Lockdown America

Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting it Right

On April 7, a political agreement between Senate Republicans and Democrats on immigration reform unraveled, and the Congress adjourned without passing a bill. A really nasty House bill and seminasty Senate bill died natural deaths for lack of consensus on the appropriate degree of meanness to direct at America’s “illegal immigrants.”

As Michele Wucker points out in Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right, this is an important issue that cannot go much longer without being addressed seriously. Nonetheless, for many years now, there has been no solution because, in the words of our whiny and incompetent President, “It’s haaaard.”

It is hard, and the title of Wucker’s book reveals where the core problem lies: “Getting it right.” Getting immigration right is not easy because there is no “right” for everyone involved. The right take on immigration for a cleaning service contractor, a construction boss, major shareholders at Microsoft, or large landowners in South Texas is not the same as the right take for the Service Employees International Union or the United Farm Workers, for example. And the likelihood of the U.S. Congress getting it right for, say, a 25-year-old father of three from Guatemala, with nothing but his desperation and determination, is almost non-existent. Similarly, “Our Prosperity” in Michele Wucker’s title is a myth. Prosperity is more and more the province of the very wealthy few. Many of the rest of us are left with our insecurity and our looming layoffs, together with our maxed-out credit cards and our worthless tech stocks.

The recent push to reform immigration policy, however, is a response to the consensus that the U.S. system has got it wrong for everybody. Believe it or not, in many parts of the country these days there are no longer enough illegal immigrants to go around. Washington state apple farmers are wringing their hands in a panic as they contemplate fruit rotting on trees this coming June without cheap imported labor to pick it. Shortages of health-care workers affect hospitals and clinics. And manufacturers are projecting a shortage of skilled labor as older workers retire and younger workers avoid manufacturing for fear of being offshored. Immigrants themselves, whether they are illegal or in the United States on guest-worker or student visas, have been trapped for years in red tape and the threat of deportation. And unions argue that illegal immigration and guest-worker programs lead to super-exploitation and lower wages for U.S. workers. While everyone admits that the current system is a shambles, there is little agreement about what to do next.

Landowners, corporate chiefs, and contracting middlemen want a guest-worker program that ties employees to their jobs and makes them dependent on employers not just for work, but for residency. Unions oppose these programs because they create a second-tier work force with fewer rights than native workers. Tier two then competes with tier one.

To address the potential divisiveness of the immigration issue—and many others—we working Americans have been fed on the propaganda of “American exceptionalism” since before we could think. America the Beautiful, the Bountiful. This is the greatest country on Earth, and we are the Chosen. That is why everyone wants to come to America—so all we need to do is “Get It Right”—get the right number of foreign supplicants with the right skills in the right place. Right?

This is the pro-America, pro-immigration argument, and Lockout articulates it faithfully. The book argues that many new arrivals come to America, primarily, to enjoy the benefits of liberty and justice. Wucker maintains that America benefits from this aspiration. New immigrants become the raw material of what Gunnar Myrdal called the American Creed: “These ideals of the essential dignity of the individual human being, of the fundamental equality of all men, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom, justice and a fair opportunity…”

Lockout elaborates on this idea: “To the scores of millions of immigrants who have been drawn to our shores, America’s most powerful shared cultural symbol is civic, not ethnic: The idea of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, especially when it comes to economic prosperity.”

In other words, we are a great country, made great by immigrants. People all over the world envy us and want to be us, which is why they come. And we should be happy to have them. Why not? Weren’t we all once immigrants, too?

Uh, psst, Michele. Have you taken a look at these new immigrants? When you do, you will notice that… how shall we put this? They are not (by our definition) White. Despite the freedom and justice creed that we (real) Americans like to tell the world about, we have always had a problem with people who were not white. In fact, whiteness is a telling variable in the immigration debate. Long ago, when the immigrants were white, and they arrived in a place that belonged to not-white people, immigrants became the “Americans” who Got It Right by appropriating the continent.

After massacring nearly everyone, though, America—now on its way to individual prosperity and collective greatness—had a problem: a labor shortage. Solution: slavery (and to a much lesser extent indenture), our nastiest form of immigration. The contribution that Southern slavery, on cotton plantations in particular, made to America’s impending greatness has never been reckoned. It’s probably safe to say, though, that 300 years of (virtually) free agricultural labor gave American prosperity quite a boost. These economic roots, however, left America with an ugly cultural, civic, and ethnic heritage: racism. Curiously, America-the-Greatest plays right into this.

If we are the greatest, then other people are not so great, which is precisely why we don’t like them much and are entitled to treat them badly when they show up. This is the world view of the hardcore Nativist. It all fits together. If, as Lockout repeatedly insists, America is the best, the most prosperous, moral, and free, then doesn’t it make sense for Americans not to want other people—not American—to come here? If lots of not-Americans move in among us, won’t we also become, somehow, not-American too? And therefore not so great, prosperous, free and perfect anymore? If America is completely terrific, why do we want other people with their weird languages and smelly food coming to our Homeland?

