers reached out to the workers who were
first and second generation immigrants from Ireland, southern, and eastern
Europe. “In many ways, the new AFL-CIO immigration policy signals a
return of the union movement to its historical roots,” wrote Parks,
explaining the AFL-CIO’s new immigration policy, “The union movement
was formed by mainly European immigrants seeking a better life. Immigrant
workers were in the forefront of important early battles for workers’ rights,
such as the Haymarket Square explosion in 1886, which led to the eight-hour
Today, the fastest growing constituencies for organized labor are once again
immigrants. Both legal and illegal immigrants have found protection and
support from unions such as the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union
(HERE), Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE),
and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—labor unions that are organizing
service workers in hotels, restaurant chains, retail chains, and office buildings
across America. These unions, especially HERE and SEIU, were at the forefront
of the fight in the late 1990s to reverse the AFL-CIO’s anti-immigrant
The AFL-CIO now has a policy statement that makes its new position clear: “The
AFL-CIO proudly stands on the side of immigrant workers … A broad legalization
program providing permanent residence status, rather than a new guestworker
program, should be the focus of our efforts.”15
“We have long called for an end to immigrant worker exploitation and
for reform of our nation’s broken immigration system,” states
the AFL-CIO, adding that its “core principles remain unchanged,” including
- “All workers, regardless of their country of origin or immigration
status, must have effective, credible, and enforceable labor rights;
- “ U.S. immigration laws must be reformed in a comprehensive
manner that gives undocumented workers a path to citizenship, and which
removes the current incentives to exploit the undocumented;
- “Labor and business should work together to design mechanisms
to meet the legitimate needs for new workers without compromising the
rights and opportunities of current workers.”16
According to AFL-CIO president John Sweeny, “Immigration reform must
provide a certain path to legalization for workers from around the world who
are already living and working in the United States; repeal and replace employer
sanctions with stiffer penalties for employers who take advantage of workers’ immigration
status to exploit them and undermine labor protections for all workers; reform,
not expand, temporary worker programs; and reform the permanent immigration
system so that those who want to reunite with their families and play by the
rules are not penalized by unconscionably long waiting periods.”17
But the new arguments come late in the quickly evolving immigration debate,
and unions and immigrant advocacy groups haven’t managed to convince
broad sectors of the U.S. working class that its future lies in cross-border
worker unity, rather than an “us vs. them” attack on immigrant
workers. Meanwhile the populist, class-based terms employed by the anti-immigration
voices and echoed by the mainstream press have been hugely successful in
portraying immigrants as the scapegoat of labor woes.
NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies cite classic supply-and-demand
economic principles to argue that the bounty of desperate foreign-born
workers has created a demand-side political economy—one in which businesses
can easily break unions, pre-empt union organizing, and demand that employees
work for low wages, no overtime pay, and no benefits. All the while, the
businesses that exploit this supply of cheap labor are increasing their productivity
and profit margins.
Moreover, the linkage between labor’s relatively new pro-immigration
stance and what’s identified as the “pro-immigrant” movement
is still weak. While their rhetoric places restrictionists squarely on
the side of U.S. native workers (in discourse at least), the immigrant rights
and organizing groups identify themselves as pro-immigrant rather than
pro-worker or pro-American. This view is based on a belief in universal human
rights and while necessary and laudable, it has proven to have less resonance
with the U.S. public in the context of a highly polarized immigration debate.
Moreover, it effectively sidelines them from the current debate about what
is best for U.S. workers.
In contrast, the restrictionist camp has developed a very effective message
in its repeated criticisms of the open borders lobby as an undifferentiated
interest group of immigration lawyers, immigrant rights advocacy groups,
and big business that is easy for working class America to see as the enemy.
In many ways, the restrictionist right has succeeded in conjuring up a new
target for backlash politics based on the old anti-liberal themes. But instead
of the “liberal establishment,” today’s enemy has become
the open borders lobby.
Restrictionists regard pro-immigration groups such as the National Immigration
Forum, National Council of La Raza (NCLR), and the Mexican American Legal
Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) as being extensions of the liberal establishment,
and part of the open borders lobby.
This critique has shadings of the type of conspiracy theories about a pervasive
liberal establishment that have long been the stock of right-wing polemics.
Although clearly not a conspiracy, Wall Street and pro-immigration advocacy
groups do have more in common than their shared disdain for the immigration
The “pro-immigration” National Immigration Forum is a classic
example of a group that has joined Corporate America with labor and immigrant-rights
groups. The forum, established in 1982, says its board of directors is “composed
of advocacy leaders and institution builders who collectively reflect the
broad pro-immigration community with respect to race/ethnicity, geographical,
religious, and political views.”
