Gay Rights Opponents and Immigration Obstructionists On the Wrong Side of History

As today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision demonstrated, President Bill Clinton’s cold political calculation to sign the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) nearly 17 years ago put him on the wrong side of history. Even though he came to repudiate his actions, his signature on DOMA perpetuated bigotry. Symbolically, he linked arms with George Wallace, who, as governor of Alabama, 50 years ago this month stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama in an attempt to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from registering. 

Just as Clinton’s and Wallace’s brazen attempts to perpetuate injustice have been discredited and overturned, those who stand in the way of meaningful immigration reform will eventually find themselves swept away by the steady rivers of change and justice. 

Clinton and Wallace perpetuated the demonization of “the other,” in the same way immigration obstructionists use fear and contempt to erect walls and delay the inevitable. 

The laser focus on “border security” is a throwback to the heated “invasion” rhetoric of 20 years ago when politicians of all political stripes rushed to militarize the border to keep out the “flood of illegal aliens.”  The stepped up immigration enforcement didn’t work.  Why?  Because Americans valued cheap labor more than they did impregnable borders, and because immigrants decided the potential rewards outweighed the risk of illegal entry or visa overstays.

What the anti-immigrant crowd doesn’t appreciate or acknowledge is how much has changed in two decades.  Most important, the “us vs. them” framing that might have had political currency at one time doesn’t stand up to scrutiny these days. Like it or not, America’s 11 million or so unauthorized immigrants are vitally entwined in American society, not only in the labor force, but in our communities, history, economy, culture, educational systems, religious life, you name it.  As was the case with gay men and women who DOMA forced to the sides, as was true with blacks subjugated by Jim Crow laws, immigrants who deserve justice cannot be thought of as “aliens” inhabiting a separate world. We work together. Our children learn, play, and grow together, and sometimes fall in love.  By history and by sheer force of numbers, migrants are not the “other;” they are part of us, spread throughout American society. 

The facts speak louder than rhetoric:

  • Most unauthorized migrants have been in the United States for more than 13 years.
  • Unauthorized immigrants make up more than five percent of the U.S. labor force and a huge part of the underground economy.
  • Illegal immigration between Mexico and the US is around “net zero,” meaning that about the same number of people are coming and going.
  • So-called “circular migration” in which unauthorized migrants could move comfortably back and forth across the border has stopped.  That’s because if they leave the country, they can’t return.
  • U.S. households increasingly include members with different immigration status. One study showed that as of 2005, 14.6 million persons lived in a “mixed status” home in which either the head of the family or the spouse was unauthorized. 

Acceptance of rights for gays and non-whites required struggle and time.  As was true for Martin Luther King, Jr, immigrants’ rights activists might not get to the top of the mountain they’re climbing.  But change will come.  The immigration obstructionists will be pushed aside to join George Wallace and Bill Clinton who, later in life, came to realize they were also on the wrong side of history.

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Regulate the Rotten Apples: The Need for a New “Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act”

The announcement by Apple to anoint an industry-funded watchdog organization to conduct “voluntary audits” of its assembly operations is a step in the right direction, but it falls woefully short of meaningful oversight of its global supply chain.  Rather than hoping that Apple will, out the goodness of its core, regulate itself, what are needed are more robust measures to force Apple and other global manufacturers to treat their workers with dignity and to respect the environment—or face the consequences.  Better regulation of the global supply chain should left all ships by protecting jobs in both exporting and importing countries.

Because its decision is voluntary, Apple can just as easily reverse course and dismiss the findings of the industry-funded monitoring group, the Fair Labor Association.  Not only that, the decision to restrict the inspections to its “final assembly suppliers”—most likely those in China, Malaysia, and Singapore—omits Apple’s other facilities which may be located in “India, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Slovakia, Thailand, the Philippines,” and many other countries, according to a list compiled by journalist Elizabeth Grossman.  And, as she pointed out in a January 2012 article, many of the 156 companies Apple acknowledges as its suppliers, “have suppliers of their own.”

On a reporting trip last year, I saw for myself last year the limitations of Apple’s voluntary measures.  Workers from a factory in Suzhou, in eastern China, told me they had been poisoned from chemicals used in the assembly of iPhone touch screens.  Apple claimed to have resolved the problem after hearing about it in 2010.  But workers I met in a crowded company dormitory building said they continued to suffer.  “We made iPhones with our health,” one man said.

