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Reevaluating Immigration Reform: What’s it Worth?

Michelle Chen

The hands of Benito Parra, an olive worker, show the dirt and grime of a day picking olives.

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The immigration debate these days looks more like a balance sheet than a political conversation. Reflecting the economic anxieties besieging politicians and voters, two competing views of immigrants emerge: as a vital contributor to the economy or a burden on public resources — as an indispensable cheap labor source or a parasitic scourge. The polemics increasingly revolve around how immigrants can be used, not how they deserve to be treated.

On the pro-immigration side, the Center for American Progress says immigration reform could be an economic recovery tool. The Fiscal Policy Institute released an analysis this week about immigrants’ impact on the urban economy:

In the 25 largest metropolitan areas combined — comprising more than half of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, and two thirds of all immigrants — foreign-born workers are responsible for 20 percent of economic output and make up 20 percent of the population.

In the New York City area, 54 percent of all guards, cleaning and building service workers, 60 percent of dental assistants, health and nursing aides and 54 percent of food service workers are immigrants.” In other words, don’t kick them out: they are worth their weight in gross domestic product.

The report rebuts the numbers crunched by anti-immigrant activists showing the supposed public burden of immigration: undocumented immigrants, they argue, use public health care services, send their children to school, and take up space in jails at the taxpayer’s expense.

That twisted logic prompted some conservative lawmakers to pen a letter to Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano, arguing that rewarding illegal aliens with the right to hold jobs will not improve the chances Americans have of finding jobs, paying their mortgages, and feeding their families.” Any discussion of reform, they said, will only hurt U.S. workers and make it harder for law abiding citizens to weather this economic downturn.”

In such a toxic political climate, the first defensive impulsive is to justify immigration in economic terms. But as business and community groups spar over whether immigration amounts to a net plus or minus, one variable is missing: these are people, not numbers.

True, America’s economic development has historically been driven by an influx of fresh labor from abroad. But that legacy of migrant toil is riveted by struggles for civil rights and political empowerment.

Mainstream think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Migration Policy Institute contend that the government can wed immigration and economic policy in a centralized system to manage the flow of immigrant labor. Napolitano endorsed this idea in a speech at the Center for American Progress in November, calling for:

…carefully crafted programs that allow American businesses to hire needed foreign workers while protecting the labor and health-​and-​safety rights of all workers. We need to revise our current provisions for legal migration to help assure a legal workforce in cases where businesses can’t find Americans to fill their jobs.

AFL-CIO and Change to Win’s talking points on reform envision a similarly nebulous independent commission” designed to assess labor market needs on an ongoing basis and — based on a methodology approved by Congress — determine the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment purposes, based on labor market needs…. the commission will be required to examine the impact of immigration on the economy, wages, the workforce and business.”

It’s an ostensibly rational policy with deeply troubling antecedents: the government has often dealt with cyclical labor shortages by funneling migrants into a transient underclass stripped of labor protections and political rights. Citing the slave-like conditions of farm guestworker programs, the Drum Major Institute warned in a recent report:

Even when workers are offered a path to permanent legal status, the very existence of a guestworker program ensures that they will be replaced with another influx of disempowered temporary laborers. It is unlikely that each successive cohort of guest workers would feel sufficiently knowledgeable and empowered to exercise their workplace rights, even when they are guaranteed the same formal protections that apply to U.S. workers. And with no permanent status, guest workers have little incentive to take risks — like trying to organize a union — that are often necessary to improve wages and working conditions.

As a social movement that aims to bridge economic goals and human rights, labor has made some strides in recent years by campaigning for the rights and protection of all workers, with or without papers. But by endorsing a prettified guestworker program, wouldn’t they be aligning with employers that see immigrants as expendable commodities?

There’s no way to get around this framework: borders are a fact of life, as are the economic discrepancies they demarcate, as are the inevitable illegal crossings. But if Congress acts on immigration in the coming months, activists can seize that political space to reframe the issue as not just a demand-and-supply problem, but a crisis of social responsibility in the global community. Whether you call it a reward” for breaking the law, or a universal entitlement, immigrants seeking opportunity deserve some modicum of social dignity, and at the very least, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, xenophobic hostility, and systematic exploitation.

Without a human rights-based counterpoint to the demand-supply rhetoric, lawmakers would be all too willing to cede immigration policy to the corporate gatekeepers of the private sector, while faithfully preserving the structure of inequity.

Immigrants can be assessed in terms of GDP. But the labor movement is founded on the idea that workers must be recognized as more than just units of production. Two-dimensional views of immigrant contributions” crystallize the assumption that certain neighbors are less deserving of the full breadth of humanity. Is that a privilege to be earned, or an inalienable right?

Win a trip for two to Cascais, Portugal!

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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