The Fight of Our Lives

The Fight of Our Lives

Passing progressive immigration legislation this year is a moral imperative. History is in our hands.


Congress is poised to begin a debate on what might be the only major progressive legislation with a chance in 2007–comprehensive immigration reform. One obvious obstacle is the Bush Administration, which has talked as though it cares about immigrants but has consistently acted to hurt them–through the raids that are tearing apart families, by increasing fees and requirements for naturalization and most recently with an outrageous proposal that, if implemented, could require a family of five to pay $64,000 and wait twenty-five years to get green cards. A less obvious but no less formidable obstacle to passing legislation is the division and confusion among progressives about immigration. The stakes are very high: If most white progressives remain disengaged on one of the most significant moral issues of our time, they may miss one of the biggest opportunities to build a progressive majority in the twenty-first century.

The movement that put millions of people in the streets last spring has been growing for more than a decade, enlisting hundreds of community organizations, unions, churches and ethnic media. Leaders of the immigrants’ rights movement have a broad social vision that begins with immigration reform but doesn’t end there, and immigrant workers have emerged as a key force that could disrupt the reigning neoliberal consensus. Winning immigration reform would produce millions of new US citizens who would change the face of the electorate. The immigrants’ rights movement needs allies to win in 2007, and it will remember those who showed up for the fight.

In order to realize the potential for the kind of alliance that could produce legislation in 2007, we need a clear moral framework and a policy architecture that embodies it. There is unity within the immigrants’ rights movement on some core principles: a path to citizenship for all the undocumented workers currently in the United States, which would benefit US workers by eliminating competition with workers who are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse; elimination of backlogs in the family visa system to reunite families; and a restoration of due process and civil liberties lost in the wake of 9/11. But disagreement on the left about other key issues has the potential to undermine the prospects for legislation and fracture the coalition we need to build.

First and foremost, the debate about guest-worker programs has generated much controversy and confusion. Any immigration solution has to deal not just with the immigrants who are here but with those who will come in the future. Neither an open-borders nor closed-borders policy is workable or achievable. The status quo is a recipe for more border deaths and a growing undocumented population. Nor can progressives embrace a new guest-worker program that would install a permanent second-tier labor force without economic or political standing.

What’s the way out of this bind? Progressives should support expansion of visas for immigrant workers at levels high enough to offset the number of undocumented workers who currently come to the country. These visas should be nothing like our current guest-worker program but instead must meet conditions to prevent abuse and exploitation. Any visa must provide a path to citizenship and insure that workers aren’t tied to employers and can move freely in the US labor market. It must give immigrant workers full labor rights and the right to organize. A citizen-worker program–distinct from abusive temporary guest-worker programs–could give workers control of their work visas and their future in the United States.

The second contentious issue is how we deal with the impact of immigration on native-born workers. It’s misleading to claim that “immigrants take jobs that US workers won’t.” The displacement effect has been real, especially at the low end of the labor market. Many native-born workers, especially African-American workers, have been shut out of jobs as employers have sought to hire undocumented immigrants at lower wages. Progressives need to acknowledge this and push for policies that would address the problem by strengthening civil rights and labor-law enforcement, requiring employers to post available jobs centrally so that they can’t rely solely on social networks for hiring, and funding job programs for the long-term unemployed. Not all of what needs to be done to address the broken and chaotic low-wage labor market can be accomplished in the context of immigration reform, but we should use the debate to advance some concrete proposals to benefit all workers. At the same time, it’s important to emphasize that US-born workers and immigrants are fundamentally in the same boat. Immigrants are coming here largely in response to economic dislocation in their home countries, propelled in part by US economic policies. The same forces driving migration are driving the erosion of living standards for all US workers.

Passing progressive immigration legislation this year is a moral imperative, for the children left without parents, for the immigrant students who can’t go to college, for the hundreds who die in the Arizona desert each year and for US workers whose wages and working conditions are undercut by the current two-tier labor market. Whether progressives and immigrants can navigate choppy waters, unite behind a common moral vision and put the kind of pressure from below needed to deliver a good solution will tell us a lot about the prospects for the left in the twenty-first century. History is in our hands.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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