Where we’re going wrong in the immigration debate

By Adam Hyla, Real Change

Even as corporations embark on what has been called “a carefully managed facility migration process” (i.e., going wherever workers come cheap), migration by human beings is a subject still ruled by parochialism.

Most of the public discourse on the subject has focused on the situation of migrants once they’ve arrived at their destinations. On the left, humanitarians highlight the untenable position of those in the shadows. On the right, people talk of the moral consequences of entering through a side door.

Both sides, says journalist Jeffrey Kaye, fail to look at the cause of their argument.

Legalized or not, he writes in his new book “Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration,” (Wiley, 2010), migration is one fundamental aspect of human mobility. It’s a force at work in the Philippines, whose citizens fill one-third of the world’s nursing jobs — even as their home country’s hospitals crumble. It’s present in Morocco, where people from all over the African continent live in overcrowded conditions, waiting for a boatride toward the Canary Islands, and where an average of two bodies wash up daily along a shoreline patrolled by the European Union. It’s there along the United States-Mexico border, where stepped-up enforcement by federal agents and National Guard troops diverts, but doesn’t dampen, the economic pressure pushing Latin America’s jobless across la frontera.

“Despite the wishes of migration restrictionists, ancient impulses to escape hardships or to go in search of greener pastures are not going to come to a halt just because political lines have been drawn and laws passed,” writes Kaye, a freelance journalist and longtime reporter for the PBS NewsHour. “Build walls, and people will go over, around, or under them,” he continues. “Hire border guards, and smugglers will bribe them. Step up patrols, and migrants will find alternate routes. Provide better-paying jobs, and workers will get to them. Migration will not be stopped. But in the best of all possible worlds, nations should strive to ensure that migrants cross borders because they want to, not because they have to.”

A cultural re-examination of most American natives’ own family histories, says Kaye, might help them see illegal immigrants’ motives in a more sympathetic light. And national governments, in his view, need to get together and frankly discuss their policies, whether they are sending workers abroad or taking them in.

Adam Hyla: What do you mean by “coyote capitalism”?

Jeffrey Kaye: You know what a coyote is, right? A human smuggler. Someone who gets paid to take people across the border. They don’t really care about the circumstances, about what’s pushing people out or pulling people in, they get someone to where they’re supposed to be going and they get paid. It’s a term that refers to a global system of immigration, often and usually without too much regard for the consequences of migration or the effects on the migrants themselves.

Wherever you have an economic disparity you’ve got a reason for people to want to move from one place to another.

A.H.: Your book suggests that most immigration discussions are debates about the national interest, when migration is a fundamentally extra-national issue.

J.K.: I think everyone, particularly in this current political environment, tries to deal with immigration not only on a national level but even a local one. The focus has been on Arizona, but there have been hundreds of municipalities around the country making their own efforts to address what is a national situation. My analysis is that if we are going to make any kind of progress at all, we are going to have to step beyond our very narrow thinking. It has to be dealt with at the very least as a bilateral issue.

A.H.: Did NAFTA address immigration at all?

J.K.: It didn’t address immigration, but it affected immigration. The intent was to have trade going back and forth freely, but the hope is that standards would be raised. That didn’t happen and one of the reasons it didn’t is because when you allow U.S. corn growers to ship down subsidized corn to Mexico, that put Mexican corn farmers at an enormous disadvantage. And one of the things that NAFTA did is create an even greater income disparity in Mexico that didn’t really lead to more jobs. So long as you have those circumstances in place — corn farmers in Mexico unable to compete against U.S. farmers, and there being no alternatives in terms of work — you can’t possibly find a job.

If you want to deal sensibly with immigration, you look at the causes of migration, rather than debating how high the fences should be or how many border guards we should have.

A.H.: Microsoft has lobbied for permanent residency for immigrant high-tech workers while it prepares for massive layoffs. How do you explain that?

J.K.: Well I don’t think it’s a contradiction at all. Companies like Microsoft want to have their cake and eat it too. And they’re always lobbying for more employees no matter what the economy is doing. It’s to their advantage to bring in as many employees as they possibly can.

And of course they say that they need it for innovation: “We want the best and the brightest, we don’t want to be hampered in our ability to grow as a company.” But we need to think about the value of those people to their own countries, the so-called brain drain. If Microsoft is going to import workers from wherever, and hospital X and Y are going to import workers from other countries, should those countries be compensated for the training that went toward those people? Those home countries made investments. We’re not taking a holistic approach, we’re looking at what’s going to benefit us.

A.H.: Some people are being compensated, though: the schools, the recruitment contractors. Obviously the nation as a whole isn’t sharing in the profit.

J.K.: Right. They’re growing people like cash crops. The analogy between Central American banana republics and countries like the Philippines, that are raising people with the expectation that they go abroad and make money and send it home, is a good one.

No migrant, I think, sees that as the end goal, to move. It’s a very difficult decision. Though we like to think of it as a personal calculation — of course it is — but we need to be thinking in larger terms.

A.H.: It seems like one consideration in the federal immigration reform debate is what sort of temporary migrant worker program to accept.

