Against "Immigration Reform", For Immigrants and Sending Countries

 I'm wary about writing about topics that are too U.S.-centric, primarily for my own sake, but you can't escape your past.  I spent some time from about 2002 to 2006 working on immigration issues in the United States as part of the post 9-11 cottage industry of non-profit workers assisting what have been called 'Muslim-looking people" and then writing about it.  I just note those experiences for the record because they color how I talk about present-day politics around immigration - especially since I haven't been in the United States for 3 1/2 years.

That said, I would like to talk about 'comprehensive immigration reform.'  The nice thing, for politicians and the media, is that this term, like 'health care reform' is so vague that it could mean anything from maintaining and extending a mass deportation regime to legalization of undocumented workers to the creation of guestworker programs to alleviating the family sponsorship visa backlog.  As a result, it's important to consider how the key players and factions in this debate would address the issue and to what extent each has influence or power over it.

To start with, let's consider the basic inequity of the problem - that we're discussing lawmaking about people who are among the most marginalised people in the United States in terms of political power.   As a result, they have a limited voice as individuals in shaping legislative votes compared to some other segments of the populations, including many that are not directly affected by immigration issues per se.   However they - and their best advocates, of which there are not enough in the public eye - could generally be said to be both 'pro-immigration' and 'pro-immigrant.'  

This distinction I'm drawing - between being seen as generally sympathetic to 'immigration' and 'immigrants' vs. valuing the people and protecting them and working with them is an important one, and intersects with concerns like democratization of politics in the United States, remittance incomes, and pretty much every thing else that immigration legislation affects.

Next we have corporations and industries that thrive on the low wage labour and their representatives in politics.  Hog farming and strawberry picking and restaurants and others can and have secured enormous financial benefits from having legalised discrimination in the right to work between non citizens and citizens.  To put it more briefly - if you can maintain a large pool of labour that is not legally allowed to work or faces severe restrictions or is otherwise tied to their jobs in order to maintain their lives as they are now, employers have the ability to offer lower wages and create downward pressure on wages as a whole.  

This is only possible due to the international inequalities in wealth and other factors that lead to the drastic move of picking up and moving to an entirely different place - without global ienqualities, migration would be at much lower levels in my opinion.  These groups I would call 'pro-immigration' but not 'pro-immigrant.'  They want immigrants in the country mainly for the benefits that migrants provide to themselves and their profit margins, not because they really care about 'immigrants.'

Third, we have the nativists, who are largely populists who want to engage in mass deportations or build huge walls or otherwise make life miserable for immigrants.  They are anti-immigration AND anti-immigrant.  This is usually the bogeyman against which the establishment group will claim to be working, while compromising with them, and limiting the influence of those who are pro-immigrant and pro-immigration.   They have a lot of social and media power (think Fox news) and somehow manage to retain political power over their political party of choice (the Republicans) despite that this is completely counter to the interests of the Republican party in general.  But they have much less power than they did in 2005-7 when they had influence over the entire Congress and the Presidency. 

Fourth, we have the people from the sending countries (i.e. several billion people).  They are the families, loved ones, recipients of remittances, hawalla networks, and everyone else benefiting from or depending on the money they send back and at the same time separated from these groups.  They are also politicians and political cultures who make life hell for returning deportees, who drive people to seek political asylum or asylum on the basis of LGBT status or other things.  The people from the sending countries have no voice.

Fifth, we have the 'pragmatic' political establishment that just wants to 'get something done.'  They will essentially, I think, take the power balances among the other groups and just work with it, without shifting things much either way.  They have much power and are not really anything, but end up being 'pro-immigration' but not 'pro immigrant' with a tinge of concessions to the nativist fringe because all they care about is 'getting something done' regardless of whether or not it is fair, racist, or even criminally violent.

Finally, we have the those who are not directly affected by immigration issues themselves on a personal level (whether directly or through family, friends, partners etc.).  This ranges from working class populists who are not although the way to the extreme racist or Islamophobic or otherwise teabaggery type positions, but who would like 'American jobs protected' and corporations held accountable to the centrist liberals who repeat the rhetoric of establishment groups in favor of immigration ('The U.S. is a land of immigrants.' 'Immigrants do the jobs that no American workers want to do.' etc.) but believe that 'people should follow the rules' and don't pay attention to global inequities or really anything structural.  This includes some of the counterproductive immigration advocates.  

I would argue that this group has and is shifting - in divergent directions possibly.  Together, these people have a little power - certainly more than migrants or their sending countries - but less than the fringe nativists and much, much less than the corporations.   Holding it together is probably a key conduit in case migration reform can't be killed because they are the conduit through which the demands of migrants and people who care about them on a personal level can seek a voice - though unfortunately I believe right now the perspectives still run in the other direction with these people setting what is called the 'pro immigrant' agenda even though they are not.  The reason is that they have more power than the migrants themselves - let alone people in sending countries.

I think I've pretty much covered everything here with the caveat that because migration and immigration issues affect so many people, it's very possible I've left out entire groups.  The categorization is also imperfect and reflective of my own social biases and positions - for example, one could split the last group and put the working class decent folk with the working class fringe racists and groups the centrist liberals with big business and the political establishment.  But I prefer to be optimistic.  