Apple’s prominence makes it an easy target and a fitting symbol.  But the fact is that global production and efficient transportation give the upper hand to all corporate scofflaws.  Apple’s size makes it exceptional, but it is only one of countless transnational companies which are able to choose efficiency and lower prices over employee rights and environmental protections.

What needs to be done is a measure that seems straightforward, but is politically fraught.  The United States and other developed countries need laws similar to ones introduced five and six years ago in the U.S. entitled:  “The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act.” Those proposals, which died in committee two years running, targeted foreign sweatshops.  One of its sponsors, Democrat Sherrod Brown (in 2006, a member of the House of Representatives, now the senior Senator from Ohio) described it this way:  “The bill is simple. It bars the importation or the sale of goods made with sweatshop labor.”

What’s “sweatshop labor?” Reasonable minds may differ.  Standards would need to be hammered out.  At the very least, a reasonable bill would bar the importing of goods whose production along the supply chain complies with the local applicable labor laws.  Manufacturers and suppliers should also have to meet local environmental regulations.  These are low bars, because standards vary so much from one country to another.  But such an import law, if properly enforced, would have the effect of improving working conditions and environmental compliance in exporting countries.  It would distribute the responsibility among manufacturers, suppliers, importers, exporters, and governments.  And by addressing the corporate “race to the bottom,” it would have the added benefit of helping to reverse the devastating effects of offshoring and outsourcing.  As then-Rep. Sherrod Brown put it in 2006:  “It is our job here in Congress to provide a level playing field for U.S. workers, to help those small manufacturers, to help those workers, to help those families, to help those communities and provide decent working conditions for workers here and abroad.”

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How Arizona Conservatives Opt for Big Government

At first glance, passage by the Arizona legislature of the country’s most stringent crackdown on immigration would appear to be a clear victory for Republican and conservative ideals. At second glance, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s not only a frontal attack on bedrock principles of free market capitalism, it’s also a desperate move to expand the power, reach, and spending of Big Government.

The stereotype of the rugged, self-reliant frontiersmen and women who tamed the inhospitable Wild West, thanks in large part to their own ingenuity and the hard work of migrant laborers, is being replaced. The old-fashioned, tough guys have saddled up and ridden their horses off into the sunset, only to be replaced by a new breed of fearful Arizonans who, afraid of change, and anxious about the future, feel the need for protection by hard-nosed lawmen and aggressive posses. A can-do attitude and a spirit of individualism have been supplanted by helplessness and a need for authority.

On other political and social matters–health care, policing of private industry, environmental issues, regulation of financial institutions, to name a few–conservatives generally adhere to the maxim that “the government that governs least governs best.” Conservatives who regard the mighty power of the state to be intrusive and overreaching in other realms, are now desperate to have Big Government insert itself into the immigration issue, which, at its heart is a social and economic matter–driven in large part by the desire of people to better themselves.

Despite protestations, supposedly core political articles of faith have been abandoned in favor of visceral reactions that pit “us” against “them.” How else to explain the rage and the often hateful outpourings of emotion? Supporters of get tough-immigration enforcement generally deny that their views may be inspired by racism or hatred. The immigration issue, they say, is all about the rule of law. There’s a border. Step over it without permission and you pay the legal penalty–arrest, prosecution, deportation. Work without authorization and face the consequences. “What about ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” I am often asked.

If only it were that simple: an immutable and sacred law which, in its wisdom speaks to eternal values of justice, fairness, and economic prosperity. In fact, legislation is situational, subject to reinterpretation and change. “The law in its majestic equality,” wrote Anatole France, “forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Laws may try to address political and economic ills, but don’t always resolve them. In particular, immigration laws have changed over the centuries in response to prevailing political sentiment and economic conditions.

With his autograph on 1986 legislation, the iconic conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to some three million migrants, changing their legal status with the stroke of a pen. (Yes. Conservative Ronald Reagan). The act followed a long tradition of historical ambivalence about immigration issues. The United States once welcomed Chinese laborers, only to later pass laws excluding them. Mexicans have been alternately embraced and rejected, depending on whim, labor needs, and the influence of the employer lobby. Europeans likewise, depending on their ethnic backgrounds were sometimes needed by the United States, and other times shunned. Across the Atlantic, European nations followed the same pattern. They once recruited Muslim workers, and are now trying to restrict them.