Among the board members of the National Immigration Forum are representatives
from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Motorola, National
Restaurant Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Sitting alongside
these representatives of Corporate America are principals from the Hotel Employees & Restaurant
Employees Union (HERE) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU),
whose members are largely immigrant workers.18
Rick Swartz, who founded the National Immigration Forum, is widely respected
for his nearly three decades of human rights and immigrant advocacy work.
Like many liberal immigration lawyers, Swartz found that the interests
of business and immigrants were often the same when it came to immigration
policy. As part of his immigrant advocacy and work as a Washington lobbyist,
Swartz has specialized in forming what he terms “left-right coalitions.” His
work on uniting diverse political sectors to support the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s cemented his reputation as
an immigrant advocate who could bring different political forces together.
In the mid-1990s, Swartz helped the National Immigration Forum forge a pro-immigration
coalition bringing together Wall Street corporations, Silicon Valley high-tech
firms, the libertarian right, and ethnic groups that was ultimately successful
in beating back the immigration restrictionists. At the time, Swartz was serving
as a consultant for Microsoft on skilled-labor immigration policy, and one
of the central members of the unusual coalition was a former Swartz employee
who became the immigration lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers.19 Currently,
Swartz is organizing a “left-right coalition” that opposes agricultural
subsidies in the United States.
Other organizations represented on the boards of the country’s most
prominent pro-immigration coalitions are religious and ethnic organizations
that routinely take positions on behalf of the rights and welfare of immigrants.
The National Council of La Raza, which anti-immigration groups routinely lambaste
because of its ethnically charged name, is closely tied to Corporate America
through its 24-member board of corporate advisers, including such transnationals
as Wal-Mart, State Farm, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods, and JC Penney.20
For both the National Council of La Raza and the National Immigration Forum,
immigration policy reform is largely regarded as facilitating immigration
flows with no mention of any actual or perceived need to restrict new immigration.
The one-paragraph summary of NCLR’s immigration policy position is
as follows: “NCLR supports comprehensive immigration reform legislation
that contains three elements: legalization, the creation of legal channels
for future migrants, and the reduction of family backlogs. By legalizing
immigrants who live, work, and contribute to life in the United States, the
United States could deal fairly with hardworking people who have responded
to an economic reality that has been ignored by the law.”21
The National Immigration Forum says that its mission “is to embrace
and uphold America’s tradition as a nation of immigrants.” Its
slogan is: “Immigrants are America.” Describing its work, the
National Immigration Forum says that it “advocates and builds support
for public policies that welcome immigrants and refugees and are fair and
supportive to newcomers in the United States.” The forum’s three
principal goals are to support “fair immigration policies,” advocate
immigration policies that “strengthen the U.S. economy,” and “help
newcomers and the communities where they settle.”
Fair immigration policies are described as ones that “reunite families
torn apart by unreasonable and arbitrary restrictions; secure fair treatment
of refugees who have fled persecution; legalize the status of hard-working
immigrants caught in legal limbo; promote citizenship as a pathway to full
political participation; secure equitable access to social protections; and
protect immigrants’ fundamental constitutional rights.”
According to the forum, immigration policies that strengthen the economy
are ones that “are consistent with global realities, foster economic
growth, attract needed workers to America, and protect the rights of workers
and families.” It does this by working “with an unusually diverse
range of allies—immigrant, ethnic, religious, civil rights, labor, business,
state and local government, and other organizations—to forge and promote
a new vision of immigration policy.”
With respect to its third goal, the National Immigration Forum works “to
help newcomers gain access to the supports they need to climb the ladder of
social and economic mobility, and to help localities weave immigrants into
the fabric of community life.”
Costs and Compromises
Politics are by definition about compromises and tactical alliances. As
a general rule, political purists, those who attempt to stay above the
political fray by rejecting the need for tactical alliance and compromise,
have little political sway—situating themselves on the sidelines as
critics rather than as reformers.
It may be that the type of alliances formed by the National Council of La
Raza, National Immigration Forum, and other champions of immigrants have succeeded
over the past couple of decades in advancing a pro-immigration policy agenda
and holding the line against restrictionist forces and their anti-immigration
But there are clearly political costs involved in such alliances if the
end objective is to advance an immigration reform agenda that makes sense
to most Americans. Would the pro-immigration forces be more outspoken against
the labor practices of Wal-Mart or the labor policies advocated by the
National Association of Manufacturers if they weren’t so institutionally tied
to these business interests? Would their analysis of the immigration issue
include a more critical look at NAFTA as a cause of expulsion, rather than
offering open or tacit support for the trade agreement, if transnational companies
were not on their boards? Similarly, would these forces be more willing to
consider the interests of all U.S. workers and communities if they didn’t
have institutional alliances with unions and advocacy groups that focus
solely or largely on immigrant organizing or immigrant rights and solidarity
The alliances and the positions of pro-immigration groups make them extremely
vulnerable to the charge of constituting an open borders lobby backed by
corporate interests. At a time of rising concern about the economic, environmental,
and social costs of immigration, as well as new concerns about threats
to national security coming from an ever increasing sector of U.S. residents
who aren’t citizens, the pro-immigration forces are finding themselves
increasingly consigned to the margins of the immigration debate.
