The Immigration Situation
Immigration presents challenges and opportunities for the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States is undergoing an unprecedented wave of immigration. According to the Census, during the 1990s, an average of more than 1.3 million immigrants — legal and illegal — settled in the United States each year. In less than 50 years, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that immigration will cause the population of the United States to increase from its present 288 million to more than 400 million.
The US Census Bureau also concludes that the foreign-born population of the United States is currently 33.1 million. This is unparalleled in American history. It is more than triple the 9.6 million in 1970 and more than double the 14.1 million in 1980. Of this total, the Census Bureau estimates 8-9 million are illegal immigrants. The 57 percent increase from 19.8 million in 1990 to 31.1 million in 2000, is also without precedent in our history, both numerically and proportionately. Even during the great wave of immigration from 1900 to 1910, the foreign-born population grew by only 3.2 million (or 31 percent), from 10.3 million to 13.5 million. Even though there has been a spike in immigration, the percentage of foreign born people living in the U.S. is smaller, proportionately, than it was in 1912 - the actual highpoint of immigrant presence in the U.S. Bear in mind that the Census Bureau estimates are conservative; other estimates indicate a considerably higher number of illegal immigrants.
The Immigration and Nationality Act allows approximately 800,000 people to settle here each year as permanent residents, including about 480,000 who are admitted to reunite with their spouses, children, parents and/or siblings; about 140,000 who are admitted to fill jobs for which the U.S. Department of Labor has determined no American workers are available; about 110,000 refugees who have proven their claims of political or religious persecution in their homelands; and about 55,000 who are admitted under a "diversity" lottery, begun in 1990, that mainly benefits young European and African immigrants.
Immigration has major implications for the United States, creating both costs and benefits for our country. We need a more vigorous debate on immigration policy and how it intersects with other policy choices we make. Immigration issues relate to our foreign policy – particularly U.S. support for dictators and oligarchs or trade policy which re-enforces low paid labor and blocks the power of trade unions. It also relates to our domestic policies – low wages for many U.S. workers, rising poverty, provision of social and health services, housing and security. Immigration links to all these issues.
Causes of Immigration
As long as our foreign policy supports dictators and oligarchs south of our borders, there are going to be desperate, oppressed people moving north over our border where employers like Tysons Foods illegally employ them at very low wages. But even these low wage jobs are many times what would be made in Mexico, making them still attractive.
Since 1985, U.S. spending on border enforcement has increased by a factor of six, the number of U.S. border patrol agents has doubled, and hours spent patrolling the borders have tripled. The U.S. Border Patrol has a budget well in excess of $1 billion annually. But even with all of this border patrol expansion, illegal immigration continues to expand. Why?
While the gap in wages between the United States and poor countries is vast, serious students of immigration point out that only a tiny percentage of people from any nation ever choose to emigrate from their homes: it is rarely the poorest who do so, since they lack the necessary resources and contacts. Illegal immigration is a process caused not by attraction of higher wages alone - since much of India, Mexico, and China would have emptied into the United States were this the case, and they clearly have not - but it is primarily caused by the inability of people to continue to live decently in their home countries. In the days of the great Ellis Island immigrations from Europe, the mass influx was due in large part to the privatization of common lands throughout the Continent and the flood of cheap American grain driving farmers out of business. (While economics was a major factor, other issues included religious and political oppression.) In our day, this economic oppression is primarily the result of the policies of NAFTA, the WTO, the Structural Adjustment Programs of the IMF and World Bank, and the predatory policies of multinational corporations.
Part of the problem involves NAFTA. For example, the flood of cheap corn and other commodities into Mexico has dispossessed over a million Mexican farmers, and with their families, they either go to the urban slums or, in their desperation, head north.
Effects of Immigration
The United States should not be in the business of Brain Draining skilled talent, especially from developing countries. We are importing the best engineers, scientists, software people, doctors, and entrepreneurs who should be in their countries, building their own countries. The long term solution to immigration is reducing the rich/poor divide between the United States and other nations by peacefully supporting democratic movements.
In addition to the long-standing brain drain immigration poses to developing countries, often it undermines employment in the U.S. For example, we currently have many unemployed software developers, who have seen their jobs shifted to immigrants who are willing to take lower wages. We see the same thing happen with manual labor jobs. Bringing in cheap labor to the United States reduces wages here – immigration increases the supply of U.S. labor, reduces wages, and makes jobs more scarce - especially for people at the bottom of the labor market. Immigrants are 60 percent more likely to be employed in low-skilled occupations than are native-born workers. When the average American wage exceeds the average Mexican wage by more than a factor of ten, even the most menial American job can be a strong reason to emigrate.
In addition to driving down wages, immigration adds to the expansion of poverty in the U.S. The gap between the immigrant and native poverty rates is widening – with poverty among immigrants tripling between 1979 and 1997. If there were a living wage, than many of the 15 million unemployed, underemployed, and those who have given up looking for employment would be willing to take the jobs that are now often only taken by immigrants.
