Speaker of the US House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during a press conference at the US-Mexico Border in Cochise County near Sierra Vista, Arizona, on February 16, 2023.

(Photo by REBECCA NOBLE/AFP via Getty Images)

The Republican's Grand Immigration Con Job

The GOP has figured out how to have it both ways. They get cheap labor for their big business buddies, while stoking the hate and fear of their white racist base

Kevin McCarthy just came back from a press trip to our southern border, full of talk about how bad the Biden administration is doing with asylum and immigration. Today, another group of House Republicans are “holding a hearing” at the Mexican border. If you watch Fox “News” you know all about it.

Republicans have figured out how to have it both ways. They get cheap labor for their big business buddies, while stoking the hate and fear of their white racist base, claiming that Democrats are responsible for increasing numbers of undocumented or “illegal” immigrants living and working in the United States.

While it’s true that two factors have driven a lot of migration over the past few decades (climate change wiping out farmland, and political dysfunction and gangs caused by the Reagan administration devastating the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) the main driver of would-be immigrants and refugees into the US over the past 40 years has been the Republican Party itself.

“But,” you may say, “Republicans have been screaming about ‘illegal immigration’ for as long as I can remember! How can they be responsible for it?”

There are two parts to this nefarious scheme.

The first part has been running continuously for 40 years; the second part is more recent, having started in the early 1990s. Here are the details.

First up was the GOP’s longest con regarding immigration. While they claim they don’t want “illegals” in the US, that’s the opposite of the situation the Reagan administration and Republicans in Congress set up back in the day.

Most countries don’t demagogue immigration: they regulate it with real laws that have real teeth against employers who hire non-citizens to exploit them for cheap labor. The logic, which generally works out all around the world, is that when the jobs dry up, the immigrants just stop coming.

I lived and worked in Germany for a year, and it took me almost four months to get a work-permit from that government to do so. I also worked in Australia (although I didn’t live there), and the process of getting that work-permit, just like with Germany, also took a couple of months.

In both cases, it was my employers who were most worried about my successfully getting the work permits and did most of the work to make it happen.

I wasn’t personally so worried about it, though: there’s an important reason why my employers took on the responsibility and did the work to make sure my work permits were in order.

The way that most countries prevent undocumented immigrants from disrupting their economies and causing cheap labor competition with their citizens is by putting employers in jail or hitting them with huge fines when they hire people who don’t have the right to work in that country.

We used to do this in the United States.

In the 1920s, the US began regulating immigration and similarly put into place laws regulating who could legally work in this country and who couldn’t.

Because there was so much demand for low-wage immigrant labor in the food belt of California during harvest season, President Dwight Eisenhower experimented with a program in the 1950s that granted season-long passes to workers from Mexico.

Millions took him up on it, but his bracero program failed because employers — not government — controlled the permits, and far too many unscrupulous employers used the threat of canceling people’s work permits to silence workers who objected to having their wages stolen, or to intimidate workers who objected to physical or sexual abuse.

A similar dynamic is at work today because of an “innovation” Reagan put into place.

Employers get cheap labor from undocumented immigrants in the United States, using — like they did with the Bracero program back in the day — the threat of deportation and the violence of ICE as a cudgel. Undocumented immigrants working here even end up afraid to call the police when they’re the victims of, or witnesses to, crime.

The result is unsafe communities, a terrorized undocumented immigrant workforce, and easy pickings for predators who regularly rob, rape, and inflict violence on immigrants and asylum seekers.

Everybody loses except the employers, who have a cheap, pliable, easily-threatened source of labor that is afraid to talk back or report abuses.

Which is exactly what the GOP wanted. The system is working just the way Reagan envisioned it.

It started in 1986, when Ronald Reagan decided to stop enforcing the laws against wealthy white employers hiring undocumented people.

It wasn’t that Reagan had suddenly discovered he liked nonwhite people. He’d opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1966, running for California governor, he supported a ballot initiative to end “Fair Housing” laws in the state, saying:

“If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”

Similarly, when running for president in 1980, Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon notes on page 520 of his book that Reagan called the 1965 Voting Rights Act “a humiliation of the South.”

But by 1986 President Reagan was deep into a campaign to de-fund the Democratic Party, and the Democrats’ main donor was organized labor. What better way to crush unions than to replace their members with non-union workers who were legally invisible?

For example, prior to the Reagan administration two of the most heavily unionized industries in America were construction and meatpacking. These were tough jobs, but in both cases provided people who just had a high school education with a solid entry card into the American Dream.

They were well-paid jobs that allowed construction and meatpacking workers to buy a home, take vacations, raise their kids and live a good, middle-class life with a pension for retirement. The meat packers in Wisconsin were doing so well that they sponsored what became the only non-billionaire-owned NFL football team — the Green Bay Packers — from day one.

