By Bill Boyarsky
Among the most powerful interests backing immigration reform are the conservative, capitalistic U.S. Chamber of Commerce, fast-food restaurant chains and big agribusiness firms.
I know many reformist progressives may be offended by the idea of working with companies that send artificially fattened beef and chicken breasts to the chefs of fast-food America, but for financial reasons of their own—mainly cheap and plentiful labor—big business has long been a strong advocate of liberalizing immigration laws. Such capitalists are among the strongest allies of civil rights groups seeking a path toward citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. If you believe corporate America runs the United States—and I do—then legislation liberalizing immigration laws is very much alive despite the xenophobic ranting of the right-wing anti-immigration mob.
This phenomenon is thoroughly explored by PBS NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye in his illuminating new book “Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration.”
Kaye wrote, “The pursuit of business-friendly immigration policies has been a priority for companies that have come to rely on immigrant work forces. ... The immigration laws they favor would have the effect of providing a cheap disposable compliant labor force by authorizing additional work visas. They would like the current illegal workforce legalized and, beyond gathering paperwork and consulting computer records, employers do not want to be held responsible for hiring immigration workers with the wrong identification documents. ...
“The public side of the pro-immigration debate is more likely to feature a representative of the National Council of La Raza than of the Chamber of Commerce. Nonetheless, marriages of convenience have been forged between organizations that under different circumstances are generally on opposite sides.”
Add another partner to the coalition: organized labor. Labor, once anti-immigrant, began changing more than two decades ago when it organized low-paid immigrant workers, most notably in its Justice for Janitors campaign. That campaign and others raised the wages and improved the working conditions of immigrants, many of them here illegally.
“The truth is that in a dynamic, global economy in the 21st century, we simply cannot afford to have millions of hard-working people without legal protections, without meaningful access to higher education, shut off from the high-wage, high-productivity economy,” Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a speech in Cleveland last month. “But immigration reform is not just an economic issue. The way we as a nation treat the immigrants among us is about more than economic strategy—it is about who we are as a nation.”
Trumka, the son of immigrants, grew up in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania. “When I was a kid,” he said, “there was an ugly name for every one of us in all 12 languages spoken in Nemacolin, Pa., wop and hunkie and polack and kike. We were the last hired and first fired, the people who did the hardest and most dangerous work, the people whose pay got shorted because we didn’t know the language and were afraid to complain. ... We got to the mines and the mills and the people already there said we were taking their jobs, ruining our country. Yet in the end, the immigrants of my and grandparents’ generation prevailed and built America.”
“… And yet today I hear from working people who should know better, some in my own family—that those immigrants are taking our jobs, ruining our country. Haven’t we been here before?”
Through the years, immigration policy, particularly on the Mexican border, varied from strict to lax, depending on the needs of employers, particularly the powerful growers.
Today, detention and removal of illegal immigrants is a federal priority. But mass deportation is logistically impossible. The government can’t build enough detention facilities to house them all or hire enough planes, ships and buses to send them all back to their native lands. And do we want to live in an inhumane country that herds millions of men, women and children into internment centers to wait for months or years for hearings before an immigration judge?
President Barack Obama, in the cautious and deliberate manner that drives his supporters nuts, has finally offered a plan dealing with illegal immigration.
In a speech July 1, he said: “We have more boots on the ground near the Southwest border than any time in our history. ... But our borders are too vast for us to be able to solve the problem only with fences and border patrols.”
First, he wants businesses to “be held accountable if they break the law by deliberately hiring and exploiting undocumented workers.” On the other hand, business should be given a way of verifying the legal status of immigrant workers. Second, he wants to offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. They would have to admit they broke the law, register, pay their taxes, pay a fine, learn English “before they can get in line and earn their citizenship.” And their children should be given a “chance to stay here and earn an education and contribute their talents to build the country where they’ve grown up.”
That is in line with what ImmigrationWorks USA, the leading employer group favoring immigration reform, says on its website. “Even with today’s high unemployment, employers in many sectors—agriculture, high-tech, the seasonal economy—who have made every effort to hire qualified American workers continue to need immigrants to keep their businesses open and contributing to the economy. ... National interest—national security and the rule of law—requires that the nation find a way to deal realistically with this vast underground population.”
Republicans in the House and Senate want to defeat Obama on the issue. They know another Obama win in Congress would be bad news for their hopes of capturing the Senate and House in November. “An immigration bill is utterly out of reach,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus.
Maybe so. But money talks in Washington, and in this case the money is on a liberalized immigration law.
AP / Cody Duty
New citizens pledge their oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony July 2 at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.