Give Me Your Huddled Masses -- Sometimes

The president may have no appetite for immigration reform, but most
commentators find it hard to avoid. Liberal columnist Paul Krugman
agonizes over the topic in recent blog posts: "Democrats are torn
individually ... On one side, they favor helping those in need, which
inclines them to look sympathetically on immigrants; plus they're
relatively open to a multicultural, multiracial society ... today's
Mexicans and Central Americans seem to me fundamentally the same as my
grandparents seeking a better life in America.

"Open immigration, [however] can't coexist with a strong safety net;
if you're going to assure a decent income to everyone, you can't make
that offer global."

Furthermore, Krugman has argued in a prior column: "Countries with
high immigration tend to have less generous welfare states than those
with low immigration. U.S. cities with ethnically diverse populations
tend to have worse public services than those with more homogeneous

Open immigration seemingly either overwhelms our
scarce resources and-or undermines the consensus on which the safety
net must rest. Both arguments are problematic.

Immigration politics is fueled by an image of hordes of Mexicans
crossing our borders for jobs or welfare benefits. Implicit in this
image is the self-flattering view that Mexicans predominantly want our
way of life. Such a view also obscures the role of U.S. policy.

NAFTA accords opened Mexican markets to competition from subsidized
U.S. agribusiness, displacing about 2 million peasant farmers. They had
few options besides emigration. Driving undocumented workers back to
Mexico would both further destabilize the Mexican economy, lower wages
there, and perhaps make Mexico even more attractive to U.S. businesses
and jobs.

Giving undocumented workers here freedom from deportation and full
workplace rights enables all workers to report employer safety and wage
violations and thus benefits all workers. And when workers collaborate
here across national and ethnic divides, it also can encourage
international collaboration to reform the corporate trade policies that
drive major population shifts.

If Mexican - and U.S. - workers could form genuinely independent
unions, they would be in a better position to demand wages that
reflected their growing productivity. Such an agenda would improve
economic circumstances in Mexico, foster more full and remunerative
employment in the U.S., thus providing the revenue to finance a
generous safety net in both countries.

Even as he worries about open immigration, Krugman commends the U.S.
for generally welcoming immigrants. But following Bonnie Honig
("Democracy and the Foreigner"), I read our traditions as more
ambivalent. At times immigrants have been treated as advancing the
American dream and worthy of citizenship. The other side of that coin,
however, is that when the dream falters - either because it seems
unattainable or less satisfying than promised, bashing immigrants
becomes a means to preserve our commitment to and reverence for that

Economists disagree about the effects of undocumented immigrants on
unskilled worker wages. No study, however, puts their impact anywhere
near that of such variables as minimum wage laws or the Federal
Reserve's manipulation of interest rates and employment levels. All
workers advance in a full employment economy. Yet despite overwhelming
evidence about the weaknesses in our deregulated banking system and
crude and illegal union busting tactics, there is, other than from
Michael Moore, no movement to deport bankers or corporate thugs.

I do not favor deporting either group. The current crisis is a
reflection of the structure of our financial institutions, a culture of
greed and exploitation that goes far beyond individual morality, public
policies and the enforcement or nonenforcement of laws already on the
books. These need to be fixed, but building a consensus to reform these
also entails reflections on the origins of and alternatives to
immigrant bashing.

Arizona's draconian law has very recent predecessors Honig cites:
"The English-only movement, blaming immigrants and ethnics for the
fragmentation of high culture (perversely enough at a time when the
homogenizing powers of American popular culture are at their height)
and the identification of enclavism with immigrants at a time when the
propensity to withdraw from public services is most characteristic not
of foreigners but of the wealthy." More recently, immigrants have been
blamed for lawlessness at a time when rates of violent crime actually
are falling.

Why this persistent denigration of immigrants is so pervasive and
how to respond are the subjects of my next column, which will appear in
two weeks.

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