Half-open door policy

Why America can't make up its mind about illegal immigrants.

Alex Standish

Topics Politics

Over the past few weeks, thousands of pro-immigrant demonstrators took to the streets of major US cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Diego, Miami and Washington DC. The question of what to do with America’s estimated 11million illegal immigrants, the majority of whom are Mexican, has also been a hot topic on TV talk shows.

There is no consensus on how to deal with the issue. Contradictory pieces of legislation have been put forward in the different chambers of government: one would criminalise illegal immigrants, and another would legalise their status. Last week, a ‘compromise’ bill that would have put most undocumented workers on a path to citizenship did not reach a vote, as senators failed to agree on its detail.

The Republican Party is split on a subject that used to unite it. In December 2005, the House Republicans voted to make it a federal offence to live in the country illegally (at the moment, it is a violation of civil immigration law) and also make it a federal crime to aid or employ illegal immigrants. It’s likely that this vote was motivated by the need to find an issue to rally around for election year. Yet the provision has drawn the ire of American Catholic churches, particularly Roger Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, who has vowed to break the law in order to minister to his Mexican parishioners.

Two weeks ago, a Senate Judiciary Committee led by Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, comprising both Republicans and Democrats, voted to put illegal immigrants on an 11-year path to citizenship, set up a guest worker programme, and offer legal protection to groups and individuals assisting immigrants. Some Republicans, including John McCain and Senator Sam Brownback, have softened on the issue of immigration and clearly see this as a vote-winner among growing minority groups (there are now some 42million Hispanics in America). McCain said: ‘This is one of the greatest challenges we face in our time, securing our borders, taking 11million people out of the shadows who are exploited every day, fulfilling the job requirements we all know are necessary to ensure the economic future.’ (1) Other Republicans have family ties to illegal immigrants or are immigrants themselves – such as Mel Martinez, Republican senator of Florida.

Illegal immigration has only recently become a national political issue. When Ronald Reagan passed a law granting illegal aliens a path to citizenship in 1986, this applied only to some 2.5million immigrants, many of whom were working in California. Since then, Latino immigration has sharply risen and Latinos have become the fastest growing minority group in many large urban areas across the country. The tightening of immigration controls has made it harder for immigrants to live and work in America legally.

Government policy has also added to the rise of undocumented workers. Since the 1980s, tighter border controls mean that many Latinos are forced to stay in the country for a longer period rather than travel back and forth. One researcher observes: ‘The United States is now locked into a perverse cycle whereby additional border enforcement further decreases the rate of return migration, which accelerated undocumented population growth, which brings more calls for harsher enforcement.’ (2) Increased bureaucracy in the wake of 9/11 means that it takes longer and is more difficult to obtain permanent residency, which puts people off applying.

The country is divided on the issue, but not necessarily along party lines. A recent national poll found 50 per cent of Americans wanting undocumented workers to be sent home, and 43 per cent in favour of granting them legal status to stay and work (3).

As a nation of immigrants, most Americans welcome those seeking a slice of the American Dream. A colleague of mine who teaches a class on immigration at Rutgers University commented that most students’ only objection to illegal immigrants was that they don’t pay taxes and social security. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that 47 per cent of Californians think that illegal immigrants have a ‘favourable impact’ on the state (4). (In 1982, the equivalent figure was 19 per cent.) Immigrants often take the lowest paid jobs and have a strong work ethic; many Americans encounter illegal immigrants on a daily basis and recognise their economic contribution. The 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican was a humorous take on Californians’ dependence upon immigrants.

Those Republicans seeking a more liberal approach to immigration recognise immigrants’ economic importance, especially for agribusiness in the South. Today there is a growing acceptance of illegal casual labour and a strong demand for it. Even in sleepy suburban New Jersey at 7am you can spot pools of undocumented workers congregating in designated car parks, waiting for potential employers to drive by with the offer of a day’s work. Larger employers such as Wal-Mart or Target also hire illegal immigrants. Legal challenges against employers for hiring undocumented workers has all but disappeared in the past few years (5). Clearly there is a significant business lobby putting pressure on the government to legalise hiring that currently has to be conducted under the table.

Yet for other Americans the proposed ‘amnesty’ for illegal immigrants amounts to citizenship through the back door. Sensitive to the decline of national and Republican identity they perceive 11million immigrants waving non-American flags as an attack on their way of life. While residency leading to citizenship used to entail sponsorship by a family member or employer, learning English, integration into the American way of life, all conducted through proper legal channels, many of these protesters don’t learn English, wave a Mexican (or other non-American) flag, and seek citizenship while flouting the law. Protest organisers have since got wise to the flag problem and now distribute American flags at rallies.

However, for many Americans – especially the younger generation – citizenship means little more than paying taxes and benefiting from the economic and social opportunities that America offers (6). Samuel Huntington is one academic who has noted a crisis of national identity in a country that celebrates diversity, cosmopolitanism, transnationalism, subnationalism, and other national identities (7). The Republican Party, historically the stronger party of tradition, is particularly sensitive to this change.

On the other hand, those seeking to legalise undocumented immigrants are similarly devoid of political direction, and frequently buy into reactionary arguments such as that ‘immigrants are a burden on social welfare’. Their motives are often pragmatic rather than political.

Both Republicans and Democrats would like to see the problem of 11million undocumented immigrants resolved, which makes a compromise of sorts likely. The bipartisan deal put forward by Senate leaders last week would have put illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for five or more years on a path to citizenship, if they remained employed, paid fines and back taxes, and agreed to learn English. Those who have been here for two to five years would have had to briefly leave the country to apply for residency and citizenship over time; while undocumented workers who have been in the country for less than two years would be required to leave, but could apply for re-entry as part of the proposed guest worker programme. However, agreement was not reached before the spring recess, and the deal is now in doubt.

The legalisation of undocumented workers would be a welcome humane gesture. Many legal and illegal immigrants suffer from housing code violations, excessive fees on money transfers, and wages below the minimum wage (8). Most Mexicans want to work in the USA temporarily and then return to Mexico. Granting them residency and the right to move freely between countries would go a long way towards solving many of their problems.

But the demands for legalisation are not tied to any vision of where America is heading. If pro-immigrant supporters really had a progressive vision for a future America they would not be simultaneously trying to plug the porous southern border. Instead, they would advocate an open-door policy enhancing freedom of movement and opportunity for all.

Thanks to Adam Pine for his input.

Alex Standish is completing a doctoral degree in the Department of Geography, Rutgers University.

(1) Senate G.O.P. Strikes Deal on Immigration, Rachel Swarns, New York Times, 6 April 2006

(2) The Wall That Keeps Illegal Workers In, Douglas Massey, New York Times, 4 April 2006

(3) Conservatives Stand Firm on Immigration, Carl Hulse and Rachel Swarns, New York Times, 31 March 2006

(4) Poll Shows More Support for Illegal Immigrants, Anne Gorman, Los Angeles Times, 10 March 2006

(5) Immigrants and the Economics of Hard Work, John Broder, New York Times, 2 April 2006

(6) Chiodo, J. and Martin, L. (2005) ‘What Do Students Have to Say About Citizenship? An Analysis of the Concept of Citizenship Among Secondary Education Students,’ Journal of Social Studies Research, Spring 2005

(7) Who Are We? The Challenge To America’s National Identity, Samuel Huntington, 2004

(8) The Politics of Welcoming: The Promotion of International Migration as a Neoliberal Economic Development Strategy, Adam Pine, Conference Paper.

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Topics Politics


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