The Invisible Immigration Rally
(written with Peter Siavelis)
Did anyone even notice? Last Sunday’s massive immigration rally was supposed to push political leaders towards comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately it was largely overshadowed by the final vote on healthcare reform. Hunt for coverage of the rally in the national press and you will find it, but you will have to hunt.
Yet Sunday’s vote on healthcare could still be of genuine benefit to immigration reform. The victory on Sunday evening showed that the president and congress are able to legislate – that tough votes can be fought for and won. And once the real benefits of the healthcare overhaul sink in, much of Obama’s political capital may yet be restored to him. If Sunday morning is any guide, he will need that capital: the ugly slurs hurled by Tea Party protesters at black lawmakers and the openly homosexual Congressman Barney Frank likely presage more ugliness as the debate on immigration reform moves forward. Yet most Americans, including a number of leading Republicans, remain strongly in favor of reform; and the case for it is compelling even in the depth of this recession.
- For rising unemployment has turned off the flow of undocumented workers. Fewer people are coming because there are fewer jobs to be had. The recession is exactly the right time to act, not the time to pause: time to act before the flow begins again.
- The results of present policy are perverse. They are adding to the number of the undocumented rather than bringing that number down. Walls trap people in as well as keep them out. People stay because tighter border patrols and the building of the wall make departure difficult – not simply re-entry more expensive. It is time to say to the Republican base, in language they think they own, that we need to tear down this wall.
- There is no evidence that unemployment is lower among undocumented workers than among those legally here. The reverse is likely the case, given the heavy concentration of such workers in the three industries hit hardest by the recession – construction, hospitality & leisure, and agriculture. The presence of undocumented workers actually hides the true degree of hardship being created by the financial meltdown. Recessions are not solved by shipping them overseas. We need more jobs, not fewer workers.
- Nor is there evidence of any large-scale increase in the desire of unemployed native-born Americans to re-colonize the grunt jobs at the bottom of the economy largely filled before the recession by undocumented workers. There is evidence, however, of diminishing support for half-hearted progressive politics in Washington. Native-born Americans hostile to immigration reform are already lost to the Republicans: so in 2010, as is 2008, the counterweight of the Latino vote will be critical. Democratic politicians need to be reminded that immediate comprehensive immigration reform is in their self-interest as well as in their platform.
The Obama administration has so far presided over only the ‘bad cop’ side of immigration reform: deporting 387,000 people since coming into office. If they want a strong Latino vote in November, they need to move quickly to play the ‘good cop’ too.
Last week Senators Schumer and Graham gave them their chance: a bi-partisan blueprint for reform combining a path to legal status for undocumented residents with new provisions for border and workplace enforcement. Though as imperfect as Sunday’s healthcare legislation, the bill provides a basic architecture of reform that, as with healthcare, can be improved later. With a similar bill waiting in the House, the time to act is now.
The immigration rally may have been as invisible as our 11 million undocumented neighbors. The issue of immigration reform, however, is not. As the tumult of the healthcare debate subsides, it is Obama’s and the Democrats’ next major challenge, one they should embrace with as much zeal as they did in moving healthcare reform forward.
This argument is developed more fully in David Coates and Peter Siavelis (editors), Getting Immigration Right: What Every American Needs to Know (Potomac Books, 2009) and David Coates, Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments (Continuum Books, 2010).
Details of the latter are at http://answeringbackdavidcoates.blogspot.com
David Coates holds the Worrell chair in Anglo-American Studies and Peter Siavelis directs the Latin American Studies Program at Wake Forest University. They write here in a personal capacity
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.