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Newsflash: What’s Good for Immigration is Good for America

Across the industrialized world, governments have dreamed up various schemes for reinvigorating deflated economies, from blood-sucking austerity budgets to paying for scrap metal. Nowhere is the desperation more evident than in the rightward shift of immigration policy toward a convulsive xenophobic backlash. Yet the OECD, a think tank that monitors rich industrialized nations says in its annual immigration outlook report that part of the solution to the economic crisis is more, not less, immigration.peoplework-400x267.jpg

Progressive economists agree that immigrants' long-term contributions to economic productivity on balance far outweigh the feared disruptions associated with migration. More importantly, in an interconnected world, the transnational movement of people is simply an inevitability: overall, according to OECD, international immigration has accounted for roughly 40 percent of recent employment growth in OECD countries.

But neither the potential wealth generated by labor migration, nor the fact that we couldn't stop it even if we tried, has deterred xenophobic sentiment in rich countries.

Another study by the Dallas Fed links economic decline to the increasing nastiness of immigration restrictions. As unemployment rose, the U.S. and several European countries toughened their immigration policies under a phalanx of racial anxiety and political desperation. State and federal agencies tightened hiring policies for foreign workers and moved to further criminalize the undocumented; the United Kingdom imposed stricter language tests and higher fines for bosses that hire unauthorized immigrants. Japan offered to buy its no-longer-welcome guestworkers a plane ticket home.

While such policies are an efficient way to split up families and induce misery and unrest, they end up having little bearing on the systemic dynamics of global migration. On that front, it turns out the recession naturally gives people less reason to migrate. The Dallas Fed notes that "rising unemployment rates across many advanced economies have deterred would-be migrants, leading to steep declines in flows along the major global migration corridors." Immigration flows have slowed considerably in the U.S., and dropped steeply in some European countries.

Restrictionist think-tanks proudly chalk this up to tighter immigration enforcement and harsh crackdowns. Though they still can't explain why about 11 million undocumented immigrants are so reluctant to budge.

Well, we all know it's because they're gleefully stealing American jobs, right? The UFW recently tested that thesis with a clever campaign to recruit "real" Americans to try their hand at backbreaking farm work. So far, not too many takers.   For now, says David Scott Fitzgerald of U.C.-San Diego's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, we can assume that  "unauthorized immigrant labor is generally complementary to native-born labor. Unemployed auto workers in Michigan are not migrating to California to pick fruit."

Moreover, the Dallas Fed cautions that hardline anti-immigration policies could breed political inertia that ultimately impedes recovery:

In fact, the immigration backlash could have its greatest effect after the recession ends, when a growing demand for labor could run headlong into labor market restrictions that remain in place. These could impede countries' ability to recruit workers in sectors vital to their recovery and long-run economic growth.

So what if the government treated immigration not as a liability, but a tool in its macroeconomic arsenal?

To Bill Watkins at New Geography, immigration as economic stimulus is a shovel-ready project:

The initial benefits of a new wave of immigration would be seen remarkably quickly. Housing demand would increase, leading to renewed vigor in our real estate markets and the construction industry. Our inner cities would be renewed, as they always have been by immigration waves. New business formations would soar. The tax base would increase, helping to fund debt repayment and baby-boomer retirements.

By contrast, the myopic and politicized immigration barriers promoted by the right may accelerate the downward spiral of exploitation across the entire labor force. Incidentally, that works against the interests of both restrictionists and immigrant rights advocates.

The research of Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute confirms that immigration itself is the wrong punching bag for disenchanted native-born workers, pointing out that any negative impacts of unauthorized immigration tend to hit not native-born workers, but rather, other immigrants who came before them.

Americans are right to worry about the declining quality of jobs over the last few decades, but for native workers, immigration has had very little to do with it. Other factors--like declining unionization, the erosion of the real value of the minimum wage, and unbalanced foreign trade--are the real culprits behind broad-based erosion of wages and job quality. Nevertheless, immigration could have a much more beneficial impact on the U.S. economy--and its impact on foreign-born workers already here could be mitigated--with a comprehensive overhaul.

How to make sure immigration fills gaps in the labor market without exacerbating inequality? The OECD recommends full integration of migrants into the workforce, including "lowering barriers - such as limits on dual nationality and extremely restrictive eligibility criteria" and  encouraging naturalization.  An analysis by UCLA's Dr. Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda found that common-sense immigration reform could "raise the floor" for the whole workforce, provided that it is supported with rigorous labor standards and protections for all.

But who has time for common sense when folks are busy blacklisting illegals and locking up hardworking people for not having the right papers? For a nation wracked by chronic unemployment, ignorance, it seems, has become a full-time job.

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Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times,, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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