Solutions for the Future
There are two ways to deal with these issues. First, raise the minimum wage to the purchasing power level of 1968, $8 per hour, and then, in another two years, raise it to $10 an hour. Since 1968, the U.S. economy has doubled in production per capita. We need to ensure a living wage in the United States for full-time workers and their families. Currently, 47 million full-time workers work for less than a living wage.
Second, we need to enforce the law against employers. It is hard to blame desperately poor people who want to feed their families and are willing to work hard to do so. You have to start enforcement with Washington and Wall Street. Enforcement is nearly non-existent – so much so that it has become a conscious policy to ignore both the labor and immigration laws by successive Republican and Democratic Administrations, including not enforcing laws against cruel sweatshops in the United States, from New York City to Los Angeles. Such is the power of employers.
Immigrant workers, even if they are undocumented, should be given all the fair-labor standards and all the rights and benefits of American workers. In addition, they should be allowed to get a drivers license in order to reduce hazards on the highway and to allow them to function in our culture, e.g. get to work, get their children to school. They may drive anyway, and it is best to ensure that they are properly trained. As long as employers continue to employ undocumented workers, they will be a large part of our communities.
We cannot treat undocumented immigrants as subjects for inhumanity. However, amnesty is a very difficult issue because it gives a green light to cross the border illegally. Many are concerned with the idea of amnesty, because then the question becomes how do we prevent the next wave and the next? We need further discussion on any amnesty policies, however, current workers and children should be given equal rights – they are working, they are having their taxes withheld, they are performing a valuable service for their employers and customers, even though they are here illegally. Thus a guest worker program, some form of rights protection, is both necessary and humane. There is no alternative, except allowing cruel exploitation, poverty, disease, and their consequences for the general public to increase. We see this happening with the growing problem of human trafficking and slavery. If visibility of this inhumanity produces enough outrage to raise the immigration issue to a high level of visibility for public debate, that would be a good thing.
There is no evidence that amnesty for those already present and working constitutes an attraction to would-be immigrants outside the country: again, even from Mexico, the immigrants constitute a relatively small percentage of the poor population of that country. We must leave aside the fiction that everyone in the world seeks to live in the United States: people love their homes and leave them, at great risk, only as acts of desperation when their previous way of making a living has become impossible. We in the United States have a special responsibility to those who have come here, since it has so often been our own government and corporations that have ruined the livelihoods and homes of immigrant workers. We have responsibility also to those in foreign lands so that they will not have to make the same choice themselves. People usually only pursue illegal means out of desperation. Changing these policies is the best way to limit further immigration to levels that are in the interests of both the U.S. and poor nations, and an amnesty for those who are already here is the least we can do as reparations to those whose lives our government has directly or indirectly wrecked.
Indeed, in decisions spanning over a century, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution applies to every person within U.S. borders, including "aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful." On the other hand, the Court has said that the federal government has the power to decide who to let into the country and under what circumstances. But once here, even undocumented immigrants have the right to freedom of speech and religion, the right to be treated fairly, the right to privacy, and some of the other fundamental rights U.S. citizens enjoy.
Regarding deportation, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the INS may not deport someone without a hearing that satisfies due process. According to the ACLU, most people facing deportation are entitled to:
- a hearing before an immigration judge, and review, in most cases, by a federal court;
- representation by a lawyer (but not at government expense);
- reasonable notice of charges, and of a hearing's time and place;
- a reasonable opportunity to examine the evidence and the government's witnesses;
- competent interpretation for non-English speaking immigrants, and
- clear and convincing proof that the government's grounds for deportation are valid.
We have to control our immigration and our borders. We have to limit the number of people who come into this country illegally and see if a Canadian-type temporary permit system can work for seasonal jobs. Regarding "Limited Duration Admissions," the 1997 report of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform said:
Persons come to the United States for limited duration stays for several principal purposes: representation of a foreign government or other foreign entities; work; study; and short-term visits for commercial or personal purposes, such as tourism and family visits. These individuals are statutorily referred to as "nonimmigrants." In this report, however, we refer to "limited duration admissions [LDAs]," a term that better captures the nature of their admission: When the original admission expires, the alien must either leave the country or meet the criteria for a new LDA or permanent residence.
For the most part, LDAs help enhance our scientific, cultural, educational, and economic strength. However, the admission of LDAs is not without costs and, as explained below, certain reforms are needed to make the system even more advantageous for the United States than it now is.
The Commission believes LDA policy should rest on the following principles:
- Clear goals and priorities;
- Systematic and comprehensible organization of LDA categories;
- Timeliness, efficiency, and flexibility in its implementation;
- Compliance with the conditions for entry and exit (and effective mechanisms to monitor and enforce this compliance);
- Credible and realistic policies governing transition from LDA to permanent immigration status;
- Protection of U.S. workers from unfair competition and of foreign workers from exploitation and abuse; and
- Appropriate attention to LDA provisions in trade negotiations to ensure future immigration reforms are not unknowingly foreclosed.
Immigration is a challenging issue that must be addressed in a more cohesive way than has been suggested by President Bush. We need to address economic justice in the United States and the world, and recognize the basic human rights of all people.