Thursday, March 30, 2006

Wage war on poverty, not immigrants

Wage war on poverty, not immigrants
March 28, 2006

"Si se puede!" Yes we can. They marched by the hundreds of thousands in Los Angeles, by the tens of thousands in Milwaukee, in Phoenix, in New York. Across the country, Hispanics dramatically entered what has been an increasingly ugly debate about immigration in this country.

Rep. Tom Tancredo is gaining national attention railing against undocumented immigrants. He wants them turned into felons, a wall built along our border to keep them out, police dispatched to send them home. He does not bother to tell us how he plans to transport 11 million estimated undocumented workers out of the country. Nor what will happen to the millions of their children who were born here and are American citizens.

Senate leader Bill Frist is doing his own Tancredo. Efforts by Senators Kennedy and McCain to fashion a compromise look likely to fail in the face of the furies. President Bush has offered an employers bill -- why does this not surprise? He'd increase enforcement at the border, but create a guest worker program so that employers could ship low wage immigrants in, so long as they promise to boot them out when they've finished exploiting them.

When employers brought slaves to America, few objected as long as they were prepared to work without wages and without rights. When they began to demand equal rights, all hell broke loose. No one minded when Mexican farm workers came to pick the crops, do the lawns, clean the houses. When they started to demand the right to citizenship, to vote, to organize -- the furor started.

American workers are sensibly worried that the flood of immigrant labor will bring lower wages as part of the global race to the bottom. But their complaint is with employers who prefer undocumented workers whom they can exploit without complaint, and with federal and state authorities who turn a blind eye to that exploitation.

There is no way anyone is going to locate, arrest, detain and ship millions of undocumented workers out of America. Our choice is whether we want to maintain permanently a large underclass of undocumented workers that can be easily exploited by cynical employers, and slurred by callous politicians -- or whether we want to fulfill America's promise by providing them with a road to citizenship, benefitting from their willingness to work, pay taxes and contribute.

How do we stop our country from being overrun by impoverished immigrants if we offer them pathways to citizenship? There is only one way -- and it is not mentioned in this debate. We passed a treaty called NAFTA with Mexico and Canada that guaranteed rights to employers and investors but not to workers. The results have been catastrophic. Wages in Mexico, the United States and Canada have fallen. Mexico now exports more cars to the United States than the United States exports to the world -- all made by U.S. companies benefitting from cheap labor in Mexico. And U.S. food exports have displaced millions of poor Mexican peasants and driven them from their communities. They don't come to the United States because they want to leave their homes. They come desperate for work.

The only way to stop the flood of immigrants is to help lift their standards up, rather than drive ours down. When Europe created one trading union including impoverished Spain and Portugal, the high wage countries of the north spent billions on development in the poorer countries, while demanding that they adhere to labor rights, environmental protections and basic social protections. While those countries still are not as wealthy as those in the north, their people were given hope and opportunity -- and would much prefer to stay home.

We can spend billions trying to lock immigrants out and hold those that come in down. Or we can devote energy and resources now wasted on a civil war in Iraq to help lift our neighbors up, gain real trading partners and significantly reduce the misery that drives people from their homes.

Potential presidential candidates like Frist, Tancredo and even supposedly straight-talking John McCain won't say anything like this. But that's the truth. And in the end, it is the truth, and only the truth, that will set you free.

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