Even though we may true to reduce the immigration issue to a strictly legal matter, that just isn’t the case. Yesterday, I interviewed a high-ranking U.S. immigration official whose job it is to deport illegal immigrants. He sounded like an immigrants’ rights activist, telling me that he and the people he works with know that the main reason people come to the U.S. illegally (and legally) is to improve their lives. He’s right. Some people walk across the street to find work; others cross city boundaries or state lines. Others cross national borders. Immigration can’t be reduced to a legal matter, and the issues that surround it are not simply resolved by pulling out the six guns, saddling up the Broncos, and rounding up the “bad guys.”

Arizona’s Barry Goldwater, the quintessential conservative, knew that. His family had employed illegal immigrants on a citrus farm. Goldwater opposed employer sanctions, knowing they are “inevitably discriminatory.” He was also against amnesty and favored a temporary worker program. But significantly, Goldwater realized that at the root, the U.S. needed “increased cooperation with the countries that are sending illegal aliens.” He believed that U.S. businesses should work with those abroad to “[h]elp providing economic incentives to encourage residents to remain in their native lands.”

In wanting to get at the causes for immigration, Goldwater had it right. At the very least, today’s conservatives would do well to learn that lesson from the old Arizona firebrand. And there are others: Big Government won’t resolve the issue. Immigration is governed more by the laws of supply and demand than government statutes.

Even conservative die-hards have told me time and again, that if the shoe were on the other foot, they would also cross borders and do what was necessary for the welfare of their families. Family values. And, while we’re on the subject, for religious conservatives who respect Judeo-Christian principles above all, here’s another maxim to keep in mind: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

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Something to Prove: How Democrats and Activists Enabled Immigrant Crackdowns

Immigrants’ rights activists say dual crackdowns in Arizona this past week by immigration police and by state legislators are generating a climate of fear there. But stepped up immigration enforcement has not come out of the blue. In some respects it has even been enabled by the very people many immigrants counted as allies–Democrats and advocacy groups.

On Tuesday, Arizona’s House of Representatives approved a bill requiring police to investigate anyone they have “reasonable suspicion” may be in the country illegally. On Thursday, in a massive show of force, more than 800 federal agents and local police arrested 49 people in raids that targeted shuttle van operations allegedly involved in human smuggling.

“The situation for our communities, of course, is really acute,” lawyer Isabel Garcia, co-chair of the Tucson-based Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (“The Human Rights Coalition”) said on Democracy Now! on Friday, the day after the arrests. “People yesterday were scrambling, didn’t send people to school, didn’t go to work.”

Arizona has become an epicenter for tough immigration law enforcement. To understand why, trace a straight line from the Clinton administration through well-meaning advocacy groups whose political strategy seems to have backfired.

In reaction to mounting political pressure, President Clinton presided over an unprecedented immigration crackdown, launching Operation Blockade and Operation Hold the Line (1993) in Texas. In 1994, as illegal immigration increased in California, Republicans hammered the Clinton administration and Democrats in general for being too soft on immigration. In response, Democrats made every effort to show they were just tough as Republicans, and the Clinton administration intensified the militarization of the border with Operation Gatekeeper (1994) in San Diego, followed by Operation Safeguard (1994) in southern Arizona.

“We have increased spending on the states to deal with the immigration problems by 32 percent since I’ve been President,” boasted Clinton in 1994. “We’ve increased border guards by 30 percent. We put 1,000 more border guards on. We have doubled the border guards in San Diego.”

Despite the buildup, since no effort was made to address the root causes of immigration, the main effect of the military-style operations was simply to shift the crossing routes. Arizona, with its more hazardous terrain, became the passageway of choice.

“Arizona is, in fact, the doorway. Over 50 percent of all crossings occur through Arizona,” said attorney Garcia. “As a result, we have created Arizona to be the place where traffickers come, smugglers come.”

Pushed out by trade policies which put Mexican farmers at a disadvantage, and lured by jobs, migrants funneled into Arizona. The immigrant population increased, making for a toxic political brew in the conservative Grand Canyon state, and immigration became a hot political football.

Similarly, in Washington, D.C., lawmakers came under growing pressure to address immigration–as illegal immigrants spread throughout the country. With a growing population of people living in the shadows, proponents of reform repeatedly proposed package deals (hence the world “comprehensive”), that included forms of legalization, provisions for temporary worker programs, and, to satisfy critics, stringent enforcement measures.

