David Coates

Immigration Reform in a Time of Recession

By David Coates and Peter Siavelis

2010 is supposed to be the year of comprehensive immigration reform. President Obama promised comprehensive immigration reform when campaigning for the White House. He committed himself to a 2010 (as distinct from a 2009) timetable when meeting the Mexican president in May. His head of Homeland Security reaffirmed that commitment in a major policy speech in November. So it should be a done deal –yes?

Actually no!

The economy is in recession. Officially, unemployment is stuck around ten percent. In reality, the rate is more likely nearly twice that level (if we count those short of hours as well as short of work); and the Republicans smell blood. “Allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay and take jobs away from citizens and legal immigrants is like giving a burglar a key to the house”, was Lamar Smith’s New Year advice to the President. “Notably absent from the president’s jobs summit,” he said, was “any discussion of how to take back the eight million jobs currently occupied by illegal immigrants and make them available to out-of-work U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.” Lamar Smith is the Senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. When he speaks, he speaks for an entire party.

So the case will need to be made again. How? This way, perhaps

• The recession is exactly the time to complete immigration reform, because rising unemployment has turned off the flow of undocumented workers. The number is stalled. People are no longer coming because there are no jobs to be had. We should say to the politicians, act is now, before the flow begins again.

• The number of undocumented workers would actually be lower now but for the policies of people like Lamar Smith. People are staying in greater numbers than they otherwise would because going home is so hard, and getting back more expensive, because of tighter border patrols and the building of the wall. Walls trap people in as well as keep them out. We should say to the politicians, as an earlier conservative once said to Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

• There is no evidence that unemployment is lower among undocumented workers than among those legally here. On the contrary, the reverse is likely to be the case, given the heavy concentration of such workers in the three industries most hit 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. We need more jobs, not fewer workers. We should say to the politicians, go for job creation programs, not the culling of the unemployed.

• Nor is there yet 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. We should say to the politicians, solving unemployment requires the creation of jobs fitting their skills, not the forcing of skilled Americans into jobs that leave those skills unused.

• What we do have is evidence is diminishing support for half-hearted progressive politics in Washington. Regular compromises on the detail of health-care reform are eating away at the capacity of Democrats to maintain their slender overall Congressional majority come the November mid-terms. 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. We should remind liberal Democratic politicians that immediate comprehensive immigration reform is in their self-interest as well as in their manifesto.

Obama has the opportunity to jumpstart reform by supporting the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity introduced by Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and supported by 80 House co-sponsors. For immigrants to gain legal status, and possibly citizenship, the bill requires:

• Immigrants to demonstrate that they have been actively employed, enrolled in school or serving in the military
• The payment of a $500 fine
• Meeting certain English language requirements
• Criminal background checks for all immigrants
The bill also would better train and equip border guards, improve immigration jails and detention programs, and eliminate the controversial program that empowers local law enforcement officials to act as immigration agents.
A broken immigration system is no basis for long-term economic recovery. Leaving more than eight million undocumented workers in the shadows is no solution to the long-term alleviation of American poverty. Failure to act now simply plays into the hands of a Republican Party determined to exploit job insecurity as a route back to power. There is, after all, something extremely bizarre about a conservative Texan suddenly campaigning against low pay and job insecurity among the Texan poor. Oh that his party had been so vocal and so “progressive” during the years of Jim Crow! We should tell our political representatives, ignore Lamar Smith: support the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act bill now tabled in Congress.

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.

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