Posted May 31, 2006 – “Si, se puede!” Yes we can. They marched by the hundreds of thousands in Los Angeles, by the tens of thousands in Milwaukee, in Phoenix, in New York. Across the country, Hispanics dramatically entered what has been an increasingly ugly debate about immigration in this country.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)can’t hear them. He’s gaining national attention railing against undocumented immigrants. He wants them turned into felons, a wall built along our border to keep them out, police dispatched to arrest them and send them home. He does not bother to tell us how he plans to transport an estimated 11 million undocumented workers out of the country. Nor what will happen to the millions of their children who were born here and are American citizens.
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The Slavery Analogy
In the Senate, Senate leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who regularly stoops to pander, is doing his own Tancredo. Efforts by Senators Kennedy and McCain to fashion a compromise bill look likely to fail in the face of the furies. President Bush has offered an employers bill – why does this not surprise? He’d increase enforcement at the border, but create a guest worker program so that employers could ship low-wage immigrants in, so long as they promise to boot them out when they’ve finished exploiting them. If you believe that the employers will spend money to ship the immigrant labor back home, there is ocean front property in Phoenix that I can sell to you.
When employers brought slaves to America, few objected as long as they were prepared to work without wages and without rights. But when African Americans began to demand equal rights, all hell broke loose. Similarly, no one minded when Mexican farm workers came in to pick the crops, do the lawns, clean the houses. But when they started to demand the right to citizenship, to vote, to organize – the furor started.
There is too much heat and too little light in this debate. American workers are sensibly worried that the flood of immigrant labor will be lower wages as part of the global race to the bottom. But their complaint isn’t with immigrant workers but with employers who prefer undocumented workers that they can exploit without complaint, and with federal and state authorities that turn a blind eye to that exploitation.
Millions Shipped Home?
Despite all the posturing, there is no way anyone is going to locate, arrest, detain and ship millions of undocumented workers out of America. Our choice is whether we want to maintain permanently a large underclass of undocumented workers that can be easily exploited by cynical employers, and slurred by callous politicians – or whether we want to fulfill America’s promise by providing them with a road to citizenship, benefiting from their willingness to work, pay taxes, and contribute. What we know from segregation is that if you try to hold someone in the ditch, then you will end up having to stay in the ditch with them. The South could not begin to grow until African Americans forced their way out of the segregated ditches.
How do we stop our country from being overrun by impoverished immigrants if we offer them pathways to citizenship? There is only one way – and it is not mentioned in this debate. We passed a treaty called NAFTA with Mexico and Canada that guaranteed rights to employers and investors but not to workers. The results have been catastrophic. Wages in Mexico, the United States and Canada have fallen. Mexico now exports more cars to the United States than the United States exports to the world – all made by U.S. companies benefiting from cheap labor in Mexico. And U.S. food exports have displaced millions of poor Mexican peasants and driven them from their communities. They don’t come to the United States because they want to leave their homes. They come desperate for work, looking for a way to support their families. They risk death, suffer deprivation, live in fear, exploited by their employers because they have little choice.
Lift the Standards Up
The only way to stop the flood of immigrants is to help lift their standards up, rather than drive ours down. When Europe created one trading union including impoverished Spain and Portugal, the high-wage countries of the North spent billions on development in the poorer countries, while demanding that they adhere to labor rights, environmental protections and basic social protections. Standards were lifted in the South; growth began. While those countries still are not as wealthy as those in the North, their people were given hope and opportunity – and would much prefer to stay home.
We can spend billions trying to lock immigrants out and hold those that come in down. Or we can devote energy and resources now wasted on a civil war in Iraq to help lift our neighbors up, gain real trading partners, and dramatically reduce the misery that drives people from their homes.
Potential presidential candidates like Frist, Tancredo, and even supposedly straight-talking John McCain won’t say anything like this. But that’s the truth. And in the end, it is the truth, and only the truth, that will set you free.
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