Reagan and his Republican allies — with unionized companies across the country making healthy “donations” legalized by the 1978 Bellotti Supreme Court decision — wrote the 1986 Immigration Reform Act in a way that made it harder to prosecute employers who invited undocumented workers into their workplaces.

They abandoned systems like I had to engage so I could work in Germany and Australia in 1986/87 and the early 2000s, or like Canada and other developed countries have had in place for decades.

Instead, under Reagan’s new law, employers could easily avoid sanctions by simply having undocumented immigrants give them paperwork (often supplied by the employers themselves) that met the new requirement that it “reasonably appears on its face to be genuine.”

Further reducing the “burden” on employers, an amendment to the law under the guise of preventing discrimination “penalized employers for conducting overly aggressive scrutiny of workers’ legal status on the basis of their nationality or national origin.”

The law also held companies harmless if they simply fired all their unionized American workers and replaced them with undocumented immigrants who were employed by a subcontractor.

This led to an explosion of fly-by-night and immigration-law-skirting subcontractors providing cheap undocumented labor for everything from construction to fieldwork to cleaning factories (like the most recent charge of child labor violations in Nebraska).

As Brad Plumer noted in The Washington Post about Reagan’s 1986 immigration “reform”:

[T]he bill's sponsors ended up watering down the sanctions on employers to attract support from the business community, explains Wayne Cornelius of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at U.C. San Diego. ‘The end result was that they essentially gutted the employer sanctions,’ he says.”

After Reagan stopped enforcing our labor and immigration laws with respect to wealthy white employers, the next 20 years saw a collapse of American citizens working in both the meatpacking and construction industries, among others.

Forty-dollar-an-hour American-citizen unionized workers were replaced with seven-dollar-an-hour undocumented workers desperate for a chance at a life in America for themselves and their children.

From the Republican point of view, an added bonus was that levels of unionization in both industries utterly collapsed, increasing profits and executives’ salaries while gutting the ability of unions to finance Democrats’ political campaigns.

Reagan pulled off a double: he succeeded in transforming the American workplace and simultaneously set up decades of potential anti-Hispanic hysteria that Republicans like Trump and McCarthy could use as a political wedge.

Without acknowledging that it was Reagan himself who set up the “crisis,” Republicans today hold serious-sounding conferences and press availabilities about how “illegals” are “trying to steal Americans jobs!” They’re all over right-wing hate radio and in the conservative media on a near-daily basis.

But it’s not poor people coming here in search of safety or a better life who are impacting our labor markets (and, frankly, it’s a small impact): it’s the companies that hire them.

And those same companies then fund Republican politicians who pushed under-the-radar social media ads at African Americans and blue-collar whites in 2016 and the last election saying that Democrats wanted Hispanic “illegals” to come in to “replace them” and take their jobs.

America, it turns out, doesn’t have an “illegal immigrant” problem: we have an “illegal employer” problem.

Which is why every single effort by Democrats to engage Republicans on “comprehensive immigration reform” runs into a brick wall: the GOP wants things just as they are.

Which brings us to the GOP’s second grand immigration con job.

When Marjorie Taylor Greene was on Tucker Carlson’s show this week to pitch her “divorce” between red and blue states (another grand distraction from the GOP’s plans to gut Social Security and Medicare), he said, speaking of the alleged differences between Republicans and Democrats:

“How do you reconcile secure borders and wide-open borders?”

We shouldn’t be surprised by lies about “open borders” coming out of Fox “News” after the Dominion revelations, but this is part of a much larger story that’s worth examining.

As I detailed on the HartmannReport at length back on December 20th, whenever a Democrat takes up residence in the White House literally hundreds of Republican politicians step up to the microphone or tell their local newspapers and radio stations how the Democratic president has suddenly “opened up America’s southern border!!!”

They did it to Clinton, they did it to Obama, and they’re doing it to Biden now. And every time they do, word travels from these GOP politicians and publications to desperate people south of our border.

As any Republican will proudly tell you, there were huge surges of desperate would-be immigrants and asylum seekers during each of the last three Democratic presidents’ administrations.

What they won’t tell you is that none of those Democratic presidents “invited” anybody or “loosened” border restrictions: people showed up because Republican politicians had told them the border was now open.

Democrats don’t say our borders are open, and, as far as I can tell, never have.

In March of 2021 the rightwing Washington Examiner newspaper went on a search for Democrats proclaiming that we’d “opened!” the southern border in the first months of Joe Biden’s presidency.

They found nothing. (Well, they found that both Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema had called the situation on our southern border “a crisis,” as well as a Democratic congresswoman from Michigan who was merely acknowledging the surge of immigrants. And a single Democratic mayor in Texas who also said it was a crisis. But that’s it.)

