ImmigrationThe debate continues

A growing critique of modern America is that nobody debates issues anymore. The most popular television pundits are so extreme in their views that many people tune in purely for the entertainment value, or to hear somebody whom they know they’ll agree with. The media is drooling over 2008 presidential candidates two years before the election, but I still don’t know what most of them stand for. While it’s very widespread, nowhere is this simplification of complex issues more apparent than in the controversy over immigration policy, where honest debate quickly degenerates into partisan rhetoric. Illegal immigration is very widespread in this country, and has turned into perhaps the hottest domestic issue. Many Americans claim that undocumented workers steal jobs, depress wages and benefit from taxpayer money without paying taxes themselves. It should be noted that the American unemployment rate remains a low 4.5 percent and average weekly earnings have increased by 2.6 percent in the last year, statistics that certainly don’t agree with such accusations. Many are also accused of living on welfare rather than even working. However, 96 percent of undocumented males are in the work force. Unfortunately, these numbers are not widely discussed, as many are content to make quick judgements regarding the legitimacy of illegals, often based on their own personal biases. In a guest column published Jan. 2 in The Des Moines Register, Robert Ussery referred to illegal immigrants as “mules” and “coyotes,” while using the phrase “illegal invaders” five separate times. Not surprisingly, the column suggested no workable ways to address the issue, and didn’t even give a clear picture of what he though the problem was. It only made the point that he doesn’t want immigrants in the country. Harvard professor Samuel Huntington went further, claiming that Mexicans “reject the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American Dream.” This comment is blatantly racist: the American Dream is associated with the hope for a better life—the reason that most immigrants come in the first place. Second grade history lessons spring to mind about the courage of the pilgrims. But I suppose they’re different, because they had Anglo-Protestant values. The way that these workers are talked about scratches the surface of a much bigger human issue: is there such a thing as an illegal person? The question can get caught up in a lot of technicalities, but one thing is clear: the label of “illegal” dehumanizes and bridges the gap between objective discussion and hateful comments. The least we can do as fellow human beings is respect their right to exist first, before evalutating their place in the U.S economy. Fortunately, our friends in Congress see through this name-calling. They’re searching for real ways to enrich the economy while remembering the rights that immigrants deserve….right? Well, they agreed to build 700 miles of fence along the border last year. Beyond that, there was just a lot of arguing over a proposed bill. The fence, however, is very revealing—it’s an attempt to give the illusion of progress. The border is nearly 2,000 miles long, there are not nearly enough bodies to patrol it, and the past has given no indication that a fence is effective at preventing border-crossings at all. In fact, only 40% of undocumented immigrants cross illegally. Many simply overstay their visas. While the fence will not solve anything, now politicians have the luxury of pointing out that they were “tough on immigration.” The recent Swift Co. raids in Marshalltown and other cities nationwide were another deceptive attempt to appease opponents of immigration. To date, 148 former employees of Swift meatpacking plants have been indicted for identity theft and related crimes nationwide. This is about .00001% of the estimated 13 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Well, only 99.99999% to go. Sadly, while the raids did nothing to help the economic troubles caused by such widespread cheap labor, they did tear numerous families apart (some were sent to cities as far away as St. Paul and Omaha without any formal charges being filed). So, where do we start if progress is to be made? Well, the first step is to clearly identifying the problem before laying blame on anyone. The problem is not that too many Latin Americans are coming into the United States, but that the current U.S economy has a huge demand for inexpensive, low-skilled jobs. That many of these jobs are taken by undocumented workers is a separate issue, involving the economies of their own countries, as well as the popular romantic portrayal of America as a land where everybody holds hands and makes lots of money. The most important thing that the United States can do right now is create an economic environment that doesn’t encourage a gigantic number of underpaid workers. If the demand is reduced, the supply will be reduced as well. This, of course, is easier said than done. But it’s the most important practical reform we can make without interfering with the sovereignty of other countries. A good place to start would be to put a cap on CEO salaries. The proposed minimum wage increase is also promising. Of course, just as urgent is a fundamental change in how we view immigrants: not as invaders, but as people whose lives have been affected by the demands of the world economy.