Toward a Sensible Immigration Policy

Katrina vanden Heuvel
The Nation
Sunday, January 1, 2006

For those concerned about human rights, it’s easy to see why undocumented immigrants in the United States need legal protection. But it’s still a challenge to make the case for immigrants’ rights to working and middle-class Americans, apprehensive that illegal immigrants are taking their jobs and driving down wages.

Polls suggest that voters from low- and middle-income households are more likely to express anti-immigrant attitudes. The outrageously harsh Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, passed by the House in December, shows how ready legislators are to exploit these fears.

A new report by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy attempts to turn the conversation on its head with a well-documented report arguing that protecting immigrants’ rights in the workplace benefits all middle-class and aspiring middle-class Americans.

Drawing on a broad range of empirical studies and economic analyses, the report makes the case that it is not undocumented immigrants’ presence in the US labor market that harms American workers, but rather it is the immigrants’ disempowerment in the workplace, stemming from employers’ ability to threaten deportation, that is a danger to US workers. “When immigrants lack rights in the workplace,” the report contends, “labor standards are driven down, and all working people have less opportunity to enter or remain part of the middle class. So a pro-middle class immigration policy must guarantee immigrants full labor rights and make sure that employers cannot use deportation as a coercive tool in the labor market” to drive down the wages of all workers.

The assumption that policy should strengthen the rights of immigrants in the workplace forms one half of the Drum Major Institute’s middle-class litmus test for evaluating immigration policy. The other half of the test holds that “because the American middle class relies on the economic contributions of immigrants…immigration policy should bolster-not undermine-the critical contribution that immigrants make to our economy as workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, and consumers.” That means mass deportations and attempts to cut off future immigration are out.

Ultimately, the test is applied to three of the most prominent immigration bills currently before Congress, from the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act to the more reasonable Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act sponsored by Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy. While McCain/Kennedy is the best of the pack, and the New American Opportunity Campaign is doing good work in support of it, all of these bills fall short in promoting a truly enlightened policy on immigration. It will be up to activists and engaged citizens to demand an immigration policy that reflects the interests of the majority of Americans. Click here to check out and circulate its full report today.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor of The Nation.

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