Their diminishing ability to establish the prevailing framework, however,
has as much to do with their unwillingness to compromise and make new alliances
as with the type of alliances and compromises the leading pro-immigration
groups have already made. Although pro-immigration groups since Sept. 11 now
frequently include statements about the need to improve immigration processing
so as to identify any links to terrorist organizations, they generally reject
the notion that a fair immigration policy needs to set limits.
Pro-immigration groups see immigration policy reform as largely an issue
of facilitating access for immigrants and their families. In their view, a
pro-immigration immigration policy is what is best for the country and for
immigrants. The obvious cost of such a position is that it identifies the
pro-immigration forces as representing special interests such as immigrant
rights groups, immigration lawyers, corporations that profit from immigrant
labor, ethnic lobbies that grow stronger as their constituencies expand, and
unions that organize immigrants. In contrast, the restrictionist groups have
been more adept in framing their reform proposals as representing the interests
of the broad majority of U.S. residents rather than only those responding
to special political or economic interests.
The standard response by pro-immigration groups to the “them vs. us” immigration
question is that immigrants are good for the economy because they expand
the domestic consumer market, improve business productivity, and keep the
U.S. economy competitive in the global market. There is good evidence supporting
all such claims about the macroeconomic benefits of immigration.
But when these arguments about the economic benefits of immigration are
used, as they so often are, by immigrant-rights groups to support their pro-immigration
positions, it strikes a discordant note. At one and the same time, the immigrant-rights
groups maintain that 1) immigrants should not be penalized because they are
so essential to a robust U.S. economy, and 2) the U.S. economy should not
be structured in such a way that it is dependent on the exploitation of the
low-wage labor of immigrants. Nowhere is it explained how immigration-related
benefits to the U.S. economy are transferred to the U.S. workforce, whether
immigrant or non-immigrant.
Macroeconomic arguments don’t win much sympathy from the unemployed
or low-paid and high-tech U.S. workers (whether citizens or immigrants)
who feel vulnerable in an economy that receives a constant supply of cheap
unskilled labor from Mexico and cheap skilled labor from India by way of temporary
worker programs created for the U.S.-based high-tech industry.
Nowhere do the pro-immigration groups and unions deal with immigration policy
as an issue of numbers. Accepting the argument that immigration is good
for the U.S. economy, does this argument hold true for an economy and a society
regardless of the number of immigrants—10 million, 20 million, 30 million?
Accepting the argument that immigration is good for the U.S. economy, if this
immigrant workforce is organized, given full access to the country’s
declining social welfare infrastructure, and is legalized, does this argument
still hold true?
Aside from the economic considerations—both for the macroeconomy and
for individual members of the workforce—there is also the question of
how many immigrants can be integrated into U.S. society and communities. Pro-immigration
advocates routinely dismiss social and cultural concerns about immigration
as racist and rabidly nationalistic (as they often are). Is it really true
that “immigrants are America,” or is it just part of a litany
of politically correct recitations by liberals and progressives that distorts
reality more than describes it? Unless pro-immigration advocates deal with
immigration policy as a matter of numbers, they will be subject to tarring
by anti-immigration forces as being part of an open borders lobby along
with corporate voices.
The Challenged Pro-Immigration Forces
Something is clearly askew when unions, progressives, and liberals find
themselves being credibly labeled as instruments for Corporate America’s
cheap labor agenda.
Pro-immigration groups come to the widening immigration debate severely
handicapped by their own associations, their apparent stance of defending “foreigners” against “natives,” and
the difficulty they have in answering the charges that they are essentially
an open borders lobby.
This charge is so powerful because it affirms the widely shared sense that
a nation and its people have the right to control national borders. When
immigration advocates respond to the open borders charge with arguments that
acknowledge the need for limits—whether to protect the U.S. workforce
from oversupply, to ensure sustainable environmental development, to prevent
an unsupportable demand for social services, or to manage the pace of social
and cultural integration—they leave themselves vulnerable to restrictionist
critiques that they don’t believe immigration flows should be controlled.
As a result, anti-immigration—and decidedly anti-immigrant—voices
have succeeded in moving the immigration policy debate increasingly to
Lou Dobbs’s “Broken Borders” campaign, complemented by
the rhetoric of anti-immigration groups, taps the country’s deepening
sense of economic insecurity and vulnerability to internal attacks. The
backlash populism of the anti-immigration forces presents new challenges for
those concerned about human rights, economic justice, and the rise of the
politics of hate and fear.
