Can Democrats get immigration reform right?

As with healthcare reform, long-term progressive principles are at odds with short-term electoral needs

Published March 9, 2010 1:50AM (EST)

A 2009 Chicago rally calling for the legalization of undocumented immigrant workers.
A 2009 Chicago rally calling for the legalization of undocumented immigrant workers.

President Obama has signaled support for putting immigration reform back on the agenda of Congress between now and the midterm elections in November. Whether Democrats on Capitol Hill want to take on such a contentious issue in the aftermath of the healthcare debate remains to be seen. What is needed is not another rush to produce ill-considered legislation on an artificial deadline, but the emergence of a consensus on the principles of sound immigration reform.

There are four main problems with contemporary American immigration policy: Our immigration laws are not adequately enforced; most of the 12 million or more illegal immigrants residing in the U.S. should be allowed to become citizens; guest-worker programs create a two-tier labor market with an ever-expanding category of indentured servants; and emphasis needs to be shifted from unskilled to skilled immigration.  To address these problems, any acceptable immigration reform should include the following four elements:

Strict and effective enforcement of federal immigration laws: There is no point in enacting immigration reform at all if the new provisions are not going to be enforced.

Experts may debate what combination of national I.D. verification, tough penalties for employers of illegal immigrants, local police enforcement of federal immigration laws, border fencing and expedited deportations would replace the rule of scofflaws with the rule of law in this critical aspect of American public policy. But there would be no point to an amnesty for many of the illegal immigrants already here unless, following the end of the amnesty period, the government permanently cracked down on subsequent illegal immigration. Otherwise, what would deter employers from simply firing the newly legalized immigrants and hiring new illegal immigrants?

A rapid path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants: The federal government is not going to arrest and deport more than 12 million illegal immigrants who are already incorporated into American workplaces and communities. Just as unworkable is the "attrition" strategy favored by some on the right -- make life miserable for millions of illegal immigrants until they go home.

Two goals are in tension. On the one hand, we want to replace a huge and harmful black market in labor by incorporating former illegal immigrants into a one-tier labor force consisting of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents with identical rights, including the right to join unions. That means the quickest possible amnesty.

On the other hand, we do not want to punish immigrants who have not violated U.S. laws and have waited patiently in line, in many cases for years. Amnestied illegal immigrants should go to the end of the line of those awaiting legal permanent resident status (green cards). One solution to this dilemma, which I have proposed elsewhere, is that the naturalization process from getting a green card to obtaining full citizenship be reduced from five years to two years.

The faster the legal-immigrant backlog is reduced, the sooner amnestied illegal immigrants can be naturalized, and the more rapidly we will approach the ideal of a one-tier national labor market where almost all workers share the same economic rights.

Abolishing indentured servitude among immigrants: Adam Smith, who thought little of the morality of business elites, observed that any rational employer, given the opportunity, would prefer slaves to wage workers. Following the abolition of chattel slavery by the 13th Amendment, unscrupulous American employers began to import indentured servants in the form of contract workers or "coolies" from Asia to replace and compete with American workers, including freed slaves.

The first great triumph of the U.S. labor movement -- marred, to be sure, by a strain of xenophobia -- was the outlawing of immigrant contract labor in the late 19th century. Labor and liberals triumphed again in the 1960s, when Democrats abolished the exploitative Bracero Program that brought in Mexican "guest workers" to labor in serf-like conditions on Southwestern ranches and farms.

In recent decades, however, some American industries have tried to replace the free labor of citizen-workers and legal immigrants with indentured servants in the form of so-called guest workers who are brought in to work for a specific employer and must leave the U.S. if they are fired. Needless to say, workers who are dependent on their employers to remain in the U.S. are afraid to assert their rights or protest against abuses.

The main beneficiaries of indentured servitude today are Silicon Valley, which relies heavily on professional guest workers under the H1B and other programs, and some sectors of American agribusiness, which have re-created Bracero-style programs on a small scale.

We need not take seriously the self-serving argument of agribusiness corporations that we will all starve if they are forced to hire Americans to harvest crops for decent wages instead of bringing in serfs from other countries. The tech industry, many of whose entrepreneurs and inventors are foreign-born, makes a legitimate case for admitting more skilled immigrants, including foreign nationals who graduate from U.S. universities.

But those skilled immigrants should be legal permanent residents who are free to quit one job and take another, not information-age coolies indentured to particular companies. Once a point system for skilled immigrants is adopted (see below), guest worker visas should be limited to short-term visitors, such as visiting professors, and abolished entirely in the case of unskilled labor.

Shifting the basis of immigration from nepotism to skills: The single biggest category of U.S. immigrants includes relatives sponsored by U.S. citizens. At the moment this nepotistic policy happens to increase Latin American immigration to the U.S., but in theory it could benefit any group with large families, a characteristic that tends to be associated with premodern social attitudes and lower educational and income levels.

Most other advanced democracies have adopted or are debating a "points system" under which immigrants with high levels of education, desirable skills and competence in the host-country language would be given preference in immigration. Combined with the limitation of family-based immigration to the children and parents of U.S. citizens, an American points system would reduce unskilled immigration at a time when mass unemployment has hit less-educated Americans and legal immigrants particularly hard.

