Let's remake America the 'Land of the Free'

Immigrants to the US are no threat to jobs or security: they're citizens-in-waiting who should be welcomed by all who care for liberty and progress.

The fate of America’s millions of illegal immigrants remains uncertain, after legislation that would have provided a (long) path to citizenship for them once again failed to pass on Capitol Hill. It seems likely that the debate about America’s ‘illegals’ will stay log-jammed so long as the supporters of the rights of illegal immigrants allow the miserabilist, anti-immigrant lobby to set the terms of the discussion, instead of putting forward their own positive case for freedom of movement.

On 28 June, the Senate failed, for the second time this year, to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA), which would have offered the majority of the country’s 11 to 12million illegal immigrants the opportunity to become citizens while at the same time tightening up the rules on future immigration into the US. This follows last year’s failed attempt by Congress to legislate for the largest reform of the immigration system in decades.

The latest immigration bill debated in the Senate - the CIRA - was the product of months of bipartisan, closed-door discussions rather than a public debate (1). The bill that emerged was a mixed bag as far as immigrants’ rights are concerned. It offered undocumented immigrants the possibility of legalisation and, eventually, citizenship, by placing them on a new four-year ‘Z’ visa - so long as they paid fines for having immigrated illegally and learnt English, that is. The bill also aimed to create a guest worker programme to accommodate the arrival of around 400,000 new temporary immigrants each year (this number was later voted down to 200,000, and a vote was also passed stipulating that the guest worker programme would be terminated after five years by the Senate).

At the same time as the proposed legislation promised the legalisation of ‘illegals’, it also sought to strengthen border controls in order to limit the flow of immigrants coming into the country; require employers electronically to verify the status of all employees, including existing employees; and base future legal immigration on a points system that emphasises the skills and employability of any future would-be immigrant. This would replace the current system whereby either an employer or a legal immigrant can sponsor their family members to apply for residency.

Thus, the latest bill captured the confused approach to the issue of immigration in the US: a bold and human move to allow most illegal immigrants security of status would have gone hand-in-hand with enforcing a more restrictive system of immigration in the future.

The points system mimics that of Canada and Australia, both of which are countries that it is hard to get into unless one meets very strict criteria of entry (this helps to explain their exceptionally low levels of population - 32million and 21million respectively). One article recently reported that Canada has a backlog of 800,000 applications for immigration, and estimated that it would be short of some 100,000 workers over the next decade (2). Had this latest proposed bill in the US been passed by both houses of Congress, it would have put the US immigration system in a similar situation to Canada’s - though on an even larger scale.

The proposed guest worker programme - which would have required immigrants to return to their home country after two years, and then remain there for at least one year before being allowed back to the US for another two-year period - is similar to Germany’s guest worker system. In Germany, Turkish and other guest workers have become a semi-permanent underclass of low-skilled, low-paid workers. The message seems to be: ‘We want your surplus labour, but you can’t become a member of our society.’ In some respects, such a situation already exists in the US, even without the passing of the latest bill: there is in America an underclass of Hispanic and other immigrant workers who are looked down upon and paid despicably low wages.

The US has moved a long way from its past, when most immigrants were welcomed and their contribution to the creation of a new nation was valued. Because of the unique evolution of the US, immigration has been central to the very meaning of the American nation. The phrase e pluribus unum (out of many, one) described how from thirteen colonies one nation was created. Unlike most nation states, the ties that have historically bound Americans were primarily political rather than ethnic or religious. New immigrants were joining, and in the process creating, something original: a new society built by new men and women. The process of becoming an American and assimilating into society was a transformative one, whereby previous cultural norms were modified or left behind. Consequently, immigrants were viewed as fellow human beings capable of making the transition to a new way of life. Many immigrants, such as the European Jews, Italians, Irish and Chinese, were of course treated badly - but over time they were accepted into society.

Hiroshi Motomura, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, has noted that new immigrants were ‘Americans in waiting’ and were considered ‘a citizen’s near equal’ (3). Such a view has now been usurped, he argues, by a vision of immigration as being about ‘contract’ and ‘affiliation’ in which the immigrant is seen as a ‘perpetual outsider’. CIRA would have institutionalised and concretised the divide between Hispanic and other low-skilled immigrants and effectively formalised their second-class treatment in society - including those on the tortuous path to citizenship. Points systems based on education, English language skills and so forth are designed to keep the riff-raff out. Immigrants are only welcomed if they are educated, have skills that high-end employers seek, speak English in public, don’t wave non-American flags and don’t hang out in large numbers on the street.

Ironically, however, the workers that the US needs are mostly those who will fill low-skilled, bottom-of-the-market jobs in restaurants, farms, construction and in the growing day-labour market. Tamar Jacoby, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributor to the reform bill, estimates that the country needs half-a-million low-skilled workers a year to fill its employment needs (4). This gap at the base of the market has been created because, in contrast to earlier generations of Americans, most young people today go to college and get a degree; thus, they enter the job market a little higher up than the McDonald’s level. So the latest wave of immigration to cross the US-Mexican border has been a direct response to the needs of the US market.

However, as evidenced by the collapse of the latest bill in the Senate, the needs of the market are a weak basis on which to call for immigration reform. Such an outlook does not take into consideration the liberal, humane argument for allowing migrants to pass freely between Latin America and the US. Senators have tried to rush the latest proposed legislation through Congress, where possible trying to close down debate; this illustrates their disengagement from the public, many of whom care deeply about the issue of immigration and a majority of whom are tolerant towards immigrants. About two-thirds of the population welcome proposals to legalise currently undocumented workers (5). In general, studies confirm that Americans are significantly more tolerant of minorities than their European counterparts (6).

There is a need to go beyond pragmatic, economic arguments for immigration reform. What is missing from this ‘debate’ is the argument for why immigration is positive, both for the immigrants themselves and for American society. If NAFTA and other regional trade deals allow capital to move more freely around the globe, why shouldn’t workers have the same privilege? A healthy society welcomes new citizens from abroad and offers them the means to integrate economically and socially and to contribute to the political future of the nation. This founding feature of American society is fast disappearing. Anti-immigrant campaigners are shaping a new un-American nation, calling for the further closing down of the southern border on the the basis of overblown fears about security and concerns that a flood of immigrants could overwhelm the economic and social systems.

For now, most immigrants have shrugged their shoulders, shunned the legislative process and gone back to work - but with the nagging fear that federal officials from Immigration and Control Enforcement (ICE, as they are known) will knock down the door to their home or place of work and lock them up in one of the country’s expanding immigrant detention centres. Reversing this disgraceful state of affairs will require putting the humane case for unfettered freedom of movement within and between the Americas.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University.

Previously on spiked

Alex Standish said that the 2006 mid-term elections was a missed opportunity to debate the role of immigration in the US. Nancy McDermott said the rallies across the States in support of pro-immigration reform should be an inspiration to all Americans. Alan Miller looked at what it means to be American. Nathalie Rothschild critiqued the promiscuous use of the term ‘trafficking’. Or read more at spiked issues USA

(1) ‘With an Immigration Compromise Committed to Paper, the Time for Scrutiny Begins’, New York Times, 22 May 2007

(2) ‘Canadian Immigration Policy Brings Backlog’, New York Times, 27 June 2007

(3) ‘America the Generous: A Lost Story of Citizenship’, New York Times, 27 May 2007

(4) ‘Immigration Nation’, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006

(5)  Thernstrom, S. and Thernstrom, A. , America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (1997) New York: Simon and Schuster

(6) ‘Immigration Bill Provisions Gain Widespread Support in Poll’, New York Times, 25 May 2007

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.


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