But literally hundreds of Republican politicians, just like they do every two years, have spent the two-plus years since Biden’s inauguration proclaiming to every despairing potential refugee south of our border that the door is wide open.

Just google “open border” and “congressman,” “congresswoman,” or “senator” and you’ll get a list too long to print.

At the top of that list just from the past few months, of course, you’ll find the most contemptible Republican demagogues:

— Ted Cruz wants everybody south of our border to know that the “Biden Open Border Policy [is] A Very Craven Political Decision”;
— Rick Scott wants everybody to know that “Americans Don’t Want [Biden’s] Open Borders”;
— Marco Rubio says there’s “Nothing Compassionate About Biden’s Open Border Policies”;
— Rand Paul is so extreme he tells us Senator Rubio “is the one for an open border”;
— Josh Hawley says “Biden’s Open Border Policy Has Created a Moral Crisis”;
— Tom Cotton “Insists the Border is Wide Open”;
— Ron Johnson wants the world to know that “Our National Security is at Risk Because Democrats have Turned Border Security into a Partisan Issue”;
— Marjorie Taylor Greene “BLASTS Open Border Hypocrites”;
— Mo Brooks opposes “Socialist Democrats’ Open Border Policies for Helping Kill Americans”;
— Lauren Boebert says the “Root Cause” of the open border crisis “is in the White House”;
— Matt Gaetz “revealed a complex and deceitful agenda by Joe Biden’s Democrat administration to evade our Southern Border law enforcement”;
— Gym Jordan says “Biden’s Deliberate Support of Illegal Immigration Could Lead to Impeachment”;
— Kevin McCarthy says the Biden Administration has “Utterly Failed” to secure the “open border”;
— Elise Stefanik proclaims “Biden’s Open Border Policies have been a Complete Disaster.”
— Tom Cole’s website features “Biden’s Open Border America”;
— Bob Goode brags about introducing legislation named the “Close Biden’s Open Border Act”;
— John Rose “Calls Out Biden’s Open Border Policies”;
— Paul Gosar claims Biden is “Destroying America with His Open Border Policies”;
— Roger Williams complains about the “Democrats’ Open Border Problem”;
— Tom Cole wants the world to know that Biden’s “open border policies have given the green light to migrants and bad actors from around the world…”;
— Gus Bilirakis “Denounces Dangerous Open Border Policies on the House Floor”;

The list goes on and on, and these messages have spread all across Central and South America, just as Republicans hoped they would. Based on a lie.

And the small percentage of migrants who actually get through our border and survive the trek across deadly deserts provide more cheap labor for Republicans’ big donors’ factories and construction sites, along with more Brown-skinned people they can demonize as “replacing” white Americans on Fox “News.” Win-win.

The tragedy is in the lives of the desperate people who listen to these Republican lies and try to make it here.

They pack all their belongings into a single backpack, bid tearful goodbyes to friends and family, and begin a grueling journey facing dangers of death, kidnapping, rape, and violence. They are fathers, mothers, and children.

Quite literally taking their lives in their hands because they believed cynical, unfeeling, uncaring, sociopathic Republican politicians who are lying for political gain.

Now, in response to the most recent surge caused by all the politicians listed above, the Biden administration may revive a rule turning away asylum seekers who didn’t first pre-register with our immigration system in another country before showing up here.

Predictably, he’s being slammed for “too little, too late” by Republicans and sued by immigration advocates who are frustrated with almost 40 years of unsuccessful attempts to reform our immigration laws.

Immigration issues are riling the entire developed world, as refugees flee war and climate change looking for safety and better lives. And it’s turning the politics of developed countries upside-down, ushering in hardcore rightwing governments from Sweden to Hungary to Italy.

Immigration that’s too rapid or comes in waves invariably produces a local and typically racist/xenophobic backlash.

We saw that here in the US with Irish immigrants in the 1840s following the potato famine that set the stage for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gangs of New York story; with Chinese in the mid-1800s, leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; and the wave of Italian immigrants starting in the 1880s leading to “No Dogs, No Italians” signs here, as northern Europe also saw.

Immigration has historically been a powerful positive force for America, but it must be regulated in a way that’s both fair to immigrants/asylum seekers and not disruptive of citizens’ work and lives.

It’s way past time for our media to call out Republican exploitation and demagoguery of this issue so we can finally and comprehensively reform our immigration laws.

While once again jailing employers who break our immigration laws — instead of the desperate people they invited here — so they have to exclusively hire American citizens and Green Card holders may cut into big business’ profits (which they can easily afford), everybody else in our society will be the better for it.

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