Monthly Archives: March 2010

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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Obama’s Deportations: A Reflection of America’s Fickle Welcome Mat

The Obama administration has set a record for deportations of illegal immigrants, much to the dismay of immigration reform advocates who had hoped the president would reverse the enforcement policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

In fiscal year 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 387,790 people, a 5% increase in “removals” (in the parlance of immigration officials) over the previous year.

President Obama may have made immigrant-friendly promises during the campaign, but viewed in the context of history, the deportations were practically inevitable. Anti-immigrant sentiment and immigration crackdowns have always paralleled America’s economic fortunes. Immigrants have been welcomed during good times, only to find themselves vilified when times get tough.

In the latter part of the 19th century, nearly 250,000 migrants from China — many recruited by U.S. companies — crossed the Pacific Ocean to work in America’s fields and mines and on the railroads. About 15,000 Chinese miners joined the California Gold Rush.

But after the boom went bust and an economic depression took hold, virulent anti-Chinese hatred — motivated by a combination of racism and the fear that Chinese workers were depressing wages — started in the West and rippled through national politics. Mobs attacked Chinese businesses and homes in San Francisco. The California Workingmen’s Party adopted the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” and rallies decrying the “Chinese curse” were held around California.

In an effort to bring a halt to most legal immigration from China, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was the first time that federal law had been used to control and limit migration to the United States by a particular nationality.

During World War I, agribusiness, worried about a labor shortage, prevailed on Herbert Hoover, then head of the U.S. Food Administration, to pressure Washington to open the migration valve and allow in more Mexican farmworkers.

But with the onset of the Depression at the end of the 1920s, Americans showed little tolerance for the migrants it had so recently courted. Hoover, now president, initiated a mass deportation program that continued into the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Immigration agents were ruthless in their raids, chasing down Latinos, ignoring due process and failing to distinguish between legal and nonlegal residents of the United States. Authorities deported as many as 1 million people.

The prosperous 1940s and 1950s gave birth to the Bracero Agreement, a “temporary” worker program to address World War II labor needs that ended up lasting 22 years.

But then an economic downturn at the end of the Korean War brought yet another crackdown. In 1954, President Eisenhower’s immigration chief, retired Gen. Joseph “Jumpin’ Joe” Swing, launched Operation Wetback. Government personnel rounded up migrants in border communities and deported them by bus, truck, train and ship, transporting them to the Mexican interior. By the time the deportations ended a few months after they began, the Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed to have forcibly removed 1.1 million Mexicans.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, migration from Mexico accelerated, pushed by economic conditions south of the border and fueled by relatively higher wages in the United States.

In 1981, as U.S. unemployment climbed, Atty. Gen. William French Smith sounded the alarm: “We have lost control of our borders.” As the country headed into a 16-month-long recession, the Reagan administration unveiled an immigration reform plan to combine increased enforcement with legalization. It took five years for President Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act to become law. During that time, the INS budget (measured in constant dollars) jumped by 28%.

The Reagan reforms did little if anything to stop illegal immigration, which ticked sharply upward in the early 1990s as a rise in the U.S. service economy created a need for low-skilled workers. The combination of continued migration and economic uncertainty made for a volatile political brew. In 1994, anti-immigration activists campaigned for a California ballot initiative designed to eliminate public social services for illegal migrants. Politicians seized on an emotional issue.

“They keep on coming!” an announcer ominously intoned over black-and-white video of Mexicans rushing across the border near San Diego, a campaign commercial for Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson, then running for reelection.

Stepped-up immigration enforcement was hardly a partisan issue. With initiatives such as Operation Blockade in El Paso, followed by Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, President Clinton continued the militarization of the border, a pattern that continued under President Bush. In eight years, Bush more than doubled the staff of the Border Patrol, raising the total from about 9,000 to 20,000 agents, even as he unsuccessfully pushed for comprehensive immigration reform.

In the face of declining congressional prospects for his own reform package, Obama is using executive powers to follow through on his other immigration-related pledge to step up enforcement. In doing so, he is following a long bipartisan tradition: Namely, as goes the economy, so goes immigration policy.

(This article appeared as an Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times).


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A Bipartisan Immigration Plan, Carrots and Sticks

Just days ahead of a planned Sunday rally that immigrants’ rights advocates hope will bring tens of thousands of people to Washington D.C., Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have put out a “blueprint” to overhaul the nation’s immigration system In a Washington Post column, the two legislators outlined a plan that should lower the decibel level of immigrants’ advocates who have voiced their frustration with members of Congress and the President for failing so far to make good on campaign promises to enact immigration reform. President Obama immediately congratulated the senators for producing “a promising, bipartisan framework which can and should be the basis for moving forward.” To the extent that publication of a newspaper op-ed article can signal progress, it offers a glimmer of hope that immigration reform might actually be in the offing, although its timing suggests that the immediate goal was to deflect likely verbal attacks during and after Sunday’s rally.

The two senators have outlined a four-point plan that, while vague on details, attempts to resurrect immigration reform proposals that were put forth but rejected in 2007. Schumer and Graham’s plan has “four pillars: requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement; creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here.”

As was the case in 2007, the blueprint attempts to offer something for all sides—a carrot and stick approach that might appease immigration reform advocates but is unlikely to win over critics, particularly in the current economic climate. Restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA will simply not go along with any “path to legalization,” no matter how “tough and fair” it might be. Ditto for plans to cater to the business community by setting up a system for “future flows” of low- and high-skilled workers. Biometric social security cards are likely to raise the ire of civil liberties advocates, as they have in the past. And, both immigrant rights and business groups have justifiably complained that a worker identification system is on the one hand unreliable, and, on the other could lead to racial discrimination in hiring.

