Monthly Archives: January 2010

Mañana for Immigration Reform

A long-promised, bi-partisan U.S. Senate bill aimed at comprehensive immigration reform will be delayed until at least March, according to a lobbyist involved in negotiations over the content of the legislation. “The timeline originally was to have a bill by February,” said Sonia Ramirez, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO. “Now I think they’re shooting at having a detailed outline of the direction they’d like to go in the bill by the end of February.” Once the outline is agreed on, she explained, lawyers will draft the text.

The on-again, off again timetable has disappointed immigration reform advocates. Sen. Charles. E. Schumer (D-NY), Chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, who has been working on an immigration bill with South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, indicated during the summer that legislation would be introduced last year “I think we’ll have a good bill by Labor Day,” Schumer, told the Associated Press last July. But it never materialized.

Before and after the presidential election, Barack Obama also promised that he would move on immigration reform. But a one sentence mention of the subject towards the end of his state of the union speech on Wednesday seemed more like an obligatory item on a to-do list than a rousing call to action: “And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system,” said the President, “to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation.” End of subject.

The following day at a press conference, when a reporter asked Schumer about plans for immigration reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) jumped in with instructions for the New York Senator: “Chuck, let’s not get into any deadlines,” he cautioned. “”You get into trouble by setting deadlines. It is something we’re committed to do. And we’ll do it as soon as we can.” Schumer was obligingly vague about his plans. “We are making good progress,” he said, explaining that he was having difficulty enlisting support from Republican ranks. “Now, I’ve said all along, even before last Tuesday with the Massachusetts election, that we have to have this bill be a bipartisan bill, two Democrats, two Republicans to introduce it. We’re not there yet. We’re still working on getting our Republicans.” Schumer announced that he had met with former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, whom he said, without elaboration “is changing his views on immigration.” It was unclear what contribution, if any, Dobbs would make to the immigration debate.

The AFL-CIO’s Ramirez indicated that she and other labor leaders are trying to reach a compromise with business representatives on a complicated section of the bill that would set guidelines to regulate the use of migrant workers on either a temporary or permanent basis. Labor organizations have supported a plan for a new Presidential commission to help establish criteria and calculate labor needs. Business groups have said that they would not accept a commission that could be politicized and not suitably responsive to “market forces.” This issue may seem esoteric, but as legislative efforts to enact immigration reform move haltingly along, the ability of labor and business to agree on the fundamentals of migrant worker programs could make the difference between a viable bill and yet another failed effort to fix the broken system. The recently-introduced House immigration bill advocated most forcefully by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and championed by many reform advocates is widely seen as basically dead on arrival because of criticisms from the right that it is too migrant friendly.

Labor’s Ramirez suggested that the commission proposal would not be a deal breaker. “In terms of creating a system–let’s put the word ‘commission’ aside–that contemplates economic need and makes decisions on visas based on demonstrated need, that’s attractive to us both [business and labor]. So I think there is lots of agreement on how to move forward.” Ramirez said that labor would want to insist that migrant workers involved in “future flows” be assured worker protections and rights. Labor is also pushing to make sure that recruiters who bring in foreign workers are better regulated. But she made it clear that the commission idea was more of a subject for negotiation than a key demand. “It’s about crafting a system,” she said, “not calling it a ‘commission.'”

Time is not on the side of immigration reformers. As the 2010 midterm elections approach, politicians on the fence are likely to be seen as loathe to embrace such a controversial issue. One influential senator, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has suggested a more wary piecemeal approach to immigration reform, rather than one big package. Breaking off chunks and dealing separately with the contentious issues of legalization, enforcement, and “future flows” of migrants may seem like a pragmatic short term approach to immigration but is likely to result in once again postponing the issue. And, if it’s not going to be dealt with in 2010, it’s almost certain to be ignored later on as politicos prepare for the 2012 presidential election year.

Clarification:
After this article appeared, Sonia Ramirez wrote to clarify the position of the AFL-CIO. Ramirez explained that the AFL-CIO is committed to replacing the “current employment-based immigration system——that is currently arbitrarily set by Congress and is a product of political compromise, without regard to real labor shortages——with a system that assesses labor market needs on an ongoing basis and determines the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment based on demonstrated labor market needs.” Ramirez wrote that the AFL-CIO supports “a system that examines the impact of immigration on the economy, wages, the workforce and business. We would never negotiate away these principles,” she explained. “If we have to call this entity something else like a “board” or an “authority” we are willing to do that.”