Thwarted time and again, reformers took on the get-tough rhetoric of their opponents in the hopes that they could sell legalization if tough enforcement were included in the deal. The Democratic Party adopted a stern immigration policy as part of its platform: “We need to secure our borders, and support additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology on the border and at our ports of entry. We need additional Customs and Border Protection agents equipped with better technology and real-time intelligence.”

“As the immigration debate has shifted to the right, liberal groups like the National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice, Center for American Progress, NDN [a progressive think tank], and National Council of La Raza have also been calling for an immigration reform that ‘secures the border’ and ‘restores the rule of law,'” Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy wrote last year in an excellent analysis of the trend. Barry showed how polling apparently influenced positions taken by Democrats, immigration activists, the Obama campaign, and eventually, the Obama administration.

“Improved interior and worksite enforcement is a critical part of comprehensive immigration reform,” said Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor, now Homeland Security secretary, in November. “We’ve demonstrated that when it comes to that issue, this Administration is committed to action.” More recently, Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, echoed the same theme: “I think we have to make sure the border is secure, the interior is secure, and we have a functioning immigration system,” he told PBS NewsHour correspondent Ray Suarez.

Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform support the “three-legged stool” strategy articulated by Napolitano–a pathway to legalization, temporary worker programs, and stepped up enforcement. But with the long-running Washington stalemate over this comprehensive approach, the default immigration policy rests on just one of those legs, enforcement. With the implicit blessing of advocates, Democrats, with something to prove, are showing they can out-toughen Republicans, at least at the federal level.

Back in Arizona, Democrats have also gone along with immigrant crackdowns, although legislators opposed the latest and nastiest bill, SB 1070, which would give police unprecedented powers to stop and question people if they suspect “the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.” Proponents deny the law would lead to racial profiling, but it is doubtful that cops will spend any time looking for Canadians on expired visas. In the case of SB 1070, enough was enough. Perhaps it’s time for Democrats and their allies to re-think their national strategy as well.

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U.S. Congress and Arizona Deliver One-Two Punch to Immigrants

This week, as Congress leaders retreated on the immigration issue, the Arizona House of Representatives advanced with a vengeance, passing a bill that amounts to a scorched earth policy by granting unprecedented powers to local police powers to stop, question, and detain people they suspect may be illegal immigrants. By failing to act on immigration reform, Washington is ceding authority to those who have more respect for guns and prisons than for human dignity.

In the nation’s capital, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) appeared to backpedal on a promise made over the weekend when he declared at a campaign rally, “We’re going to have immigration reform now.” On Tuesday, he appeared to stretch the definition of “now” by telling reporters, “We won’t get to immigration reform this work period.” At the same time, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the leading Republican advocate of immigration reform also seemed to bury prospects for a comprehensive bill. “Immigration is going nowhere this year,” Lindsey told Politico–even as the Arizona legislature was in full throttle devising its own immigration strategy.

And that’s the way the nation’s immigration policy, generally labeled “broken” by all sides of the political spectrum, gets made. As a result of Congressional inaction, Arizona, like states and municipalities around the country, is filling the vacuum by fashioning its own immigration policy, one that in the case of the Grand Canyon state is more redolent of the values of the Old West frontier days than the sensibilities of civil liberties advocates.

Emotions about the bill were particularly inflamed after the murder last month of rancher Robert Krentz not far from the border. Even though police have not named a suspect, the Krentz family has blamed “a suspected illegal alien” and the lack of border security for the killing. In Phoenix on Tuesday, as they voted in favor of the state’s latest immigrant crackdown, one legislator after another in the Arizona state capitol invoked the murder as they rose to denounce Washington for its inability to keep migrants out. “The federal government has failed in helping this state seal its borders,” said Republican David Gowan.

In a party-line, 35-21 vote, the legislators passed a Republican-supported bill expanding the power of police officers to go after illegal immigrants. In the language of the measure, “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person.” The measure provides no instruction on what might constitute a “reasonable suspicion.” And even though the bill does contain a caveat warning that a law enforcement official “may not solely consider race, color or national origin,” the use of the word “solely” clearly does allow police officials to use race or color.

Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona, described the measure as “a green light to harass anyone who looks or sounds foreign.” Tucson representative Daniel Patterson, a Democrat, described the proposed law as the “symbol of heavy handed government intrusion.”

“We have many families in Arizona who are legal American citizens, who may speak Spanish, who may not look American to some people in Arizona,” he said. “This could lead to profiling.”

