Confronting myths about immigration

The Politics of Immigration:

Question and Answers

MANY QUESTIONS about immigration politics—the causes and effects of immigration, its economics and so on—have emerged in the national political debate since 2006, when a legislative attempt to criminalize undocumented immigrants met with a massive response that halted the proposed law.

Although some of these questions are legitimate, many are products of racist ideas pushed by well-funded anti-immigrant organizations and passed on by fear-mongering politicians and compliant media pundits. In their quick-read book, The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Jane Guskin and David L.Wilson round up many of these questions and honestly answer them from a strong pro-immigrant position, thus setting the stage to tackle bigger questions about the futility of borders and immigration laws.

“What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” ask the racist Minutemen. For them, there is no problem in deporting, detaining, and committing all sorts of abuses against the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S., as long their residency in this country is out-of-status (the term that the book prefers to use).

The book answers them with a question, and makes a courageous stand: Does it really matter who is illegal or not? “In short, the only difference between an immigrant who is ‘legal’ and one who is not is that the one has been granted the opportunity to gain and keep legal status, while the other is still waiting for that opportunity.” However, as the authors point out, this petty difference is immense because those who have not been given that opportunity face a virtually insurmountable wall of immigration laws and racism.

To answer one of the critical questions—Does this country welcome refugees and immigrants in general?—the authors take a look at immigration law. Their findings suggest that the law only hurts immigrants. For instance, in 2005, the rate of denial of an appeal for asylum was 93 percent for applicants without a lawyer, but was 64 percent for those who had a lawyer. The granting of asylum status is also linked to the priorities of U.S. foreign policy, a point that’s evident in the preferential treatment of Cubans compared to the dismissive treatment of Haitian refugees.

Entrance to this country is kept difficult for most of the world’s poor and workers. “There is a whole alphabet soup of visa categories, each with its own set of confusing and restrictive rules,” the authors write. Minimum-wage Mexican workers applying for a tourist visa, for example, have to pay more than a month’s salary in fees for an application that is almost certain to be rejected.

Many immigrants thus arrive without papers. But do they have an easy life once they get here, as anti-immigrant forces claim? No. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable to crooked coyotes [smugglers], “consultants,” landlords and bosses. Federal, state and local legislation have restricted even further these working families’ rights to jobs, housing, education and other services, and freedom of movement.

To the charge that immigrants hurt the economy, the authors reply that young immigrant families are “a ‘burden’ on the system in exactly the same way” than native-born young families are, except that undocumented workers pay taxes—$6 to $7 billion a year—without being allowed to claim in government services what they pay for in taxes. The book also dispels various myths about the immigrant “threat” to this country’s culture, public health, environment and public safety. On this last issue, the book introduces studies from Washington-based nonpartisan research organizations, which found that “immigrants are disproportionately unlikely” to be criminals, and exposes the racially charged role of the media and law enforcement in building of this myth.

One of the book’s refreshing aspects is that they do not see immigration as the “problem” to solve. Immigration legislation is the problem—from enforcement, to guest worker programs, to the border itself. “Enforcement is certainly not a solution,” say the authors, “[it] waste[s] tax payers’ money, violate[s] people’s human rights, and generate[s] greater profits for those involved the trafficking underworld.” Also, companies don’t just “profit indirectly from enforcement because it helps them to exploit workers and keep them from organizing. But immigration enforcement has also been a huge cash cow for many corporations.” Workplace enforcement is also directed almost exclusively against immigrant workers, but not at the bosses who hire them.

What about guest worker programs? According to Guskin and Wilson, these programs

do nothing to resolve the status of millions of immigrants who have already estab­lished their lives here and want to stay. Such programs also create a sub-class of workers who are effectively unable to defend their rights. Some critics compare these programs to a modern form of slavery, because workers are generally not allowed to change jobs.

To expose this form of exploitation, the authors refer to the history of guest worker programs in the United States, particularly the bracero program of the beginning of the second half of the past century. The book also takes a critical look at past immigration amnesties, concluding that “[a]n amnesty is necessary, but it has to be part of a comprehensive plan that provides an ongoing way for people to move across borders, addresses the root cause of immigration, and upholds equal rights for all people regardless of where they were born.”

The good news is that the authors’ “comprehensive plan” is not the same thing as the “comprehensive immigration reform” supported by top politicians and certain sections of the immigrant rights movement. This official version of “reform” includes greater enforcement, a militarized border wall and a guest worker program. The authors’ “plan” proposes opening the borders.

The bad news is that the authors seem to think they can come up with a plan that satisfies all social classes. The book’s questions all center on the effects, or non-effects, of immigration on workers—immigrant and native-born. But workers are only presented as objects of the politics of immigration. The authors don’t address the rich tradition of immigrant workers as subjects, fighting back and joining native workers in the struggles for justice and dignity. Class politics are not central to this book, and perhaps this is the reason why the answer to this last question—Can we open the borders?—is limited to an argument, in effect, that “borders do not make sense.” From the authors’ class-neutral position, they seem to hope that the abolition of borders will result from the nation’s realization of this truth.

In fact, the authors try to sell the idea of open borders to the bosses as “a profit-driven model of ‘labor mobility,’ in which employers benefit from a large global pool of qualified workers competing for jobs.” Though the authors discuss it in previous chapters, here they seem to forget that the oppressive features of the current border are also the result of a profit-driven model. Their failure to commit to a class position also leads them to recommend studying the European Union to see how borders can be overcome. Although they take care to make no excuse for the difficulties that immigrants in today’s Europe suffer, the authors claim that “looking at the way Europe has been opening its internal borders gives us a window into what we may expect if we try to open our own borders.”

Europe’s unification, however, is clearly another “profit-driven model,” as are other border changes on capitalism’s world map, including those that result from wars. Indeed, that is all that working people can expect from borders set in the interest of capital—a change of border policy or location, not a world without borders. Under capitalism, changes that favor workers come from workers’ struggles against “profit-driven models,” not from schemes that can supposedly reconcile the interests of all classes. And to make a world that’s truly without borders, workers will have to win a fight for an entirely different type of society based on satisfying human need, not on profit.

Despite these flaws in the authors’ analytic framework, this book is excellent for pro-immigrant activists who need to stand up every day against myths about immigration. True to its title, the book is written in question-answer format and is catalogued and indexed to make it a convenient reference tool. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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