If moderates hope once again to set the terms for immigration policy reform,
they will need to find ways to counter the charges that they are in effect
arguing for open borders, cheap labor, or ever-rising immigration flows.
In their effort to help shape the immigration debate, progressives, liberals,
and humanitarians face an identity crisis—their dual role as immigrant
advocates and as advocates for what’s best for all U.S. residents and
citizens. The close association of the pro-immigration groups with immigration
lawyers and immigrant communities gives them a good understanding of the problems
facing legal and illegal immigrants. This understanding is an invaluable contribution
to the immigration policy debate. What’s more, immigrant advocates and
immigrant groups themselves, such as hometown associations, play an important
role in educating the U.S. public and policymakers about the positive,
essential contributions of immigrants to a vibrant U.S. society and economy.
But 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 that would collectively move forward
with policies to assure full employment, protect labor rights, and provide
basic social services to all, without unfairly burdening the middleclass,
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
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 to
attain 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
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
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 life, this
country should be less connected to the rest of the world, creating a Fortress
Those who oppose the fear and hate politics coursing through the immigration
debate cannot deny the reality that the United States still represents
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.22
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 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, guestworker 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.
- “Borderline Republicans,” Wall
Street Journal, June 17, 2004, at:
- Lou Dobbs, “No More Border
Games,” January 31, 2005, at: www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/050131/opinion/31dobbs.htm
- Carrying Capacity Network homepage,
November 12, 2004, at: www.carryingcapacity.org.
- Mark Krikorian, “Strange Bedfellows,” National
Review Online, March 21, 2004, at:
- Michael Fletcher, ““Bush
Immigration Plan Meets GOP Opposition,” Washington Post, January
- NumbersUSA, http://www.numbersusa.com/about/books.html.
- NumbersUSA, Right Web Profile,
International Relations Center,
- James B. Parks, “Recognizing
Our Common Bonds” America@Work, at: http://www.aflcio.org/aboutaflcio/magazine/commonbonds.cfm.
- Ruben Navarette, Jr., “Constitutional
Slights: Chandler’s INS Sweeps another Black Mark in Valley’s
Treatment of Latinos,” Arizona Republic, August 31, 1997,
- Rural Migration News, “UFW:
Strawberries, Mushrooms, Corona,” April 2001, online at: http://migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/more.php?id=502_0_3_0.
- Vernon M. Briggs, Jr., “American
Unionism and U.S. Immigration Policy,” Center for Immigration Studies,
August 2001, at: http://www.cis.org/articles/2001/back1001.html#1. For further elaboration of the issue, see Vernon M. Briggs, Jr., Immigration
and American Unionism ( Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press,
- “AFL-CIO Executive Vice
President Linda Chavez-Thompson Statement at Immigrant Worker Rights Press
Briefing,” June 15, 2005, at: http://www.aflcio.org/mediacenter/prsptm/pr06152005a.cfm.
- James B. Parks, “Recognizing
Our Common Bonds” America@Work, at: http://www.aflcio.org/aboutaflcio/magazine/commonbonds.cfm.
- See “Restoring the American
Dream: Building a 21 st Century Labor Movement that Can Win,” May
16, 2005, released jointly by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and
Textile Employees & Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (UNITE
HERE), Service Employees International Union, (SEIU), the Teamsters, and
the Laborers. Online at: http://unitetowin.org/vertical/Sites/%7B9DEE238E-8F1E-4783-98A2-B9608C466654%7D/
- “Defending the Rights of
Immigrant Workers—The AFL-CIO Policy on Immigration,” AFL-CIO.
- “Democratizing the Global
Economy—Empowering Workers, Building Democracy, Achieving Shared
Prosperity,” AFL-CIO, June 27, 2005, at: http://www.aflcio.org/aboutaflcio/ecouncil/ec06272005c.cfm .
- “Statement by AFL-CIO President
John J. Sweeney on President Bush’s Principles for Immigration Reform,” January
08, 2004, at: http://www.aflcio.org/mediacenter/prsptm/pr01082004.cfm.
- Board of Directors, National Immigration
Forum, at: http://www.immigrationforum.org/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=62.
- John Heilmann, “Do You Know
the Way to Ban San Jose,” Wired, August 1996.
- Corporate Board of Advisers, National
Council of La Raza, at: http://www.nclr.org/section/about/board/corporate_board_of_advisors/.
- NCLR, “Immigration Reform” at: http://www.nclr.org/content/policy/detail/1058/.
- Read about IRC’s Global
Good Neighbor Initiative at: http://www.irc-online.org/content/ggn/index.php and
see Carlsen, Laura, “CAFTA: Losing Proposition for the Hemisphere,” online