Civil libertarians believe that should the bill become law, the courts will eventually declare it unconstitutional. Another Arizona measure penalizing employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on the challenge that states cannot pre-empt federal authority on immigration matters. That 2007 law was signed by then Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, now Secretary of Homeland Security. At the time, Napolitano said the bill was necessary “because it is now abundantly clear that Congress finds itself incapable of coping with the comprehensive immigration reforms our country needs.”

But now, as part of the Washington Establishment, Napolitano has faced criticism herself as part of an administration that has not more forcefully pushed to secure the comprehensive immigration reform she advocated as governor.

That failure has had a cascading effect. In the absence of humane reform policies, the default federal immigration policy has enforcement as its centerpiece, as it has been since the Reagan administration. Successive presidents, including the current one, have built an increasingly hefty immigration enforcement bureaucracy, but it has proved a poor match for the addiction of America’s employers to migrant labor. Even as they met the need, millions of people who became part of the fabric of American society labor were, by turns welcomed, and–increasingly in this economy–reviled. Hence, the rise in the number of local and state governments that took immigration policy into their own hands. In 2009, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, state governments considered and enacted record levels of immigrant-related legislation, with 222 laws enacted and 131 resolutions adopted in 48 states. Arizona adopted nine immigration laws.

The big national immigration-related headline may be the Washington stalemate, with states such as Arizona featured occasionally for their curiosity value. But the absence of a coherent, comprehensive immigration strategy has led to inexorable policy trajectories on both the national and local scenes that have emphasized enforcement first. And immigrants are taking it on the chin.

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Immigrants in the Crosshairs: Mixed Messages

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In California, Republican candidates for governor are battling over who’s tougher on immigration. In Britain where national elections will take place on May 6, Conservatives are bashing the Labour Party for what it falsely describes as an “open-door immigration policy.” The French government has set deportation quotas and is seeking to toughen its immigration rules. In Italy, Hungary, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Greece and Switzerland, right wing parties and politicians are chalking up political gains by pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment. Even in developing countries such as India, Pakistan, Yemen and Sri Lanka, governments have stepped up deportations and toughed the rules on foreign workers.

In some countries, migrants are loudly speaking out. A March 21 demonstration in Washington, D.C. drew tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters. In Italy, thousands of people in different cities rallied for migrants rights on March 1. But more quietly, and often behind the scenes, a potent force–businesses that rely on a mobile workforce are also making the case for migrant labor. So, even as fear, anxiety, resentment, xenophobia, and racism fuel waves of anti-immigrant populism around the globe, countervailing pressures come not only from migrants themselves but from corporate sponsors dependent on immigrant labor.

“Restricting the number of foreign nationals in individual companies would hamper activities,” Som Mittal, president of India’s major IT trade group told the country’s Economic Times after the country instituted visa restrictions. The migrant crackdowns in India may come as a surprise, since the nation is better known for exporting workers. But recent prosperity has led India in some ways to act more like an industrial than a developing country. As India attracted capital from abroad, the number of foreigners living in India rose considerably, leading to resentment and social friction. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs reported that in 2008, the number of registered foreigners totaled 398,836, a more than threefold increase in two years.

Things came to a head last May after a riot in which Indian villagers reportedly attacked workers brought in from China by a Chinese company to work on construction of a steel plant. In November, after examining the issue, India’s Outlook magazine reported that “hordes of unskilled/semi-skilled imports from China are taking jobs from the unemployed Indian. One estimate put their total number–skilled and unskilled together–at around 25,000.” By the end of the year, the estimated number of Chinese workers had risen to 40,000, and, in reaction, the Indian government instituted a new policy to clamp down on foreigners. Under recently-adopted regulations, Indian will issue employment visas to only one percent of the total number of workers in a particular project. It also imposed an upper limit of 20 workers for projects.

Not surprisingly, businesses don’t like the new rules and are appealing to the Indian government to change them. The drive is led by India’s $60 billion IT industry, which, like other businesses, prefers to act as if nation states and political boundaries did not exist.

“We need to get expats to help us understand the complexity of businesses,” said TV Mohandas Pai head of human resources at Bangalore-based Infosys Technologies, one of the largest IT companies in the world. “But instead of helping, the [Indian] government has tightened the visa rules.”

