The immigration debate and some things that might make you go… "Ummmmm"

Let me begin by saying that I am no xenophobe. I don’t hate Mexicans, and I’m not a far right wing zealot who is paranoid about national security, or who fears that Mexicans will take over the United States if their immigration to the US is not controlled. I am an American who is troubled and upset by the current immigration drama that is being acted out on our televisions, the terms used to describe it, and the proposition that the media, the politicians and big corporations who are perhaps driving this dilemma are presenting to the American worker. I have a feeling that I am not alone in my opinion that this immigration debate is a farce, and that illegal immigrants are being tricked, exploited and used to create sympathy and acceptance of voluntary slave labor in the US, disguised as a second class of non-citizens to be called "guest workers."

The proposition implied suggests that the American worker must either agree to force labor unions into obsolescence, and lower safety and other work standards, or be displaced by people who will do anything to get a job, work for any amount of hours, under any conditions, for any amount of money, and who because they have no constitutional rights, will never file a lawsuit, stage a walkout or a strike. This message is being broadcast into our homes through the symbolism created by thousands of immigrants, and their employers and potential employers, who are protesting in US streets demanding rights for illegal immigrants, equal to the rights of US citizens, including the right to create a competitive labor market that could weaken our economy, and if it is not stopped, could also completely eliminate the American middle class, which is the majority in this country. This threat is due to the fact that illegal and guest workers will drive down the price of labor, as in salaries and benefits in this country, until the middle class will become the poor, and the only other economic class in this country will be the rich. That’s sustainable development. It means simply to exploit the poor, and eliminate the middle class hoping to sustain the standard of living of the rich, while further increasing the profit margins of the big corporations. It is not free market capitalism. It is a type of modern-day communism, where corporations rather than governments are the central and controlling authority that owns and controls everything, including the US Congress.

We shouldn’t be surprised to awaken one morning to learn from the slogans on posters carried by protesting American workers that even if the assumed proposition as stated is acceptable to the Hollywood stars, the elites, politicians, and transnational corporations, here in the heartland it’s not playing very well. To understand why, one would need to pick up a US history book and read about the labor movement in the United States. American workers made great sacrifices to earn a decent wage, to work a 40-hour week, to have 10-minute breaks, vacations, sick days, and a pension. To my Latino brothers and sisters, and other immigrants who are here legally and those who came illegally, let me say that someone paid with blood, sweat and tears for what you see in the United States, and for what you call the "American dream." The majority of those who did most of the heavy lifting, and who worked under the harshest conditions for the least amount of money were not white. I am saying this to highlight the fact that the immigration debate is not about race, even though those who are scripting the debate want you to believe that it is. For most Americans, the immigration debate is about jobs for American citizens, our economy, and our economic culture, and our future as a democratic and prosperous society. It is about the fall of the American standard of living because a huge pool of cheap non citizen labor, driven by a desperate need to sustain a minimal existence, is being placed in direct competition with an American middle class who is a majority, and who is equally desperate and determined to sustain the middle class standard of living that American workers struggled to attain for our children, grandchildren and future generations.

It’s true that not so long ago, many American families were just like the people who we call immigrants today. That’s not the issue. The issue is that those years have passed, and that they were hard and included loss of life, and other hard sacrifices made by the American worker in an effort to shift the balance of power in our society from the corporations to the workers. The right to work in safe working environments, to be paid at least a minimum wage, to have a 40 hour work week, overtime, breaks, sick days, vacations, a pension, and a union are rights that belong to our children by birthright as American citizens, and also by virtue of the fact that the children were the primary incentive for the struggle. The American dream was not just a dream to be rich, and to have it all, etc. It is a dream that each successive generation of American workers will be better educated, and more prosperous than the previous generation. That’s called progress, which is at the essence of the dream. A work force of second class "guest workers" will seriously and negatively impact that dream, putting it out of reach for many of our children, particularly the children of minorities.

The television pundits want us to believe that there are over 11 million illegal workers in the US. That’s up from the 8 million they said were here just last week. The politicians are ready to grant second-class "guest worker" status, and give out driver’s licenses, collect taxes, and sneak immigrants in to vote on Election Day. This is perhaps the most dangerous threat presented by the creation of an 11 million strong "guest worker" community. They are hostages to those who control them, and they can be used too easily to undermine not only the economic rights of US citizens, but also perhaps our constitutional rights. We have no reason to believe that the employers of these guest workers will educate them about our political system, or that they will teach them the history of the American labor movement, or that they will caution them to resist attempts by various special interest groups to sneak them into the voting booths to vote a certain way…or else.

Many Americans are very conflicted emotionally, since most of us remember that immigrants played important roles in building the United States, and we are sympathetic because we are the beneficiaries of our parent’s sacrifices and struggles. We studied the American labor movement in our classes, and more importantly, we listened to our parents discuss their employment challenges and dreams. Poor and middle class Americans know how it feels to want the American dream. The problem is not that Americans wont do the work that illegal workers will do. The problem in most instances is that Americans wont do it for pennies, and in unsafe work environments for unsafe amounts of time, and they shouldn’t. With US corporations raking in billions of dollars in profits, and paying executives multi million dollar salaries, it is an injustice for the US government to purposefully create a labor pool to compete with the American worker here in our own country, while we are also being challenged by out sourcing and competition with a global work force of billions of people.