We don’t, and we are widely known around the world for not being especially hospitable. So despite the flattering things our mythmakers tell us, it is just possible that in both the civic and the ethnic departments, as well as in the area of cultural symbols, America is actually not so great. We Americans are the last to realize this, despite the fact that people in other countries talk about it quite openly. Hey, we protest, if we in America were not so fantastic, then why would everyone want to live in our country?

Tough one, unless we consider the unthinkable possibility that maybe they don’t. Maybe they come because life in the United States for an illegal immigrant is slightly less miserable than life back home. People come here not because they want to, but because they have to. During the immigration marches of the past month, an interesting and telling mutation occurred. In Washington, D.C., Capital of the Free World, when the first marches began, the flags of Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, Malaysia, India, and Thailand, among others, appeared in the streets. By the second week of upheaval, however, when the national marches occurred, these flags had disappeared. Marchers got the word (“Lose those flags”) and replaced their own national flags with ours. Although the Stars and Stripes was not their first choice in flags, they waved it for the cameras. From this demonstration of national loyalty, though, we might infer that the United States is not necessarily everyone’s first choice in countries, either.

Sociologists who study immigration say the process is a dynamic of push and pull. Because the United States is a receiving country, Americans tend to focus on the pull, i.e., ourselves. We don’t look very hard at the push, which frequently is also (surprise) us. Or more specifically, our increasingly exclusive ruling class, best and most abhorrently personified by our current president and his veep.

But the push was always there. Way back when, people didn’t come to America because it was terrific. They came because they needed to leave a punitive and crowded Old World. America was meteorologically like Europe—only better because it was relatively empty. Except, of course, for the not-white people already here who, fortunately, did not have gunpowder or cannonballs and could be fairly reliably eliminated.

Once we admit that immigration is more about jobs than about “core American values” such as freedom and justice, then we might also recognize that workers come to the U.S. for higher wages, not higher moral ground. As Wucker points out, U.S. immigration has a long history of reluctance behind it—on the part of the immigrants themselves. Lockout documents the frequency with which immigrants returned to their countries, their homesickness, their re-creation of their cultures in the New World: “From 1901 to 1920, 36 out of every 100 immigrants to America went back to their home countries for good.”

The immigration dynamic, then, is not all about the wretched of the Earth seeking freedom, individualism, and happiness in the promised land. It is more about the wretched of the earth seeking some form of wage labor, however degraded, after their livelihoods disappear at home. And because of this, immigration has always been a divisive issue. Employers profit from illegal immigrants or guest workers. Labor suffers, and immigrant labor suffers even more.

Lockout reunifies America by focusing on Americans as employers and consumers rather than as workers. In discussing a possible curtailment of immigration, Wucker says, “Consumers would suffer as well because of a combination of higher prices and a smaller variety of goods available.” The America-is-terrific argument is bolstered by the fact that you can get a lot of really cheap stuff here. And you are going to need cheap stuff because your job has been outsourced to a non-union contractor or, worse, offshored to an underdeveloped export platform on the Indian subcontinent that your new neighbors, whom you distrust, fear and loathe, recently fled.

In Lockout, however, the corporate-driven globalization behind the new waves of immigration is a “win-win.” Brainy people from other countries come to our superior institutions of higher learning on student visas, work in the United States on what are essentially guest-worker visas, and then go home to start companies and spread the wealth and knowledge. Low-wage workers come here and send remittances to families back home, allowing their wives to buy houses and chickens or start promising new hairdressing businesses.

Lockout book cover

That is just super. America really is the greatest, isn’t it? And we bought this line for many years; many of us got behind every retrograde foreign policy each succeeding administration could think up, from anti-communism to Vietnam, globalization, and free trade. Guess what? Each presumptive, arrogant foreign-policy adventure produced another wave of desperate immigrants fleeing a hideous “push.” The bombs we bought and dropped in El Salvador exploded in Houston and Los Angeles.

The North American Free Trade Agreement allowed subsidized produce from Del Monte and Dekalb to ruin subsistence farmers in Mexico. Now the same program has been extended to Central America and the Dominican Republic. The current administration wants it to reach from Alaska to Argentina. When that happens, make room for a fresh flood of Argentines.

It seems like the myth isn’t working so well anymore, though. Americans disapprove of the Iraq war. Ten years ago the U.S. labor movement mobilized against “free trade” pacts; despite the fat-cat complacency that prevails in Congress, the last agreement was nearly defeated. Americans seem to realize that we need to treat immigrants fairly, especially if they were desperate enough to come here without the appropriate stamps and seals. Maybe eventually we’ll connect the dots and realize something else: We need to stop starving out and blowing up the rest of the world so that other people can stay alive—even if they stay at home.

Beatrice Edwards, a writer who lives in Washington, D.C., is a very close friend of Gabriela Bocagrande, who was recently deported. 

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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