Review: Broken Immigration System

Immigration reform advocates still disagree over the Senate’s failed 2007 attempt to push through legislation that would have provided a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Unions and big business had briefly allied in supporting a legalization program combined with an increase in visas. But the partnership collapsed after an ill-begotten attempt to secure the bill’s passage, which added so many noxious provisions that it lost many of its supporters while failing to win over implacable opponents.

David Bacon’s new book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Immigration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press), suggests that no reform was better than the half-hearted measure that crashed and burned. His argument could improve the next round of attempts to rationalize America’s broken immigration system.

A wave of widely publicized crackdowns on employers and family homes has intensified following the Senate bill’s demise, fulfilling the worst predictions of the flawed immigration bill’s advocates. Nursing mothers were separated from their babies. Thousands of workers were seized at their jobs while their employers went largely unpunished except for a few days’ lost work. Such shameful policies have escalated in intensity, but they continue the longer, wider pattern of injustice that Bacon details.

Through vivid stories, Illegal People shows how current immigration laws hurt citizens and legal immigrants as well as the undocumented immigrants whom the laws target. “Legalization isn’t just important to migrants — it is a basic step in the preservation and extension of democratic rights for all people,†Bacon writes.

Rotten Apples

He convincingly demonstrates how the system in its current form rewards the “bad-apple†employers and hurts workers. He gives only glancing attention to the ways in which the system also hurts the employers who would hire workers with papers if the system provided a way to do so, and who understand that healthy, trained workers who do not constantly fear deportation are more productive.

Bacon’s cut-and-dried labor-good, corporate-bad message doesn’t leave room for such subtleties. This is too bad, because a legalization program with a path to citizenship depends on wide support from labor and “good†businesses with common interests to counter the small but loud nativist minority that believes in delivering death threats to members of Congress. For Bacon the game is simply employer versus worker, as evidenced in his conviction that the guest-worker plan was not merely a compromise but the employers’ intended outcome all along.

To be sure, President George W. Bush’s original proposal in 2005 envisioned a guest-worker program without a path to citizenship. But Senate draft bills in 2006 and 2007 both included provisions for access to permanent residence and citizenship as well as “portability†of work visas that would free workers from dependence on specific employers. Many businesses and their lobbies supported these reforms; they were as disappointed as was labor over the last-minute changes that re-emphasized temporary labor and threw obstacles in the way of a path to citizenship.

Still, it’s easy to see where Bacon’s distrust of all employers is coming from, with bad-apple examples as heinous as the many that he gives. Tales of cheating and abuse–gaming scales so that workers paid by piece rate would get less money, deductions for “equipment rental,†11-hour days with no lunch break or overtime, and wages that didn’t cover living expenses charged by the company are on a par with the kinds of practices I’ve seen in impoverished countries that are regularly accused of slavery. There’s a delicious irony when the American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law School use the labor side accord in the North American Free Trade Agreement to file charges against the Department of Labor and U.S. immigration authorities.

Cut-Rate Corn

Speaking of apples, it’s the agricultural employers who come off looking the worst. Bacon does the movement a great service in showing the financial interests of Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) the heinous HR 4437’s lead sponsor. That bill would have penalized churches for aiding undocumented workers, in promoting restrictive immigration policies. With Sensenbrenner’s family ties to the company going back a century, the Kimberly-Clark paper conglomerate uses thousands of immigrant workers each year to convert forests into wood pulp and directly benefits when rights remain out of the reach of migrant workers. (Let’s hope that Bacon sets sight on the money trail between U.S. lawmakers and the rapidly growing immigrant detention-center industry.)

With rich-country agricultural subsidies rightly at the center of the developing world’s gripes, Bacon misses an opportunity in the chapter on the North American Free Trade Agreement. He rightly contends that U.S. corn exports under NAFTA have increased migration by driving Mexican farmers and farm workers off the land. Agricultural subsidies — courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer — allow big U.S. corporations to sell Mexico corn at prices far below the price at which Mexican farmers could break even, much less make a living. Bacon doesn’t go into anywhere near the kind of specific detail here in which he excels elsewhere in the book, and which would have been far more effective than relying on simple anti-corporate boilerplate.

When talking about policy options within the United States, however, Bacon makes an essential point that is too often lost in a political arena with little room for complexity: Political and social rights for immigrants must be an integral part of a broad agenda for change. As long as Americans are insecure about their own jobs, housing, healthcare, education, and workplace rights, they will be vulnerable to the toxic misinformation spread by the anti-immigrant right.

Neither immigrants nor Americans will be well served by a reform that provides only, or mainly, temporary visas without allowing guest workers to convert to permanent-resident and eventually citizen status. Will the intensified raids of the past two years wake Americans up to the moral, economic, and societal consequences of our poor policy choices and open the way to changes that protect all worker rights by giving migrant workers a path to legalization and citizenship? If so, then perhaps there will be a silver lining to the failure of attempts to date. Our record so far isn’t encouraging.

Michele Wucker, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the executive director of the World Policy Institute in New York City and the author of Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right.