There is a lot to be considered when considering immigration labor in global economies. To prevent the legalization of slavery in the US through guest worker programs, the industries in which immigrants can work, the jobs they can take, and the salaries and benefits that they earn should be determined through negotiations and agreements between representatives for guest workers, US labor unions, and employers, not governments. Contracts should be negotiated and signed that legalize these arrangements. Isn’t it strange that no one from the US Department of Labor has been on any of the news talk shows to discuss the immigration issue, even though it is a labor issue?

Also to be considered is that there must be a guest worker minimum wage, and laws that protect guest worker safety, and that set humane standards for immigrant employment, including a 40-hour workweek, breaks, overtime, and vacations, and a system for grievances and arbitration. There must be a mandatory education standard so that guest workers learn English, and get at least a basic education in math, reading, etc. Studies have shown that gangs form around immigrant groups because the heads of these families cannot meet their children’s social needs because of language and cultural barriers, and because of poverty, and lack of adult involvement in their lives and supervision. This lack of involvement is due in part to the fact that these parents work long hours, and are exhausted when they return home. Also, domestic abuse is exacerbated by these same hardships, as is drug use and alcoholism. Ironically, the primary victims of gang violence and exploitation seem to be the people in the very communities from which such gangs originate, and of course domestic violence, drug abuse, and alcoholism are problems that might affect these same communities.

When a guest worker leaves the US, they should have more to show for their stay here than a few dollars. They should return to their home countries with the ability to better their societies with their new skills, literacy, basic education and experience in an open and democratic society. Hopefully they will return to their home countries, start small businesses, teach their skills to others, and pressure their governments into political and economic development. You have to wonder why immigrants don’t flex the same muscle in the streets of their home countries that they are attempting to flex here in the streets of the United States, demanding jobs and rights.

Another consideration is special housing rules to prevent the creation of guest worker ghettos, over crowding and unsanitary living conditions, and that create affordable housing. To put it simply, guest workers must be protected, the playing field must be leveled between guest workers, legal immigrants, and American workers, and employers should not be allowed to use guest workers to displace American workers, or to eliminate the Middle class in the United States, or to create legalized slavery. Perhaps the greatest concern with the guest worker option, after its potential to negatively impact our economy, is that guest workers are not likely to be willing to leave once their guest period has ended. In that case, we will be back where we are, and unless we secure the borders, there will be an additional 8 or 11 million illegal workers ready to work illegally, threatening the success of the guest worker program, and also the American economy and middle class. It is not true that a loss of illegal labor will hurt the US economy. It is true that the absence of illegal immigrant labor will affect corporate and business profits in certain industries. The American economy is not only about corporations and corporate profits. It is a consumer economy, and when consumers don’t have money, they can’t purchase goods, or at least not goods of the quality, and availability to which we have become accustomed. We don’t need crystal balls to understand that if immigrant labor is not regulated carefully, and if guest workers are allowed to supplant the American minimum wage work force, which mostly consists of minimally educated adult minorities, teenagers, college students, and families who need second incomes, that the standard of living for American families will be impacted negatively, and the American economy will suffer.

Everyone says you can’t deport 11 million people, they say this perhaps to thwart any attempt to resolve the present crisis with anything other than amnesty, or a guest worker program. It’s a scare tactic, the huge and growing numbers being somewhat intimidating. They use the term "round up" to make the idea of returning people to their home countries seem wicked and barbarous. Well, we don’t have to "round up" 11 million people to solve this problem should we decide against the guest worker option. Rather than an amnesty or guest worker program made up of people who violated the law, why not put up the money for a return home program. Give any illegal immigrant who will voluntarily return home a bus ticket, and 100.00 to help them get home. No penalties, no taxes, no questions. A free bus, or airline ticket, some spending money and no penalties is a pretty good send off for someone who broke the law by entering the country illegally. After six months, anyone who chose to stay illegally would be subject to being detained and deported. The cost to investigate businesses and other employers of illegal workers, and to deport the workers would be small in comparison to the potential long-term costs, both in economic and political, and social costs to our country. To make a return home program even more feasible, the fines paid by the employers, rather than taxpayer money would be used to fund the return home program. Each employer would be required to pay the cost to return illegal workers to their home countries, and to provide at least 100.00 in traveling money. All of the perks that would be offered to illegal workers in a guest worker program can still be offered, but as incentives for them to leave voluntarily rather than to attempt to prolong their stay.

Our country has some important choices to make in respect to the future of immigration and labor in the United States. Race is not the issue, and greedy and politically savvy people should end their attempts to make it appear that we are in an "us against them" standoff with illegal workers. We are being challenged to create a way to preserve our middle class, and the American dream for our citizens, be they middle class or poor. We must also find ways to accommodate legal immigration, to regulate it carefully, and to secure our borders. Of course the biggest and most complicated aspect of the immigration challenge is to find a humane solution to the additional challenge created by millions of illegal workers who are presently here in the US. Choices for short-term solutions are perhaps limited to a guest worker program, or a return home program. Long-term solutions must include along with increased US border security, international investment, and incentives for economic and political development in the developing and underdeveloped countries that does not include outsourcing US jobs.