J.K.: No, in my mind it doesn’t matter if they come from California or south of the border, workers should enjoy the same standards. And I don’t think anyone’s saying otherwise. But there is a big debate in the AgJobs program, and employers are pushing back on issues of housing. They’re afraid that advocate groups will come down on them hard after finding abuse — and there’s a long history of it.

The end goal needs to be sustainable economies in both the sending countries and the receiving countries. Why is it that some of the most valuable work we expect to have done by cheap migrant workers? Building our buildings, growing our food, feeding our babies. Why can’t we move toward a society that encourages people to make a decent living doing the three-D jobs — the dirty, dangerous, demeaning jobs? In an economy like ours, we should be moving toward making those jobs that people will accept and that they’ll feel rewarded doing.

A.H.: What are some of the mistakes that people make in the immigration debate. What really trips us up?

J.K.: The biggest obstacle is legalization, which isn’t so much an immigration issue but an integration issue. The idea that we’ve got 11-12 million people here illegally, what are we going to do with them? — that’s been conflated with immigration issues.

Looking at comprehensive immigration reform (in the U.S. Congress), there’s been a sort of miscalculation by advocates of migrants, who have realized that they’re not going to be able to get any kind of legalization or amnesty programs by themselves and have had to package them with tougher and tougher enforcement. And that’s been enacted, but legalization never happened.

What you’ve got as a result is what the Obama administration is carrying out, which is about the toughest program against illegal immigration as we’ve ever had in this country. He’s stepped up what are known as desktop raids, where instead of immigration agents raiding places where illegal immigrants are suspected of working, they check the employers’ I-9 forms. They’ve sent out hundreds of letters to employers informing them that there’s a suspicion that they’ve got illegal immigrants in the workforce and they need to do something about it.

The end result is almost the same as an actual raid: even though ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents haven’t swooped in, the employers have to dismiss people for fear that their would be a raid. And that’s their notion of enforcement. And the end result is that more people, I fear, are driven into the shadows. Obama came into office saying he would bring people out of the shadows. Targeting these large employers, there are still plenty of other employers where these workers can find jobs, and you’re still not dealing with the root cause.

A.H.: Do you think amnesty is politically possible at this time?

J.K.: No. But that doesn’t go to whether it’s desirable. The polls overwhelmingly are showing support for the Arizona law: 60, 70 percent. It breaks down geographically and in terms of age; young people are less supportive perhaps because they’ve had more contact with immigrants. But I think any politician can put a wet finger in the wind and know that this is not the time for legalization.

A.H.: So what do advocates for migrants do in the face of that?

J.K.: What do they do differently? I think one of the things that needs to happen to really affect public opinion is an education program with the goal of linking the personal and family histories of the people who are here legally, have been here for generations, with the stories of mimgrants who are continuing to come here.

There is a massive disconnect, and there has been historically, between people who romanticize the past and don’t know much about their own family history, and are able to put up in their own minds a wall between “my family, who did it right” and “those other people who are coming in.” If those people bothered to look at their own histories they’d find many, many similarities. But that’s more of a public relations approach that may or may not work.

A.H.: A little exercise, then: my family’s most recent immigrant experience is that of my great-grandparents, who came to the Midwest from Germany in the early 20th century. What sort of questions should I ask about them?

J.K.: Why did they come? What was the law at the time? I know that if the law at the time applied to those coming here today, all those people coming here today would be legal. All they had to do was answer a few questions on a form, certify that they weren’t carrying any diseases like tuberculosis, that they were mentally fit. Not a huge test. What were the conditions they left and what did they come to?

They probably had family here or a social network. They formed communities in which they probably spoke German. And there were people around them who said, “These folks will never assimilate, they will never speak English, they will never learn our culture. What business do these Germans have with their own newspapers in German, their own schools, conducting their city council meetings in their own language?”

A.H.: I want to ask about the labor movement, which has made a sort of three-decade turnaround in its view of illegal immigration. Has that reaped fruit?

J.K.: I think the labor movement had to do what it did, if nothing else, out of self-preservation. It was absolutely necessary for farmworkers unions, for construction unions to bring in immigrants.

I think the labor movement has been really negligent in the way they’ve dealt with the immigration issue. Sensible organizing among labor unions would take into account that they are dealing with transnational companies that have no respect for borders. Whereas transnational companies have been leapfrogging, going abroad as if borders were imaginary, labor unions have been stuck in a very old-fashioned sense of nationality.

We have a history of making multilateral trade agreements that don’t have any discussion of how we import or export labor. I don’t think there’s any discussion of that in GATT or the WTO.

In the multilateral approach, one that I certainly support, there’d be natural alliances between sending nations and receiving nations. But there’s a natural divergence of interest between those nations who are the receiving nations, who want to control migration for their own benefit, and those who are sending workers abroad who want to protect those workers. I don’t underestimate the political obstacles that have to be overcome.

I don’t think that politicians think nationally or globally. That’s one of the frustrations of our political system; they’re out for the quick answer. They need to make an impact for the short term to get re-elected. Given the toxic nature of the debate, they need to make themselves heard in a quick soundbite, and it’s a tough way to make decent policy.

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