So where does that leave us?  Well consider the recent history - the two major phenomena of 2005-2007 where the legislative debate over 'comprehensive immigration reform' under the Bush Administration and with a Republican Congress that basically reflected a split between the nativist racists who want to deport everyone and build a fence and the corporate interests that wanted to keep their low wage labor.  There were some concessions to 'law and order' - i.e. regularisation - and little niche items to placate the immigration advocates who inexplicably supported pushing this legislation through - highly imperfect when it started, and predictably gross by the time it finally died its overdue death.  I'm not sure if I made the right decision in feeling opposed to the bill because there are real people's lives at stake and I am unaccountable, but in a sea of unaccountable actors, you have to make a choice and that's the one I made.

The other major phenomenon was that the nativist fringe's domination over legislation got *so* egregious by about 2005 that migrants, including many undocumented people, started having mass demonstrations.  HUGE mass demonstrations.  I used to be an organiser, so I wouldn't be offended if you thought my crowd estimates were exaggerations - however, it is literally true that millions of people in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Dallas, and in other places took to the streets.  

There are a few key things about this - one is that it was primarily motivated by a 'defensive' posture - that it was a reaction to a continued stream of attacks on migrants.  The second is that it was divided, seized upon, and reconfigured to support the legislation - primarily by structurally unaccountable immigration advocates - rather than stoked to produce greater change and greater mobilisations and a reconfiguration of power.  I think these two things are related and relate to the overall power balances that I've described above - which are probably not substantially changed in the last few years though they have to a degree in 'official' power, with a slight increase in the power of 'progressives',  a larger increase in the power of the pragmatic political establishment, a steadying of the overwhelming power of corporations and business, and a slight to moderate decrease in the political influence of the nativist fringe.

Again, this is just informed analysis - but it is semi-informed, so take it for what it is worth.  This is my best guess, in other words.

So, given all that, and given the way that the health care reform debate worked - with the political establishment and industries tying up before the public debate even started and the marginal of concessions to the people who advocated for those directly affected and virtually no power for those who were among the working class and otherwise disempowered, what to make of the possibility of a reintroduction of comprehensive immigration reform?

I still don't trust this configuration that makes up the political and economic and social landscape in the U.S. on immigration issues.  So, I would be inclined to hope, if it's okay with people directly affected by these issues and who have been involved in them before, that legislation waits while we rearrange the political configuration.  Unlike health care, I don't think there would be a feedback loop created to keep the issue in the public eye, nor do I think it would necessarily move in the direction of being pro-migrant.  

This leads to the last point - if you are pro-migrant, and pro-immigration (and pro-sending society!) - then you have one overwhelmingly good strategic choice - find all of those people that marched in the streets three years ago and try to get them involved.  Secondarily it may be worthwhile to build alliances through labor unions, blogs, NGOs, LGBT groups, women's groups, progressive churches and masjids, and other places between disempowered citizen groups and migrants and their institutions.  I would wait until it seemed likely that the legislation might come in a year or two.   I would guess it's very unlikely before November to be taken seriously and I would think it somewhat unlikely to come in 2011 - though you never know.

Finally, I want to point out the key thing to this debate - the utter lack of democratic accountability and the pervasive inequality.  As with every other 'major social issue' that gets debated in the United States, there is still too much inattention to the idea that the people who are directly affected by an issue need to fundamentally inform (at minimum!) if not to control entirely the debate over the issue.  This is true for all issues that affect working class people in the U.S., for Black people and other disempowered minorities, for noncitizen Americans (yeah, that wasn't a mistake), for LGBT people in the U.S. and for people in sending countries.  

That reality is unfortunately the situation we find ourselves in and the one that we must actively undo - but in a way that supports a better world for all, not just particular interests exclusively of our own choosing.  So, for now, try to delay immigration reform as long as possible (at least four years!), try to change the political balance while you delay to increase the collective voice of migrants (there are millions people who marched in the streets a few years ago! the base is there!), other disempowered groups, and people in sending countries, and try to attack corporations systemically, all while making the political establishment both more decent and more responsive to the underclasses.  It's only then that you're going to get a given-the-long-term-circumstances relatively decent bill (the kind you can hold your nose and support while being genuinely excited about a few things in it).  

Summary: 
Ruminations on the recent past, present, and future of legislative 'immigration reform'.

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Comments

Dr. A, The captchas on the

Dr. A,

The captchas on the Attack Pandi thread aren't showing up.

Also, I'm surprised that you didn't blog about  <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Right_of_Children_to_Free_and_Compulsory_Education_Act">India's April Fools Day Joke</a>.

 if i blogged about every

 if i blogged about every court decision and legislation that established 'rights' in india, i would have to quit my day job and spend all my time writing here.  i think freedom from hunger and clean environments are among them, no?

thank you for the pointer though!  i don't think things like this are entirely useless even though there's the obvious cynical side to such laws.

 The captcha is still there,

 The captcha is still there, but it's showing up at the top of the comments section for some reason. I'll take care of this later.

 fixed?

 fixed?

No, not really. The captcha

No, not really.

The captcha is now showing up above the comment submission box.

When I try to type in the answer, it doesn't accept it.

The only reason I'm able to comment is because I created an account.

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