Loosening visa and immigration rules is a cause that transnational firms have long championed, and one that Pai has articulated for many years. His company, Infosys, has 16 offices throughout the United States, and is one of America’s major employers of high tech, temporary workers with H-1B visas. Last year, even as the U.S. economy was tanking and out-of-work American programmers were looking for jobs, Infosys received authorization from the U.S. Department of Labor to import 10,069 H-1B workers. To Pai, as with other business executives in firms that depend on migrant labor, the state of the economy is irrelevant. The goal is worker mobility, since ease of movement provides transnational companies with flexibility. Pai makes the same case in the United States as he makes in India. “I think the H-1B program has made America more competitive because it has gotten the best of class people to come to America to work,” Pai told a television interviewer this week. “H1-B will bring jobs to America and H-1B will not take away jobs from America,” he said. “This program needs to be expanded.”

The pro-migrant stance is hardly limited to Indian firms. Industry coalitions in the United States such as ImmigrationWorks USA and EWIC, the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which is run out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are also hard at work lobbying for business-friendly immigration rules. It’s an old and familiar story. Just as European industrialists during the industrial revolution lobbied to free serfs from the land so peasants could move from the countryside to cities to work in factories, modern day businesses also thrive on a workforce that is portable, ready, and replaceable. That’s why the fixation on the legal status of immigrants is misplaced. Truly comprehensive immigration reform needs to be international and needs to account for the driving forces behind immigration.

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Daniel Boone: Illegal Immigrant Frontiersman

If today’s slow, hard slog towards immigration reform gives advocates pause, they might take heart by reaching back into the annals of North American history to consider the continent’s first migrant rights movement, one that sprang up nearly 250 years ago. In their own often fanciful re-telling of history, restrictionists like to boast that their immigrant ancestors, unlike those of today, played by the rules and followed the laws. It ain’t necessarily so.

Consider, for example, the case of Daniel Boone– long regarded as an iconic eighteenth century “frontiersman.” Boone might also be described as an “illegal immigrant” and a coyote, a human smuggler.

Boone was a soldier, hunter, and fur trader whose exploits and role in the western expansion by colonists made him not only an enemy of Native Americans but also, according to British law, an immigrant outlaw. In the early 1760s, the growing population of colonists saw a need to go farther and farther afield in search of game and territory. Their migrations did not please King George III, since expansion meant loss of political and economic control. Wanting to license fur traders, control land speculation, and avoid costly wars with native Americans, in 1763, the monarch ordered that American settlers not move west beyond the Appalachian Mountains. To enforce the policy, the British government created what, in effect, was the first North American border patrol agency, stationing 10,000 troops along the colonial frontier.

“We do hereby strictly forbid, on Pain of our Displeasure, all our loving Subjects from making any Purchases or Settlements whatever” of land outside the influence of the British government, the king decreed in his proclamation.

The king’s “loving Subjects” did not return the affection, and illegal immigrants, ignoring the proclamation, blazed and followed trails across the frontier into what became Kentucky and Tennessee. 2010-04-01-Boone_Cumberland.jpgA famous painting by George Caleb Bingham depicts Daniel Boone in a role that today might be described as a human smuggler escorting “pioneers” through the Cumberland Gap between east Kentucky and Tennessee.

Despite protests by land speculators, traders, and settlers, the British government slightly modified but didn’t back away from the proclamation. As a result, angry colonists made freedom of movement one of their justifications for self-government.

They recorded their displeasure with the king in one of the grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

So, the colonists were a pro-immigrants rights bunch who not only disobeyed the laws of the land and advocated their change, but connected migrants’ rights with their own well-being and that of the states. Sound familiar?

Yes, I know it’s an imperfect analogy. Today, there’s no tyrannical king ruling from afar. Migrants aren’t at war with native Americans. Nor is there a rebellion of foreign colonists who view migration in terms of economic and territorial expansion. But some of the underlying fundamentals have distinct parallels. Yesterday’s fur traders, as well as frontiersmen and women, would recognize themselves among today’s migrant advocates. Many businesses regard the importation of foreign workers as key to their economic development. And, for their part, many migrants cross political boundaries to escape hardship and to find opportunity.

What are the policy implications of this? For one thing, using history as our collective memory allows us to break down walls between “us” and “them.” The more we understand our commonalities, the less able we are to demonize the other.

For another, coming at immigration by enacting policies that take account of why people migrate is without question a better strategy than acting like a monarch and erecting higher fences and mobilizing more border guards. That plan didn’t work out too well for George III. It didn’t stop Daniel Boone, and for many of the same reasons, it’s unlikely to prevent today’s frontiersmen and women from crossing borders in pursuit of their own settlements and goals.

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