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Immigration awaits a workable solution

A fix is viable by easing the gridlocked issue out of the political theater and into pragmatism and global economics

The Oregonian - September 16, 2007
by KATHERINE CORCORAN
View story at oregonlive.com...

When it comes to immigration reform, could Congress have any less credibility? Could our national lawmakers possibly have alienated more people on an issue, now that the fall session is in swing and there are rumblings of trying to tackle it anew?

One reason Senate Bill 1348 crashed and burned in June was that opponents argued that we've had policy without enforcement. So the Bush administration is raiding workplaces. And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is ready to send out "no-match" letters to employers whose workers have suspect Social Security numbers, pending a federal court hearing Oct. 1.

Now we have enforcement without policy. The current situation conjures the famous words of Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel: "Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into."

Oregonians know that mess as well as anyone, after a June raid on the Fresh Del Monte plant in Portland traumatized the immigrant community and divided the state.

"If their goal is fear and vitriol, then I guess they've accomplished their goal," said Jeff Stone, director of government relations for the Oregon Association of Nurseries. "They're pushing the extremes away from one another and pushing people away from the middle, where the solution will come from."

But this mangle may have a positive side. The overall lack of leadership could move immigration reform out of the realm of political theater and into the world of pragmatism. While the Bush administration's new tactics may have been designed to curry favor with the right, in Oregon and elsewhere they're galvanizing unlikely coalitions to demand a workable solution. Oregon growers and shippers have teamed with labor and faith communities to urge the state delegation to pass AgJobs (the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act) to allow legal means for work.

But AgJobs is not enough.

Stone says the coalition intends to expand to broader business and advocacy groups in several Western states and will cross traditional political and labor divides to demand real reform. Oregon alone had roughly 80,000 undocumented workers in 2005, or between 4 percent and 5 percent of the total work force, according to state estimates. The vast majority was employed.

"With a 4 percent unemployment rate, our economy is relatively strong," said Stone, noting that his association comprises 1,500 members employing 23,000 people in an industry heavily dependent on foreign workers. "But we have growers now deciding not to grow their businesses because there's an unpredictability in the labor supply."

The problem all along has been our insistence on solving a practical dilemma with politics. The so-called Senate compromise had a dash of wall here, a pinch of amnesty there, with a dusting of guest-worker program in a recipe designed to entice all points of the political spectrum into passing some kind of legislation. What the Senate produced instead was an unenforceable stew that no one could swallow.

"The whole bill was a bait and switch," said Jim Ludwick, president of the conservative Oregonians for Immigration Reform, whose beefs sound much the same as his liberal opponents.' "Nobody in government wants to take a position on the long-term impact of immigration."

The total sum of the United States' one-sided strategy vacillates between "keep-'em-out" versus "let-'em-in," even though we've tried both and neither has solved the problem. What did amnesty in 1986 bring us? The same thing the 1994 enforcement crackdown called Operation Gatekeeper brought us: today's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants with no path to citizenship and no end in sight to the flow of people crossing the border.

Building walls and staging raids are political theater designed to raise emotions. So are sanctuary movements and undocumented women holing up in churches to stave off la migra. They solve nothing.

Even conservatives concede that walls won't stop migrants as long as wages in the States are seven to eight times those in Mexico on average, meaning the disparity is much more drastic for the very poor living on less than $4 a day. Even liberals admit that amnesty only creates more illegal immigration.

So, whether you object to undocumented immigrants on social, cultural or security grounds, or recognize we're in a global economy that requires the free flow of labor, what we have is an economic issue, and that's the only way it will ultimately be solved. Why else would the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO line up on the same side?

It's time for people to start putting their money where their mouths are.

"For a long time, the same people who wanted a cheap labor force beat the drum for closing borders and used very anti-immigration rhetoric for partisan gains," said Andrea Cano, executive director of Oregon Farm Worker Ministry.

