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From Scapegoating to Solidarity: 2016 Is the Year to Turn the Immigration Debate Around

GOP candidates are campaigning against a nonexistent influx of undocumented immigrants. Now, if only more US voters knew.

Part of the Series

There are two surprising facts that most mainstream US media outlets have studiously ignored in their coverage of immigration and the 2016 presidential campaign:

First, the Republican candidates are promising to end a wave of unauthorized immigration that actually ended eight years ago.

And second, the same working-class white people who cheer billionaire candidate Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rants would themselves benefit from legalizing the immigration status of the approximately 11 million people who currently lack legal papers.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

We’d be well on our way to ending the current anti-immigrant frenzy if only we could get these two facts across to a majority of the US population – and this might be the year to do it. After all, 2016 is turning out to be one of those transformative times when people are receptive to new ideas. If millions of US citizens are suddenly willing to vote for a self-proclaimed socialist, they may well be ready to listen to reason on immigration.

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination can in fact help open up the discussion on immigration. The candidate’s statements on the issue have been inconsistent and sometimes questionable in the past, but now he’s raising several of the crucial points missing from the establishment discourse through the immigration plan his campaign released in November and through the forthright statements he’s made on the scapegoating of immigrants.

The Undocumented Population Is Not Surging — It’s Dwindling

So are the Republicans really campaigning against a nonexistent influx of undocumented immigrants?

It’s true that the country’s undocumented population increased dramatically from the 1970s to the early 2000s, reaching a peak of about 12.2 million in 2007, but the increase stopped just as dramatically during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. By 2014, the number of out-of-status immigrants had fallen to 11.3 million by one estimate, and to 10.9 million by another. Trump whips up crowds with a pledge to build a wall on the border with Mexico; in reality, unauthorized entry at the border is probably at its lowest level in more than 40 years.

Public discussion of immigration generally avoids any mention of the “push factors.”

For demographic reasons, it’s unlikely that there will be a major resumption of unauthorized migration in the future, but if the US government wants to prevent such a resumption, it would need to change its approach to foreign policy. Public discussion of immigration generally avoids any mention of the “push factors” behind the recent wave of undocumented immigration. In reality, the push largely resulted from US government support for repressive regimes in the region, for catastrophic wars in Central America in the 1980s, for the failed war on drugs and above all for “free trade” policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

These policies never had much support from the US public. The trade pacts are especially unpopular, but mainstream commentators rarely bring up their role in driving immigration.

The Sanders’ immigration plan — which apparently was crowd-sourced among immigration activists and legal organizations — gives us a chance to bring the issue to a broader public. “The ill-conceived NAFTA devastated local economies and pushed millions to migrate,” the plan explains; we need to “rewrite our trade policies to end the race to the bottom and work to lift the living standard of Americans and workers throughout the world…. Those who wish to remain in their home country should be able to earn livable wages and not migrate for economic survival.”

Ending the “Race to the Bottom”

But how would US-born workers benefit from another program like the 1986 “amnesty” that enabled 2.9 million people to gain legal status? A massive legalization is the right thing to do, and it would clearly be good for undocumented migrants themselves and for their citizen relatives, friends and neighbors – but what about the rest of us?

To understand the benefits of a new legalization program, we have to remember that at present, most working people from our hemisphere only have two ways to get jobs in the United States: Either they enter the country through a temporary “guest worker” program, or else they come here and work without authorization.

Undocumented workers have shown a remarkable ability to organize, even under present conditions.

Employers have so much power over their workers in the guest worker programs that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes the system as “close to slavery.” The situation isn’t much better for the country’s 8 million out-of-status workers. They are subjected to an array of laws and enforcement mechanisms such as workplace raids, E-Verify and checks on Social Security numbers (“I-9 audits”) — measures that are supposed to deter unauthorized immigration. What they actually deter is organizing for better pay and decent working conditions. It’s hard to stand up for things like higher wages and workplace safety when the boss can threaten to have you detained and deported.

Whether they come here as guest workers or as unauthorized workers, low-paid immigrants are inevitably forced into competition with US-born workers. As always in this type of “race to the bottom,” only the employers win. Take away the enforcement measures and the wages of the lowest-paid immigrants will rise, pushing up wages for US citizens and legal residents as well.

