No one more urgently wants to see a comprehensive immigration reform package emerge from Congress than the 12 million undocumented immigrants who are living and working in this country today–the massive May Day marches of the past two years were a vivid testament to their fierce determination to win official recognition of their lives and rights. For them, the legislation currently on the table in the Senate holds much appeal. But any attempt to reform our immigration system must grapple with the flow of immigrants destined to arrive in the future. It is this second group that the Senate’s plan sells out.
For today’s undocumented population, the Senate’s “grand bargain” is far from perfect, but it is better in many respects than what they face now. They’ll have to scrounge up at least $5,000 to pay fines, and travel back to their home countries at least once, before becoming full legal residents. Still, for many undocumented immigrants longing to establish normal lives, the effort may prove worth it. The petty punishments they must endure along the path to citizenship were included as a sop to the right, but that increasingly vocal and restive minority still isn’t satisfied, decrying the plan as “amnesty” and threatening to sink the whole bill.
It’s for the immigrants of tomorrow, though, that the grand bargain is truly a raw deal–little more than indentured servitude. It would create an underclass of temporary workers with few rights, who must return to their home countries every two years with no hope of ever belonging here. Not only does this amount to an abuse of human rights; it’s also a surefire way to undercut American workers and their unions, providing employers with a cheap, vulnerable alternative workforce and placing downward pressure on the wages of US workers. It’s not even clear, moreover, that it would work: Businesses that employ a low-wage labor force are complaining about the two-year limit and the red tape involved in complying with the law. The danger is that the bill could be amended somewhat to respond to those concerns, leaving the basic structure intact, which would be disastrous for both native and immigrant workers, pitted against each other in an ever-intensifying race to the bottom. The tragedy is that immigration reform could have been the occasion for improving the entire low-wage labor market, protecting the rights of all workers and preventing the exploitation of the undocumented that thrives in the shadows.
The Senate bill would also create a point system for legal immigrants, which would put them at the head of the line for citizenship for such attributes as their English-speaking ability, job skills, education and so forth. So while the well-off would get to be legal immigrants, the low-skilled would be stuck in the temporary work program. The point system would also diminish the importance of family ties in determining who can immigrate legally, a radical departure from this country’s forty-plus-year tradition that has sparked an outcry from immigrant groups.
The Senate compromise comes just a week after another raw deal, on trade. It is a fact that true immigration reform–in terms of regulating the flow of job-seeking immigrants into the United States–cannot be accomplished without fundamental reforms to inequitable hemispheric trade and economic policies, the root cause of migration. By wrenching open the domestic Mexican market to subsidized US exports, trade deals like NAFTA have put poor Mexican farmers out of business while driving up the domestic price of staples like corn. Unable to make ends meet in Mexico, people make the rational calculation to go to the United States, where jobs pay more and are more plentiful, so they can send money home to support their families. The trade deal negotiated by the leading Congressional Democrats would do nothing to lessen these economic pressures, the likes of which have produced a migrant population of 185 million worldwide.
The final insult is that the Senate bill calls for ratcheting up border enforcement. Since there’s little reason to believe that new trade and immigration policies will stanch the flow of undocumented migration, increased enforcement will in all likelihood mean more lives lost and disrupted, and more money down the drain, in the vain hope that illegal border crossings can be stopped.
Even though the Senate immigration deal was hammered out behind closed doors, excluding representatives of labor and immigrant groups, its more positive provisions do reflect their hard work in bringing the plight of the undocumented to national attention. And the legislation does offer relief, and hope, to millions of desperate people. For that reason, it is important that the debate proceed, while immigrants and their advocates press for an acceptable deal, from the Senate and then from the House. In the end, the “grand bargain” brokered in the Senate may indeed represent the best bargain possible in the present political climate, as its liberal defenders claim. For the sake of those yearning for visas and green cards, let’s hope not, because it’s not good enough.