Our first priority must be to secure ports and borders to keep out terror threats, illegal drugs and illegal immigrants…. People who want to come to America should follow the rules–and we should enforce them. There should be no cuts in line. Moreover, hiring illegal aliens is no joking matter…. We need to enforce the law on employers who hire illegal immigrants no matter who they are. It’s not just a matter of fairness–it’s a question of national security.
Who said it: Lou Dobbs? Tom Tancredo? No, Democratic Senator Jon Tester from Montana, one of the “new populists” elected to the Senate in the midterm rout of 2006.
These populists were elected in large part because they responded to the economic anxiety of working- and middle-class people, offering a critique of globalization’s impact on the lives and livelihoods of American workers. They tapped into frustration with a “free” trade policy that has benefited multinational corporations while driving down the standard of living for workers here and abroad. But when it came to immigration, the populists opted for fiery protectionist rhetoric instead of appealing both to Americans and immigrants as workers with common interests. They opted for fences instead of proposals that would align immigration policy with the real needs of the economy.
Tester’s position, which ranges from irrelevant to inaccurate, is a perfect example. The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants are from Latin America and are here to work in factories and the construction and service industries. They are not a terror threat. There are significantly fewer visas than there are jobs. Opposing any pathway to legalization would harm American workers because it would inevitably result in several million immigrant workers remaining here in an underground economy that undermines US labor standards and wages. Tester doesn’t answer any critical questions about what to do with the 12 million undocumented immigrants here, their role in the economy, the policy that created this situation in the first place or how the immigration debate relates to the precarious position of US workers. And that’s a shame, because out of this debate can come a coalition of workers–native and immigrant–ready to tackle the fierce stranglehold of the big-business lobby on our government.
Some Democratic strategists have argued that passing immigration reform is important because it will appeal to the growing Latino electorate. That’s true as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that Latinos can be brought into the fold not just as an ethnic group but as a group of workers. They can and should be mobilized not only around legalization and family reunification but around the fallacies of “free” trade and the need to rein in rapacious corporations.
Building support for an immigration reform vision that appeals to US and immigrant workers alike requires both groups to conceive of their interests more broadly. Latinos should be upset when the National Labor Relations Board makes it harder to join a union. US workers should be upset about regressive immigration policy. If we’re going to stop the race to the bottom that provides more and cheaper labor to big business, this coalition needs to start acting from a place of shared interest.