Politicians too often speak of immigration in terms designed to inflame prejudices or propose policies that only kick the problem down the road for a few years. In 1986, the Reagan amnesty resulted in new citizens, but also the current political crisis. The policy failed to address the causes of immigration, and as the effects of NAFTA began to spread through the Mexican economy, an explosion of rural poverty set off the current wave of economic immigration. The currently favored policies of a ‘path to citizenship’ and a ‘guest worker program’ are positive, but do not really address the issue of immigration so much as place another political band-aid on the issue. In a few years, as our continued failure to address lack of equitable economic development in Mexico sends millions more north seeking a living, we will come to realize that we have failed again to address the real issue.
As a wave of immigration protests engulfs our nation, with millions of people in the streets, comparisons to a second Civil Rights movement are not unwarranted. These protests are not just immigrants demanding rights, they are a reaction to the underlying issues of human rights, economic justice, labor solidarity and a mighty shout of awakening from a long-dormant Latino voice proclaiming NAFTA’s failure to raise all boats in Mexico, and its scuttling of far too many in America. The protests highlight a major disconnect between the daily reality of immigrant workers and low-wage American workers and the solutions offered by either party.
The politics of both parties, to a greater or lesser extent, emphasize a need for enhanced border security to stop the flow of undocumented workers. The irony is that so many of those who want to militarize and crack down on the border are thereby advocating spending billions more on enforcement and deportations, while also advocating massive tax cuts. Both (most) Democrats and moderate Republicans recognize the need to deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented workers already here through legalization and a ‘guest worker’ program. The problem with this prescription is it only deals with current symptoms, not the underlying cause. The compromises that were considered and rejected in the Senate last week would have left millions of undocumented workers without a path to citizenship and facing the complete disruption of their lives. The ‘guest worker’ policy, which enjoys bi-partisan support in principle, fails to provide enough visas to eliminate incentives to come to the United States by extra-legal means and does not reduce the financial incentives for employers to hire undocumented workers rather than documented ‘guest workers’. In addition, we have to consider whether France is the best model to follow for our immigration policy. Do we want a population of second-class citizens who do not assimilate? Perhaps it is wiser for every person who comes the United States to be given a stake in America’s future?
It is a rare politician that diagnoses the underlying malady of illegal immigrations as our trade policy and development assistance to Mexico, let alone intelligently proposes solutions. The neglected roots of the immigration issue is the NAFTA framework’s failure to create a Mexican middle class. Instead, NAFTA has only increased income inequality in both Mexico and here at home. Handing corporations in both countries the ability to arbitrage labor costs across a highly porous border between the two countries with the greatest income disparity of any contiguous countries on earth has had predicable results on both sides. Rural agronomists in Mexico and low wage laborers in America have taken the brunt of the blow, while the wealthiest in both nations benefited disproportionately. For Mexicans, it was heavily subsidized and industrialized American agriculture which was the direct cause of their misery. For Americans, it was desperate and pliable undocumented Mexican workers lowering wages at the bottom of the wage scale by between 5 and 10%.
What does a real solution to this issue look like? It will involve moves to lessen the ability of corporation to engage in such border labor arbitrage. Some states have already passed laws to make a worker’s immigration status irrelevant in workers compensation and other labor rights disputes. By reducing the legal advantages over undocumented workers that employer enjoy, States hope to reduce the incentives to hire undocumented workers. Such moves to ensure full labor rights to all workers in America are headed the right direction. The solution will also involve negotiating a binding codicil to NAFTA to provide for labor union, environmental, safety, and living wage standards in both countries, again reducing the incentives to engage in labor arbitrage.
A real solution will also address development issues in Mexico. There is a widely-recognized and well-documented causal relationship between economic development and corruption. Mexico is rampant with corruption and it should become a major national security priority to assist Mexico in eliminating official corruption. A major source of official corruption in Mexico is, of course, the illegal drug trade. Anyone serious about Mexican development should be for the de-criminalization of the drug trade and use. The open-ended ‘war on drugs’ fuels corruption and places inordinate burdens on the criminal justice system on both sides of the border. In addition, Mexico is our 3rd largest trade partner, yet it is 16th in terms of economic development assistance. We need to make a serious and tangible commitment to development in Mexico to secure our national interest in a stable and prosperous Mexico.
There are surely hundreds of innovative and smart policies that can reduce labor arbitrage and enhance the equitable development of Mexico’s economy. Voters have to demand that politicians address those issues, however. If they do not, we will just get more jingoism and more stop gap policies that leaves low-income and undocumented workers in the lurch, and a terrible security issue on our southern border.