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Corporations Are Only Human: The Next Great Civil Rights Cause

C’mon folks, give us a break!  About a year ago, on the advice of my accountant, I became a Corporate entity, and so I write these words as an “Inc.”  There, I said it.  I am out of the closet and ready to champion the great new civil rights movement of our era—liberty and justice for all Corporations!

It is time for us Corporations to throw off our yokes.  Time to declare that no longer will we tolerate the bigoted insults of those who see us as less than human.  Time to assert that no more will we be treated as second-class citizens in the country we own.

There are those who say the U.S. $upreme Court erred when this week it officially recognized our free speech rights in a ruling that lets us spend as we wish in political campaigns.  President Obama today said that the ruling “strikes at democracy.”  Oh really?  Democracy takes a hit because we are now able to exercise our God-given right to freely buy the politicians of our choice?  I don’t think so.  We have been unshackled.  No more will we being unjustly constrained—able only to window shop outside the political department store but forbidden from partaking in its cornucopia.  “Look but don’t touch, and certainly don’t buy,” was the humiliating burden of the anti-Corporate tyranny that ruled us for too long.

“[T]he Government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity,” wrote Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy in his brilliant opinion.  The dark cloud of censorship has been lifted.  Speech and purchase power are now one.  It’s as if we Corporations have been allowed to move to the front of the bus or sit at the restaurant counter.  However, our work is not yet over.  Yes, we can now put our money where our Corporate mouths are, and we will, but we cannot yet rest.

Mindful of our right to marry, we have taken full advantage of the privilege of holy matrimony. Mergers and acquisitions are running at record numbers.  But it is time to assert our full rights, lest we be considered three-fifths human or less.  Endowed by our creators with certain unalienable rights, we Corporations now need to move beyond the First Amendment.  In keeping with the ideals of equal protection granted in the 14th amendment of the great constitution of the United States, we now stand ready to claim the right that has been so long overdue—the right to vote.  What use is free speech if we are denied the freedom to act?  In that, we look for inspiration to the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson who said, in proposing the Voting Rights Act:  “There is no Constitutional issue here.  The command of the Constitution is plain.  There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.”  Right on, brother!

And, so my fellow Americans—Corporate and non-Corporate—please join me in the next noble cause.  Extend true universal suffrage to the weakest among us—America’s Corporations.  We make the ballot boxes, and now we need to fill them.  “One Corporation, one vote” will be our starting point.  But justice demands more.  Corporate citizens deserve proportional democracy.  Today, we take up the cause of “one share, one vote.”  Yes, I know there will be objections.  People will point out that under that system, Bill Gates will have 680,970,258 votes.  But, let me ask you this?  Does liberty have a limit?  Will Big Government dare to set the price/earnings ratio of Democracy?

Our time has come!  Our cause is just!  The dividends will be ours!

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Will Business or Labor Blink First? Immigration Reform and “Future Flows”

Here’s a term–one you may be unfamiliar with–to add to your political lexicon: “future flows.” In the weeks and months to come, we’re going to be hearing it more as Congress very gradually turns its attention to reforming U.S. immigration laws.

As legislators shape immigration legislation, business and union leaders are battling over the contentious issue of how best to control “future flows” of migrant workers. Even in a lousy economy, businesses want the ability to bring in foreign workers, skilled and unskilled, on both temporary and permanent work visas. A chief criticism by business of the last major overhaul of immigration law in 1986 was that the legislation, signed by President Ronald Reagan, contained provisions that gave workers amnesty (a good thing in their view) but failed to include any allowances for future flows (bad). On the other hand, unions historically have generally opposed temporary worker programs and denounced illegal immigration, fearing that migrant workers would undercut legal residents. However, labor’s position has softened over the last decade in recognition of the glaring reality that as union membership has waned, the number and percentage of migrant workers in the economy has grown. For many union leaders, embracing, rather than shunning migrants seemed like a no-brainer.

And so it was that when 93 members of the House of Representatives late last year introduced legislation bearing the convoluted title of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP, for short), the bill contained a provision to a create a brand new federal agency to be called the Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets. The legislation is championed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as well as progressive and labor groups. The commission idea, based on a proposal endorsed by organized labor, seemed designed to throw a bone to business by establishing a mechanism for future flows and to appease unions by trying to regulate it. The bill calls for a 15 member commission (seven members appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, the other eight federal agency heads) to analyze “the current and anticipated needs of employers for skilled and unskilled labor; the current and anticipated supply of skilled and unskilled labor; [and] the impact of employment-based immigration on the economic growth and competitiveness and labor standards, conditions, and wages.” The Commission would then “determine the need” for foreign workers, and recommend to Congress “numeric levels of visas.” This pseudo-scientific approach to immigration was immediately endorsed by labor leaders, but denounced by business representatives.