At the same time, a points system would enable the U.S. to compete with its economic rivals in luring skilled immigrants from every part of the world. A points system would not be "anti-Latino," any more than it would be "anti-Filipino." (Mexico and the Philippines are the two biggest sources of immigration to the U.S. today.) On the contrary, it would make immigration to the U.S. easier for Mexican or Filipino scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and professionals who lack relatives already living in the U.S.

Would admitting more skilled immigrants drive down wages and fees for educated professionals? In some industries, like tech, more talent gathered together may produce greater growth of the industry as a whole. In other areas, like medicine, increased skilled immigration might well reduce average incomes. American doctors make roughly twice as much on average as European doctors. Doubling the number of doctors in the U.S. while cutting their compensation would benefit most Americans.

If we are concerned about polarizing inequality in the U.S., then a shift from unskilled to skilled immigration that leads to lower salaries for college-educated professionals and higher wages for janitors, nursing aides and other less-skilled workers can produce a more equal America without the need for massive after-tax redistribution.

The immigration reform program I have sketched out is in the tradition of the pro-labor, egalitarian, Rooseveltian liberalism that traditionally has viewed immigration as a labor market issue.

The two commissions on immigration reform appointed by Democratic presidents, the Hesburgh Commission (1981) and the Jordan Commission (1997), came up with similar proposals, including crackdowns on employers of illegal immigrants, reductions in unskilled immigration in the interest of America's working poor, curtailment of guest worker programs and greater focus on skilled immigration.

A recent report by former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) belongs in this venerable pro-labor tradition. Traditionally, business-class conservatives have sought to prevent enforcement of immigration laws and have supported mass immigration in the hope that it would avert tight labor markets that would lead to higher wages and greater bargaining power for American workers. Plutocrats who live off their investments also tend to favor using high levels of immigration to keep wages down, for fear that wage-push inflation might erode the value of their financial assets.

Unfortunately, beginning in the 1980s, some post-New Deal progressives began to view immigration through the lens of anti-racism rather than labor policy. Along with some civil libertarians of the left, they attacked the enforcement of federal immigration laws as inherently racist or authoritarian, at the price of helping unethical businesses evade laws designed to protect American workers.

Some otherworldly academics and pundits even wondered whether discrimination in favor of America's own workers against would-be immigrants is not itself an unjust form of discrimination against the rest of the human species. In their innocence these would-be citizens of the world never asked themselves why the late Robert Bartley, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, regularly called for a one-sentence constitutional amendment: "There shall be open borders."

Most important, many Democratic strategists, having written off the white working class that used to be the party's base, decided to oppose any immigration reform that would incidentally reduce the number of immigrants from Latin America, in the hope that a growing Latino vote, by replacing the lost non-Hispanic white Reagan Democrats, would help create a permanent Democratic majority. Some, but not all, leaders of organized labor have bought into this agenda, abandoning traditional liberal concerns about the effects of unskilled labor and illegal immigration on wages and inequality.

Progressive journals have sacrificed truth to partisanship, refusing to publish articles pointing out harmful economic effects of unskilled immigration (one liberal editor refused to publish a commissioned essay of mine on various factors influencing wage stagnation, saying, "I won't publish anything critical of immigration.") Center-left pundits and scholars have been silent on the contribution of unskilled immigration to poverty in the U.S., even though, according to Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution (PDF), "All of the increase in the U.S. poverty rate between 1979 and the mid-1990s was due to immigration.  The poverty rate of Americans in non immigrant households remained unchanged."

Among prominent left-of-center opinion leaders, only Paul Krugman has had the courage to break with conformist center-left groupthink on this issue.

The generation-long mutation of the Democrats from a broadly based working-class party dominated by private sector unions into an ethnic patronage party funded by Wall Street explains why in 2007 most congressional Democrats teamed up with George W. Bush and John McCain to support a profoundly illiberal version of "comprehensive immigration reform."

In return for getting a too-punitive version of amnesty, the Democratic leaders of Congress caved in to cheap-labor employers who demanded a new category of several hundred thousand new indentured-servant guest workers a year. Even more Orwellian was the way that Democrats in Congress, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, attacked a proposed skill-based points system. Much to the delight of the plutocratic wing of the Republican Party, the "progressive" position of 2007 was the exact opposite of the liberal position of Barbara Jordan in 1996 and Theodore Hesburgh in 1980.

Most progressive editors and editorial pages supported the monstrous 2007 bill as mindlessly as they support pro-corporate healthcare "reform" today. If Bush, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi had succeeded in passing comprehensive immigration reform, then employers in 2010, in a period of mass unemployment, would have been allowed to import several hundred thousand unfree contract workers from abroad a year instead of hiring Americans.

Immigration, like healthcare, is an issue where traditional, principled progressivism devoted to the long-term public interest is at odds with short-term Democratic electoral calculations. If and when Congress does turn to immigration reform, the Democrats who let the insurance industry write healthcare legislation and let the financial lobby write financial reform legislation may come up with a bill as bad for America as the 2007 legislation, stitched together from pay-offs to favored ethnic constituencies and business lobbies.

If so, then the next round of immigration legislation may provide a test of whether there is a principled progressive movement in the United States, or merely a squad of cheerleaders for a lobby-driven political machine in Washington.

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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