But, even with its compromises and weaknesses, a plan for comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue. It is unconscionable that 11 million or more people live in the shadows—most of them welcomed during economic good times when we needed their labor, but now, with the economic downturn, considered expendable commodities.

The real problem, however, is that as long as the legislative stalemate over comprehensive immigration reform continues, a humane legalization program, such as the one that President Reagan signed in 1986, is impossible. As a result, the default executive policy embraced by the administration is a continuation of President Bush’s stern enforcement strategy. With the growing assault from the right, a focus on immigration enforcement might appear to be a politically pragmatic way of appeasing critics, but it does a disservice to the millions of voters who had a right to expect more from this President and this Congress. It’s encouraging that President Obama is urging Schumer and Graham “to translate their framework into a legislative proposal” and asking “Congress to act at the earliest possible opportunity.” But if he is sincere, he needs to join in spirit with the demonstrators on the Washington Mall on Sunday and put on the pressure.

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Business-Labor Blowout Imperils Immigration Reform

As if the prospects for serious overhaul of the immigration system weren’t dim enough in an economic downturn, organizations representing business and labor—groups that have supported immigration reform—are now publicly fighting each other.

At issue is the contentious matter of “future flow,” the desire by business for legal temporary worker programs. Unions and business interests are at loggerheads over how to regulate the flow of foreign workers. Organized labor has proposed a government commission to set numbers in order to protect American jobs. Organized business prefers a more market-oriented system. Talks aimed resolving differences have broken down, a dispute that has gone public with the release of opposing statements issued by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The groups issued dueling press releases following meetings last Thursday between President Obama and immigration reform advocates.

“A new temporary worker program in today’s economy would be political suicide,” declared AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a strongly-worded broadside aimed at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “American workers are facing a prolonged jobs crisis and nearly 10 percent unemployment, with no sign of recovery in sight. If immigration reform is to have any chance of passing this year, the Chamber of Commerce is going to have to abandon its insistence on the creation of a new temporary worker program and embrace a solution based on real employment needs,” said Trumka on Friday.

On Saturday, the Chamber’s Randel K. Johnson struck back. “The AFL-CIO tells the Chamber to ‘abandon its insistence’ on a new temporary worker program when they know that this is a pivotal area that must be discussed and negotiated. By taking this position, the AFL-CIO ends any realistic chance of legislation this year,” said Johnson in his statement. “The new program must also give the U.S. labor market, not a commission, the primary say in how many workers enter the country annually through workable legal programs.”

The White House meetings and the public disputes come just ahead of a planned rally for Sunday, March 21 on the national mall in Washington, D.C. Organizers hope that their “March for America” will bring pressure to bear on wavering politicians and will remind them of pledges to reform the immigration system. A chief focus of the Washington demonstration, according to planners, will be a system of legalization that seeks to end deportations and prevent families from being torn apart. For much of the American public, the battle over “amnesty” proposals represent the most controversial aspects of immigration reform. But for business, keeping the immigration valve open so as to allow a supply of foreign labor flowing in has always been a key requirement for immigration policy.

“From the business perspective the most important element of immigration reform is a program to supply the U.S. economy with the workers it needs to recover from the downturn and grow in years ahead, replacing the current unlawful influx with a legal flow,” said the Chamber of Commerce’s Johnson.

Keeping workers mobile and available to stoke the fires of industry has been a perennial requirement of organized business. After all, imported slaves and indentured servants helped build the United States. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce proposes a pernicious return to bondage; I’m just pointing out the self-interest of business groups which promote immigration reform. A more pertinent analogy might compare modern day immigration advocates from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to factory owners during the times of the Industrial Revolution in Germany. Nineteenth century urban industrialists actively campaigned to have serfs freed from agrarian estates so they would be able move to cities. That way, peasants would be available for industrial labor and not tied to farms.

Organized labor’s advocacy on behalf of immigrant workers in the U.S. and its qualified support for temporary worker programs represents a sea change, made haltingly over the past decade. Taken at face value, the AFL-CIO’s support of a plan that, as Trumka puts it, “ties the number of new foreign workers coming into the US labor market to established labor shortages” would have old-time labor leaders turning over in their union-dug graves. The AFL-CIO’s goal of first protecting U.S. workers while seeking protections for migrants is a logical step for a labor movement that has only gradually and recently come to terms with the reality of migrant workers. But it is no surprise that its position on “future flow” puts it at odds with business interests.

Although any immigration reform legislation will have a hard slog this year, to the extent that a bill will have any viability may be determined by the capacity of labor and business to work out their differences. Immigration reform is going nowhere without Republican support in the Senate, and the chief GOP advocate on the issue is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). After meeting with President Obama, Graham who with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) is hashing out the details of the bill, made clear where he stands on the issue of temporary workers. “I … encouraged the Administration to become engaged with the unions on the creation of a temporary worker program which meets the needs of business community,” said Graham.

Forcing concessions from labor is only one part of Graham’s strategy around immigration reform. Another arrow in his quiver is the seemingly unconnected issue of health care. “I expressed [to President Obama], in no uncertain terms, my belief that immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if health care reconciliation goes forward,” said Graham. “For more than a year, health care has sucked most of the energy out of the room. Using reconciliation to push health care through will make it much harder for Congress to come together on a topic as important as immigration.”

Will Republicans really tie an immigration bill to an up or down vote on health care? Will labor withhold support for immigration reform if business prevails on a temporary worker program? Might opponents of immigration reform watch its prospects implode without lifting a finger? Stay tuned.

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