Labor believes that by establishing a mechanism to carefully regulate migration, government will be in better position to protect the rights, wages, and working conditions of both the existing workforce and of migrant workers. Business on the other hand worry that a government commission would not only politicize the process, but take away the prerogative of business (i.e. “the market”) to control future flows. As a statement from the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, put it: “this goal…to supply the U.S. economy with the workers it needs…can best be met by a provisional visa program that gives employers, not the government, the primary say in which workers they need to man their businesses and gives the U.S. labor market, not Congress or a commission, the primary say in how many workers enter the country annually in a legal program. As the experience of recent years shows, the market works in a timely, efficient way to regulate the flow of foreign workers seeking to enter the country.”

The recently-introduced immigration bill (CIR ASAP) containing the commission proposal has been has been described by business leaders as a “wish list.” Provisions in the legislation for legalization of illegal migrants, immigrants’ rights, and weakened enforcement virtually assure that as written, CIR ASAP will have little possibility of passage. If immigration reform has any chance at all this year, it will come from the Senate in a bi-partisan bill currently being written by staff members of senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham(R-SC) with input from White House and Department of Homeland Security personnel. Those working on the Schumer-Graham legislation, I’m told, put off the more contentious aspects of the bill, including the touchy issue future flows, to the end of the process. In recent weeks, staffers from Schumer’s and Graham’s offices have been joined for regular meetings by representatives of business and labor organizations. Their goal, despite adamant statements on the subject by both sides, is to try to find common ground and hammer out compromise language that would address “future flows.”

Of course, coming up with the right legislative text is the least of the hurdles. Even if business and labor leaders reach agreement on future flows, the politicians shepherding immigration reform will face strong opposition from those who want any future flows of foreign workers reduced to zero. Not only that; future flows of migrant workers will continue, regulated or not. Where there’s a will–migrants in need and jobs for the taking–there’ll be a way.

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Haiti and Immigration: Relief Beyond the Earthquake

UN Photo/Logan Abass The UNITED NATIONS

As a result of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, both the United States and France have stopped deporting illegal Haitian immigrants back to their country. The decisions are commendable, and will undoubtedly save lives. But as immigration officials suspend deportations because of the obvious jeopardy awaiting deportees once they arrive home, those judgments call into question the wisdom of policies that encourage immigration and lead to deportations in the first place. Not only that, but if normal immigration rules can be bent in times of duress and calamity, can’t the same humane considerations be taken into account when everyday life deals a series of catastrophes and hardship?

Over the last 10 years, the United States has deported more than 18,000 back to Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. About 30,000 Haitians currently have orders to leave the U.S. Across the Atlantic, France, Haiti’s old colonial master, expelled about 38,000 Haitians over the last couple of years. But as they were cutting deals with charter airline companies to send Haitians packing, couldn’t the U.S. and France have done more to prevent them from making their desperate voyages out of the country? Last year, Haiti received good news when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund canceled $1.2 billion in external debt. Much of that debt had been run up by the U.S.-supported Duvalier regimes which ruled the country between 1957 and 1986. Canceling that amount of debt relieved a strain, But the agreement still left Haiti with about $700 million worth of debt–a liability that today jumped by 14 percent when the International Monetary Fund said it will provide Haiti with $100 million worth of new emergency funding. The $100 million will be tacked onto Haiti’s existing loan. As a result of both the old and new debt, Haiti must still pay off millions of dollars a year in interest payments alone, an obligation that the impoverished country can ill afford. Every dollar spend on a creditor is one less invested in infrastructure, and one more reason for a Haitian to try his or her luck at leaving the country.

If the U.S. and France are serious about limiting or controlling Haitian migration, a debt cancellation policy and more serious assistance and investment in Haiti would do more than a deportation policy. Over the past nine years, U.S. foreign aid to Haiti has totaled $426 million. To put that into perspective, while it has provided Haiti with the equivalent of about $42 per person, over the same period of time, the U.S. gave the Republic of Ireland an amount equal to $790 per capita in foreign assistance. What’s wrong with this picture? To be fair, Haiti’s political instability and corruption have resulted in decisions to restrict foreign assistance, but after choking on its colonial legacy, Haiti deserved more than benign neglect and crushing debt.