Economists are split on how much undocumented workers’ wages would go up after a decree of amnesty, but they agree that the gain would be substantial. The Center for American Progress estimated in 2014 that a limited deferral of deportation for undocumented people — such as President Obama’s Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) for out-of-status parents of US citizens — would raise pay by about 8.5 percent for those who qualify. Estimates for the effects of a full-scale legalization go as high as 25 percent. In 2009, UCLA professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda actually proposed legalization as a stimulus measure to pull the economy out of the Great Recession that followed the 2008 financial meltdown.

Just as they avoid mentioning the root causes of immigration, the pundits are generally silent on the exploitation of immigrant workers and the wage benefits of legalization. Unfortunately, the Sanders plan doesn’t address the wage issue, but it does highlight labor exploitation, emphasizing the way “the terror of workplace raids” and “the ‘silent raids’ of I-9 audits” create a situation where “workers usually lose out in the end.” The plan also insists that the system “must be fundamentally reformed to prevent employers from abusing and exploiting guest workers” and to “substantially increase prevailing wages” for these workers.

Scapegoating or Solidarity?

The direct wage impact of a new amnesty would be important, but probably less important than the stimulus that legalization would provide to labor organizing.

Undocumented workers have shown a remarkable ability to organize, even under present conditions. To give just one example, the national Fight for $15 campaign started with organizing among low-wage workers in New York City, according to The American Prospect. These workers are largely undocumented, and many of them are from Latin American and Caribbean countries with a long history of labor militancy. How much more organizing could they do if they weren’t constantly looking over their shoulders for immigration agents? Wouldn’t US-born workers rather have people like this as willing allies rather than as involuntary competitors?

There’s a real opportunity now for getting masses of working people to move beyond scapegoating to solidarity.

The super-rich understand this organizing potential, so they do everything in their power to set US-born workers against their immigrant coworkers, the same way that the Southern aristocracy encouraged racism under Jim Crow to keep poor white people from uniting with African Americans, as Martin Luther King Jr. noted in 1965. Far from admitting their own role in US wage stagnation, the billionaires pretend undocumented immigrants themselves are responsible for being forced into competition with US-born workers.

Donald Trump exemplifies this cynical “blame the victim” strategy. He brings in guest workers to staff his resorts and other businesses, has his hotels built by undocumented immigrants through subcontractors — and then stirs up racist hysteria against Mexicans and others for “taking our jobs.” Trump needs to whip up racist fears of an “alien invasion” to get his supporters worked up; no wonder he won’t admit that the undocumented population is actually declining.

This is an issue on which the Sanders campaign has been especially helpful, with the candidate speaking out repeatedly against scapegoating. The goal of Trump-style demagogy, Sanders said in a December 9, 2015, interview on MSNBC, is “to obfuscate the real problems facing our society and find somebody you can blame, and rally the American people: ‘That’s what it is, it’s the immigrants, or the Muslims.'”

Gauging the National Mood

But Sanders raised a crucial question about Trump’s supporters during the MSNBC interview: “How do we get those people to begin standing up for their own interests?” Can we really overcome white US workers’ deeply ingrained prejudices against immigrants?

The mainstream media have largely ignored Sanders’ strongest positions on immigration, or have dismissed them as simple electioneering among Latino voters. And at best, political campaigns can only accomplish so much. It’s a help to have people “feeling the Bern,” but turning the immigration debate around will take hard work by activists ready to confront xenophobic hysteria in their communities and workplaces with facts, figures and common sense.

Still, there’s a real opportunity now for getting masses of working people to move beyond scapegoating to solidarity. Back in December, New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore claimed that Sanders’ remarks about blaming immigrants and Muslims showed “condescension” to white working-class voters. The candidate had fallen into an “ancient lefty habit,” the columnist warned, “of claiming the non-economic concerns of economically stressed people represent a ‘false consciousness’ actively promoted by the economic ruling class.”

As it turns out, white working-class voters are now among Sanders’ strongest supporters against Wall Street favorite Hillary Clinton. Kilgore’s criticisms reveal less about “ancient lefty habits” than about the mainstream media’s disconnect from this year’s national mood.