Labor and Immigration Reform

Lars Poulsen - 2000-02-20

National Public Radio's All Things Considered made me rather upset, and I'd like to explain why.

Immigration - Unions -- In an abrupt change of policy, the AFL-CIO called for a general amnesty for illegal immigrants and an end to most sanctions against companies who hire them. Immigrants make up an ever-larger part of the nation's workforce, and labor leaders are stepping up efforts to unionize hundreds of thousands of immigrants who work in farming, hotels, construction and meatpacking. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from New Orleans where the AFL-CIO is meeting. (4:00)


Immigration - Workplace -- Although the AFL-CIO now supports amnesty for illegal immigrants, the union organization opposes increasing the number of guest workers, known as "H-1 B's." Noah [Adams] talks with Lindsay Lowell, Director of Research for the Institute for Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. Lowell talks about what countries these workers come from, and what kind of work they come to this country to do. (4:00)

One of the cornerstones of my belief system when it comes to public policy, is that we have to set up workable rules and punish those who break them. In particular, we should never reward those those who knowingly broke the rules. Few areas of public policy violate these ground rules more than our (US) immigration laws and their practical administration. This whole area is rife with hypocrisy, hidden agendas and corruption, and is in dire need of a conscientious overhaul, going back to define the goals and deriving practical regulations from those goals according to democratic principles. But I have little hope that will ever happen; there is just too much money and too much hay to be made politically from the current mess.

The USA has been extremely successful in providing its population with a prosperous economic zone. While some of us wish there was less inequity in the distribution of the wealth within the country, it is undeniable that the country as a whole has been more prosperous than most. One of the goals of immigration policy (as well as of trade policy) is to maintain that prosperity using mechanisms such as the following:

At the same time, we want to allow for a high quality of life, including

Students of geography will notice, that there is a less prosperous region to the South of the USA, with a large population of farmworkers, whom agricultural mechanization has left largely unemployed, not unlike conditions in Europe a hundred years ago. And like the displaced Irish, Danish, German and Italian farmworkers of yore, they see the USA as the land of opportunity, and want to come here. But unlike then, we no longer have agricultural expansion in this country that can absorb large numbers of these potential immigrants. Thus, the economic goals stated above would lead us to try to keep them out.

At the same time, however, we do have a number of agricultural jobs, that have traditionally not been paying well, and which have therefore been hard to fill: Suburban gardening, berry and fruit picking in orchards and vineyards, and other menial backbreaking work that does not require book learning. In Europe, where there has been little immigration, these jobs have generally either been upgraded to pay enough to get them filled, or they have been eliminated through mechanization. A few of them have served - with some public subsidy - to provide employment for hard-to-employ people who would otherwise be on welfare, such as the mentally retarded or the psychologically unstable. In the USA, these people now tend to live on the streets in utmost poverty, while the menial jobs are filled with illegal Mexican immigrants. Perversely, the availability of a never-ending stream of illegal immigrants has allowed agri-business to employ people for much less than the legal minimum wage, while allowing the unscrupulous employers to protect themselves from unionization by threatening to call in the Border Patrol to deport "troublemakers".

Conservative politicians have appealed to low-income citizens who feel wage pressure from this illegal competition by insisting that we must curb the illegal immigration, while currying favor from the business community that employs the illegal immigrants by preventing effective enforcement. When they are accused of racism, they claim not to be against Mexican immigration: "They can come here, but they have to follow the rules". But there is every indication that the rules are rigged to make it impossible to come in legally. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor told the story of how the US consulate twice summarily denied the visa application from a young middle-class man, when his American friend invited him to come along on a two-week trip from the Mexican town where they both lived, to Houston Texas.

The other side of immigration is the large inflow of educated Europeans and Asians of which I myself am a part: Young professionals, with above average education, who want to come here for a variety of reasons, which depend on where they are coming from. But all of them are easily absorbed: The rules are designed to select primarily those with education and experience most eagerly sought after by employers, and to limit intake from those areas from where the most people want to come, so as to not make any single group stand out as too numerous. In the case of Europeans, most of them come here for a few years, to experience a society that is moderately different from what they grew up with, and then go back to enrich their original communities. In the case of Asians, a recurring pattern is that a middle class family sends a son or daughter to an American University. After graduation they get a job with a company willing to pay for the legal paperwork to convert the student visa to a guest worker (visa class H1-B) or a permanent resident, and once they have legal residency, they often bring in a spouse, and then other family members.

Yet, for all the success of this middle-class immigration, there are societal costs that are not clearly understood. We should all ponder what it means that at most US universities, the Asians outnumber the US-born in the graduate schools!

Now that we have covered the background, I may be able to explain what it is that I am upset about in the AFL-CIO position.

I believe that we need to establish a working current policy before we can give amnesty for past illegal immigrants. The current policy of Mexican immigration, which allows for 20,000 per year, selected for the best educated, is not workable, and is absurd in the face of an actual illegal immigration of somewhere between 300,000 and 1,000,000 per year.

I would suggest that the proper way to clean up the problem would consist of the following steps:

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