That means if you want to "kick them out and keep them out," then start by dealing with the push factors, i.e. the Mexican economy. In one of the many "through-the-looking-glass" elements of this saga, Mexican President Felipe Calderon in his recent State of the Union address scolded the United States for mistreating Mexicans -- people who have reluctantly fled their country because of mistreatment by their own government.

What has Mexico done about illegal immigration? Provided 3-to-1 matching funds for every dollar of remittance money sent by immigrants in the United States home for public works projects. Remittances, at an estimated $20 billion a year, are the country's second-highest source of income. Here's what else Mexico has done: Created a federal bureaucracy called Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior and state-level agencies that provide services to Mexican nationals living abroad --after they're driven out by a lack of viable employment at home.

The country is short 300,000 jobs a year by conservative estimates. Some put it as high as a million. So illegal immigration is a financial resource for Mexico.

"Having remittances compensates for the lack of performance of the Mexican economy," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the left-leaning Center for Economic Policy and Research. "It's an outlet for workers they're not providing jobs for and a major source of income, like having another export."

Like all of his government counterparts, Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan decries the notion that his country benefits from the migration of a large portion of its population to the United States. But he says decisively, "Immigration reform has to start in Mexico.

"We have to tackle the challenge of creating jobs," he said, adding that Mexico can do it on its own, but doing so will take much longer than it would if the United States provided some investment.

The country took a big step in that direction on Friday when the Mexican Congress approved an overhaul of its tax system long considered a boost to economic development because it would raise more money for schools and infrastructure.

So why not take the $2 billion-plus estimated to build the border wall, plus Mexico's 300 percent matching funds for remittances and invest in Mexican job-creation and other improvements?

Douglas Massey of Princeton's Office of Population Research is one of many who propose a European Union model for North American countries.

"Instead of spending billions to militarize the border, we should spend millions of dollars in subsidies to improve Mexican economic performance," he says. "That's what the European Union did for Spain and Portugal, and what it's now doing for Eastern Bloc countries."

And Mexico would need only to make some progress in wage disparities to have an effect on migration.

"People pay a price to come -- monetarily and psychically," said Jeffrey Passel, an immigration and demography expert with the Pew Hispanic Center, a research institute in Washington, D.C. "Long before we get to 1-to-1 pay rates, migration will slow down a lot. It doesn't have to be exactly equal for people to decide they want to stay in their homes."

At the same time, the "keep-'em-out" proponents need to deal with the pull factors here, i.e. American employers. For conservatives such as Ludwick and Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, that means mandatory use of the Basic Pilot Employment Verification Program, a free government service that provides employers with links to the Social Security Administration database and Department of Homeland Security immigration records.

"What the administration could do if it chose would be to issue a series of executive orders requiring federal contractors and agencies to use Basic Pilot," Camarota said, thereby moving a huge chunk of the American work force into compliance without dealing with the gridlock in Congress.

If, on the other hand, you recognize that we are in a global economy and that free trade dictates the flow of human capital as well, then you need to work toward a legal means of passage for workers.

Stephen Manning, chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association for Oregon, envisions a whole new set of laws based on economic needs -- a Federal Reserve-like regulation of the flow of foreign workers that would shift with the economy, rather than the current arbitrary quotas (which were created at least a century ago and modified over the decades alternately by economics and xenophobia).

"The numbers, rather than being fixed in stone, unrelated to any economic or social concerns, would be set by a dynamic system that's responsive," he said. "It would take the politics out of it, and legality would be the norm again."

In other words, what Congress needs to pass is a sane policy that addresses the economic realities of the 21st century, not an a la carte jumble of pet projects from the right and the left.

That may be a long shot, but the nursery association's Stone says this new coalition is in it for the long haul.

"It's unfortunate that political theater requires someone to bleed before action is finally taken. . . . Congress will not act on immigration reform until businesses start going out of business," he said. "But I can tell you that a billion-dollar industry like ours will not take this lying down."

Katherine Corcoran, a freelance writer specializing in demographics and Latino affairs, is a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. As a former staff writer for the San Jose Mercury News, she reported stories from Mexico and China.

©2007 The Oregonian

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