Immigrants and Us
More than half a million in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in Denver, 30,000 in Washington and Milwaukee. Tens of thousands more in Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Reno, Newark and New York City, as well as places like Grand Rapids and Nashville. Sparked by the punitive Sensenbrenner bill, which would criminalize undocumented workers and anyone who helps them, immigrants flooded the streets of cities and suburbs across the nation. The rest of the country watched in astonishment as the wave of immigrants that has swept our economy crested into a mass movement that will transform our politics.
The key word is will. The comprehensive reform of immigration policy that the movement wants is not going to come from this Congress, riven as it is with splits among Republicans who want to keep the poor huddled masses out; Republicans who want to keep them in but keep them poor; and Democrats too weak and anxious to light the way down a better path. At this writing, in fact, the best outcome for now appears to be no resolution at all. Nonetheless, whether it takes two years or ten, this movement, bolstered by its growing social and electoral clout, will have its demands addressed: family reunification; a solution to the visa backlog, now at 6.2 million and counting; and the coveted “path to citizenship” that allows immigrant workers to build lives with a future.
This will happen with or without the vigorous participation of the “progressive movement.” But it would be far better, for progressives and for immigrant advocates, if the two groups could work together in a broad social movement that places the rights of immigrants at the heart of a struggle for economic justice. After all, the most frequently cited arguments for stricter immigration controls–and the fears, grounded in experience, of lower-skilled American workers, especially African-Americans–stem from systemic problems plaguing the bottom of the labor market: low wages (tamped down by a federal minimum pegged at $5.15 an hour); lax enforcement of labor laws (rendering the right to organize unions virtually meaningless); widespread and abusive systems of subcontracting in low-wage industries; and, yes, a ready supply of cheap immigrant labor, vulnerable to exploitation because of its illegal status.
The competitive dynamic between low-skilled American-born workers and undocumented ones is a difficult issue, there’s no point in denying it. But it’s not the impossible conundrum many commentators have suggested. The response is clear: Raise the floor–increase the minimum wage, enforce and reform labor laws, address the healthcare crisis, crack down on employers who exploit immigrant workers, grant undocumented workers civil rights and ultimately citizenship rather than second-class “guest worker” status. These measures would improve the lives of workers across the board. In other words, immigration reform must be linked to labor-market reform. And immigrants would be a key constituency for that broader program.