Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Millions Suffer Under Anti-Immigration Policies

Over two million immigrants enter the United States each year, more than any other country in the world. In general, they come looking for work; to build a better life for themselves, their children and their families back home. Yet immigrants, in particular those from Latin America, are regularly and explicitly targeted by ill-conceived policies, proposed by Republicans and Democrats alike. These restrict the ability of many to live normal lives and to participate fully in the American economy.
Ironically, U.S. foreign policy may have encouraged immigration. With the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, American corporations began manufacturing in Mexico. According to Aaron Schneider, political science professor at Tulane University, “the intensification of the integration with our economy makes life more difficult for people in their country.” A spike in Mexican immigration soon followed NAFTA.
Now, economic pressures caused by the recession, together with heightened security concerns following 9/11, have shaken up the immigration reform debate. Conservatives argue that widespread legal immigration will lower wages for all Americans. Yet, according to Marshall Fitz, director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress, immigrants “are overall a net benefit, and clearly so, to the national economy.” Furthermore, says Casa de Maryland advocacy specialist Helen Melton, “the buying power of the immigrant population here is huge.” She adds, however, that “a lack of political power limits the access to opportunities they need.”
Concerning 9/11, Fitz says that, “the state of the immigration debate changed … in an instant.” The attacks re-framed immigration as a homeland security and anti-terrorist issue, with fatal consequences. According to Schneider, “Our securitization has made the border more dangerous, which is why we see more deaths [of people irregularly crossing]”.
This has not stopped controversial anti-immigrant initiatives, such as “Secure Communities”, from being introduced in Arizona and Alabama. Schneider argues that criminalizing immigration “scare[s] workers out of organizing, [and] keeps wages low and jobs bad.” In many places, however, immigrant rights activists are kicking back with vociferous opposition. Moreover, evidence suggests that Latino emigration resulting from “Secure Communities” has actually hurt their local economies. “There are disparate impacts” says Fitz. “Some border communities feel the strains, in their hospitals and school systems for example, more than others”.
During a recent Republican presidential debate on foreign policy, Newt Gingrich said he was willing to “take the heat” for advocating for a more “humane” approach to immigration policy. Yet, while guest worker initiatives such as the H-2A Program have been tried before, contemporary paths to citizenship such as the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJOBS) and the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) have been shot down by the Republican congress.
Meanwhile, Fitz says, the Obama administration’s failure to push significntly towards immigration reform has been “very, very harmful to that relationship [between Democrats and Latinos].” Luckily for the Administration, Fitz reflects, “the Republican candidates are absolutely batshit crazy on this.”
Estimates suggest there are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. As long as America sells the American dream to the world, it will face tough questions. For Schneider, the most pertinent are: “why people move, why people suffer in transit, and how people fit in to our society.” For now, the most that can be agreed on is that the current system does not work.

Originally published for the Occupied Washington Times on January 3:

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