Give me your huddled masses — sometimes

Posted May 10, 2010, at 6:53 p.m.

The president may have no appetite for immigration reform, but most commentators find it hard to avoid. Liberal columnist Paul Krugman agonizes over the topic in recent blog posts: “Democrats are torn individually … On one side, they favor helping those in need, which inclines them to look sympathetically on immigrants; plus they’re relatively open to a multicultural, multiracial society … today’s Mexicans and Central Americans seem to me fundamentally the same as my grandparents seeking a better life in America.

“Open immigration, [however] can’t coexist with a strong safety net; if you’re going to assure a decent income to everyone, you can’t make that offer global.”

Furthermore, Krugman has argued in a prior column: “Countries with high immigration tend to have less generous welfare states than those with low immigration. U.S. cities with ethnically diverse populations tend to have worse public services than those with more homogeneous populations.”

Open immigration seemingly either overwhelms our scarce resources and-or undermines the consensus on which the safety net must rest. Both arguments are problematic.

Immigration politics is fueled by an image of hordes of Mexicans crossing our borders for jobs or welfare benefits. Implicit in this image is the self-flattering view that Mexicans predominantly want our way of life. Such a view also obscures the role of U.S. policy.

NAFTA accords opened Mexican markets to competition from subsidized U.S. agribusiness, displacing about 2 million peasant farmers. They had few options besides emigration. Driving undocumented workers back to Mexico would both further destabilize the Mexican economy, lower wages there, and perhaps make Mexico even more attractive to U.S. businesses and jobs.

Giving undocumented workers here freedom from deportation and full workplace rights enables all workers to report employer safety and wage violations and thus benefits all workers. And when workers collaborate here across national and ethnic divides, it also can encourage international collaboration to reform the corporate trade policies that drive major population shifts.

If Mexican — and U.S. — workers could form genuinely independent unions, they would be in a better position to demand wages that reflected their growing productivity. Such an agenda would improve economic circumstances in Mexico, foster more full and remunerative employment in the U.S., thus providing the revenue to finance a generous safety net in both countries.

Even as he worries about open immigration, Krugman commends the U.S. for generally welcoming immigrants. But following Bonnie Honig (“Democracy and the Foreigner”), I read our traditions as more ambivalent. At times immigrants have been treated as advancing the American dream and worthy of citizenship. The other side of that coin, however, is that when the dream falters — either because it seems unattainable or less satisfying than promised, bashing immigrants becomes a means to preserve our commitment to and reverence for that dream.

Economists disagree about the effects of undocumented immigrants on unskilled worker wages. No study, however, puts their impact anywhere near that of such variables as minimum wage laws or the Federal Reserve’s manipulation of interest rates and employment levels. All workers advance in a full employment economy. Yet despite overwhelming evidence about the weaknesses in our deregulated banking system and crude and illegal union busting tactics, there is, other than from Michael Moore, no movement to deport bankers or corporate thugs.

I do not favor deporting either group. The current crisis is a reflection of the structure of our financial institutions, a culture of greed and exploitation that goes far beyond individual morality, public policies and the enforcement or nonenforcement of laws already on the books. These need to be fixed, but building a consensus to reform these also entails reflections on the origins of and alternatives to immigrant bashing.

Arizona’s draconian law has very recent predecessors Honig cites: “The English-only movement, blaming immigrants and ethnics for the fragmentation of high culture (perversely enough at a time when the homogenizing powers of American popular culture are at their height) and the identification of enclavism with immigrants at a time when the propensity to withdraw from public services is most characteristic not of foreigners but of the wealthy.” More recently, immigrants have been blamed for lawlessness at a time when rates of violent crime actually are falling.

Why this persistent denigration of immigrants is so pervasive and how to respond are the subjects of my next column, which will appear in two weeks.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may reach him at jbuell@acadia.net.

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