Financial crisis no reason to drop immigration reform

Immigrants in the United States, as well as activists supporting immigrant workers’ rights, are wondering what the impact of the financial crisis will be on immigration, and on efforts to get a better deal for immigrant workers under the new administration.

The new Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, noted week that the number of undocumented immigrants coming to the U.S. has dropped a bit. In her opinion this is due to the credit freeze that has hit the housing construction industry, where so many undocumented workers have been employed.

The financial crisis is not likely to cause all of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to return to Mexico and other countries of origin. Nor is stepped up “enforcement,” which began in the second half of the Bush administration and now is awaiting a decision by the Obama administration as to whether it will continue or not.

In the first place, as the U.S. economy spirals downward, the same economic plunge is happening in the rest of the world. That includes Mexico, 80 percent of whose foreign trade is with the United States, and its neighboring countries. Mexico’s minister of labor and social welfare, Javier Lozano Alarcon, announced that more than 128,000 jobs were lost in his country in January alone, and more than half a million Mexicans have lost their jobs since November. Mexico has one-third the population of the U.S., so that would be equivalent to a loss of nearly 400,000 jobs in the U.S. in January, and nearly 4,900,000 U.S. jobs since November. As in the U.S. and elsewhere, the disappearance of jobs is likely to exert a downward pull on wages and working conditions. And the existing social safety net in Mexico is far smaller and weaker than the U.S. equivalent. As they say, “when the USA sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia.” Similar developments are happening in other poor countries.

This is likely to increase, not decrease, the number of people who want desperately to get to the United States to find work, and increase their motivation to accept any old job under any old working conditions. To the extent that some immigrant workers here do “self-deport” back to their home countries, it will exacerbate conditions in the countries to which they return, because there are no jobs (and in some cases, no families or government social supports) waiting for them.

Furthermore, as the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has built up over the last two decades, more and more of them have built lives here — marrying, having children (it is estimated that there are between 4 million and 5 million U.S. citizen children with one or both parents undocumented), getting mortgages, buying homes and even starting businesses. There are many reported cases of undocumented immigrants who were brought here as babies, and who only find out they are undocumented and not born U.S. citizens when, as teenagers, they find they cannot get Social Security numbers or go to college — or when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) grabs them and deports them to a country where they may not even speak the language.

Such people are not going to just leave the families and lives they have started here. They are going to do everything they can to stay here, as they should.

A repressive policy is not viable under these conditions. It only creates suffering, not just for undocumented immigrants, but also for their relatives, friends, co-workers and neighbors. It encourages racial profiling and hiring discrimination against all who appear to be Latinos, or “foreign.” It worsens instead of improving wages and working conditions for U.S. workers, because it makes immigrant workers more desperate. The more desperate they get, the less willing they are to stick their necks out by joining a union, marching on a picket line, or calling OSHA to complain of dangerous working conditions.

In spite of the lip service which George W. Bush paid to “comprehensive immigration reform,” in the last years of his administration federal policy turned harshly anti-immigrant. Abuses carried out by ICE and at privatized prisons where immigrants awaiting deportation were held shot up sharply.

A new study by the Migration Policy Institute shows that resources which ICE got with the specific purpose of going after dangerous criminal immigrants were massively diverted to rounding up immigrants whose only crime was being in this country without legal authorization. ICE agents, part of the scores of enforcement teams that have been set up around the country to go after people in their homes and neighborhoods, have themselves complained about being given quotas of immigrants to round up. The Migration Policy Institute points out that such quotas encourage agents to seek easy targets rather than going after dangerous people. So they round up people on the street, at bus stops, even coming out of medical care facilities. (Read the study at www.migrationpolicy.org, and a related article by Joel Wendland at www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/8087/1/360.)

This approach will get us nowhere. Rather, we should convince the Obama administration to take the following immediate steps:

* Cancel the quota system and direct all ICE resources to pursuing dangerous felons, drug smugglers and terrorists.

* Stop workplace and neighborhood immigration raids until immigration reform can be crafted. (This demand for a moratorium on raids is shared by many groups supporting immigrants’ rights.) Increase workplace enforcement of labor law especially regarding child labor, wages and hours and occupational health and safety. Unscrupulous employers only hire undocumented immigrants over other workers because they think that with immigrants terrorized by the government’s enforcement policies, the company can get away with other labor law violations.

* Withdraw the draconian new rules for Social Security no-match letters proposed by Bush Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. These rules are currently held up in federal court by a lawsuit by the AFL-CIO which charges the measues will lead to the firing of workers who are legally here. Withdraw plans to make E-Verify mandatory for employers, for the same reason.

* Repeal 1996 legislation that took away the discretion of immigration judges to give people facing deportation a break based on the probable impact on their U.S. citizen spouses and minor children. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), has introduced legislation that would party accomplish this (HR 182). It should be publicized and supported.

* Get back to crafting comprehensive immigration reform legislation, entailing a humane, fair and practical program of legalization. The need for this has been increased, not decreased, by the current economic crisis.

* And, last but not least, understand that mass labor migration, which goes on all over the world, is largely the product of neo-liberal trade and economic policies aggressively promoted and imposed on the poorer countries of the world by our own corporate and government leaders, as well as those of other wealthy countries. Those policies need to be changed in respectful cooperation with our neighbors. They need to set realistic goals for legal immigration, based on an understanding of the real trends in labor migration, but should avoid guest worker programs so dear to the heart of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.