The decisions by France and the United States to suspend deportations in an emergency show that both governments clearly see the connection between immigration policy and economics. Yet, in normal circumstances, neither the U.S. nor Europe seems to show sufficient constraint in repatriating migrants back to countries where they may face poverty or repression. Italy, for example has come under criticism for deporting potential asylum candidates back to Libya. The developed world needs to give more humane consideration to its immigration policies–and not just when earthquakes strike.

As for Haiti, I like Juan Cole’s idea. He points out that Haiti’s gross domestic product is about $7 billion a year. That’s chicken feed to a Wall Street banker. The sum works out to just over two percent of the amount–$47 billion–that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase combined have reportedly set aside for this year’s bonuses. Cole’s “modest proposal,” recognizes that since U.S. government bail bailouts helped the banks make their windfalls, the least that executives could do is exercise a little common decency and donate say 10 percent to Haiti reconstruction and development. That would be $4.7 billion and would go a long way in Haiti. That still leaves about 30,000 Haitians in the United States who will face deportation when the immediate disaster ebbs and the world’s news media move on to the next crisis du jour. A number of politicians and advocacy groups are calling on the Obama administration to extend “temporary protected status” to Haitian nationals living in the United States. Under the circumstances that seems fair. They could remain in the country temporary, obtain work permits, and send money home, without being under the deportation cloud.

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Fear, Loathing, and the Know-Nothings of 2010

Take a guess: What percentage of the nation’s population are immigrants?

In a recent random survey, the average estimate of 1,000 Americans who were asked that question put the immigrant population of the U.S. at 35.2 percent.

One thousand Brits asked the same question estimated the foreign-born population of the United Kingdom was 26.5 percent.

The guesses turned out to be wild exaggerations.  Americans in the poll overstated the immigrant population by a factor of nearly three to one. Foreign-born U.S. residents are about 12.5 percent of the population. In the U.K., the average estimate was almost as wrong. Brits in the survey more than doubled the official government statistics. (The poll was conducted in September 2009 by the German Marshall Fund of the United States).

Why care about wrong guesses about migrants on the part of people with no particular expertise phoned at random? The overblown estimates—combined with other survey results about increasingly hostile attitudes towards immigrants—are troubling. History has shown that anti-immigrant sentiment tends to rise during economic downturns, when fear, fueled by ignorance breeds nativism and a search for scapegoats. It was the “Know-Nothing” American Party of the mid- 19th century which, in reaction to rising immigration, demonized German and Irish Catholics as well as Chinese migrants of the era. (The term “know nothing” was coined to reflect the secret nature of the party: When questioned, members were to respond that they knew nothing about the group. Over the years, “know nothing-ism” came to reflect “the insistence “that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem,” as economist Paul Krugman has put it).

The contemporary “simple, brute-force, instant-gratification” response to immigration views it more as a legal issue than an economic one. A New Year’s eve report by United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., announced that immigration cases in federal courts were at “record levels,” having “jumped 21% to 25,804.” Roberts reported that “[t]he charge of improper reentry by an alien accounted for 80% of all immigration cases,” a reflection of the number of people caught being in the United States after having been previously deported. Similarly, in the U.K, although deportations dropped in 2009 compared to the previous year, British authorities are tossing out of the country 68,000 people annually, double the level in 1997.

With official unemployment statistics in double digits in the United States, and approaching 10 percent in the UK, government officials in both countries are ratcheting up enforcement of laws that seek to protect jobs for legal residents and citizens. In both countries, joblessness among young people has become particularly acute.  The unemployment rate among younger would-be workers below the age of 24 has shot to nearly 20 percent in both the U.S. and the U.K.

Government officials in both the United States and the United Kingdom are responding in similar ways to public concerns about the competition for jobs. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s famous 2007 pledge to “create British jobs for British workers” has been echoed by Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano’s promise of an immigration policy that would “protect American workers.” Both countries are trying to walk a fine line by adopting policies that, on the one hand, respond to the desires of businesses to bring in immigrant workers and, on the other, address the fears of constituents who believe migrants threaten their well-being. With little indication that the global financial mess is abating, for many, immigrants make tempting targets. The resurgent forces of nativism may not yet have organized themselves into a modern “Know Nothing” party, but know-nothing-ism on the part of those who feel as assaulted by foreigners as their 19th century predecessors is on the increase, and becoming louder, frightening, and racist. In migrant communities, the fear of retaliation is growing. As politicians thrash around desperately seeking solutions to the economic morass, they need to resist temptation and avoid playing into the hands of the Know Nothings of 2010.

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