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It’s Time for Bernie Sanders to Step Up on Immigration

Bernie Sanders is missing an opportunity to engage in real dialogue about immigration, workers and open borders.

Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a rally at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon, August 9, 2015. (Photo: Benjamin Kerensa)

As the presidential primary races heat up, Donald Trump has gotten a lot of attention for spouting racist diatribes against Mexicans and proposing to deport all undocumented immigrants.

On the other end of the spectrum, Democratic contender Bernie Sanders has a record of supporting rational immigration policies. He backs legalization for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living here now. He supports efforts to make sure immigrant workers have the right to organize and to earn a decent wage. He opposes guest-worker programs, which bring foreigners here to work for low pay with limited labor rights and then boot them out of the country when the job’s done – or whenever they try to organize or speak out about abuses.

Yet in an interview with the news website Vox, Sanders dismissed “open borders” as “a Koch brothers proposal,” referring to the notoriously right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch. The candidate didn’t provide any evidence for the claim, which also appears in a May 2013 article on the racist and anti-Semitic VDARE website.

Do the Koch Brothers Support Open Borders?

Actually, the Koch brothers promote the opposite of “open borders”: They’re major supporters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which created the model for state-level anti-immigrant legislation like Arizona’s SB 1070. The Kochs do support a limited amnesty for undocumented people, but only as part of a “comprehensive immigration reform” package that includes expansion of the highly exploitative H-2 visa guest-worker program. The Kochs’ main interest is in these programs, as we can see in statements by their Latino-oriented group Libre Initiative. (Trump, too, loves these programs.)

The H-2 visa programs allow a limited number of foreign workers to come to the United States for temporary seasonal jobs, mostly in agriculture, landscaping and forestry. These “guest workers” are sponsored by specific employers, and they lose their visa status if they leave their jobs or get fired. An extensive report by the Southern Poverty Law Center called the system “inherently abusive and unfair” and “close to slavery.”

Why do people put up with these conditions? Is it because their only alternative is to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to get across a heavily patrolled border where more than 6,000 people have lost their lives in the last 20 years?

If immigration is a problem, it’s because US policies have made it one.

The 1942-1964 “bracero” program brought in tens of thousands of Mexicans each year to labor legally on US farms, but workers kept leaving the program when they realized they could get a better deal by crossing the then-porous southwestern border on their own and working without documents. In 1954, the US government carried out the mass roundups and deportations known as “Operation Wetback” to force Mexicans back into the bracero program.

Guest-worker programs go hand in hand with tough border enforcement. The flow of migrants into the United States is determined by a combination of employment opportunities and conditions in their home countries – not by enforcement measures. The role of enforcement is to “squeeze the balloon,” forcing migrants through one door or another into an exploitative system.

Expanding guest-worker programs while tightening up the border might reduce the number of people entering the country without permission – but not by much. And it would maintain the current system in which migrant workers are kept vulnerable. That vulnerability pushes down everyone’s wages in a “race to the bottom,” and people like the Koch brothers laugh all the way to the bank. This is the polar opposite of “open borders.”

Do Open Borders Really Encourage Immigration?

What does an open borders policy actually look like? According to Sanders, an open border policy would “bring in all kinds of people [who would] work for $2 or $3 an hour.”

In fact, the southwestern border was pretty much wide open for most of its existence, while legal immigration from Latin America was basically unrestricted. (However, measures like entry taxes and literacy tests were used to control the flow of Mexican migrants, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, federal and local government officials carried out what immigration historian Mae Ngai has described as “a racial removal program,” deporting or otherwise forcing out as many as 2 million Mexicans and US-born citizens of Mexican descent.)

Legal limits on the number of Latin Americans who could settle in the United States didn’t start until 1965; serious efforts to control the border began only in the mid-1980s and really picked up in the 1990s. At the same time, migration from the region increased when people’s livelihoods were devastated by “free trade” and “open market” policies, and their efforts to resist were crushed by US-sponsored repression. If we want to know some of the reasons for increased immigration, we just need to look at Ronald Reagan’s bloody wars in Central America, and Bill Clinton’s enabling of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

So people continued to migrate – and had even more reasons to migrate – but one door slammed shut. So they came through another, and suddenly their movement became “illegal.”

That’s why “illegal” migration from Latin America swelled during the 1990s and the early 2000s – at the same time that the United States was spending billions to “secure the border.” (Some experts believe restrictive border policies further increased the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico living in the United States by making it harder for them to travel back and forth across the border to work, leading many to settle here instead and to send for their families.)

Immigrants Are Not to Blame for Unemployment and Poverty

“You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today?” Sanders asked Vox, implying that immigrants are taking jobs from young Americans. Of course immigrants “take” jobs, but they also create jobs by buying goods and services. The real causes of unemployment are the sort of structural economic problems that led to the global financial crisis in 2008, and political decisions like the “free trade” policies that facilitated the loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2014.

Blaming job loss on people who are seen as “different” is just a way of deflecting criticism from the structures and the policies that are really at fault. That ethnic cleansing operation against people of Mexican origin during the 1930s was supposedly to keep them from “taking American jobs.” Yet no one now suggests that the forced repatriation of over 1 million Mexicans did anything to help Americans during the Depression.

Sanders is clearly aware that most undocumented workers are underpaid, and that this puts downward pressure on wages for other workers. But why do undocumented immigrants work for less?

If we want everyone to stop “sneaking in the back door,” then opening up the front door is a great start.

For some, difficulty communicating in English, or a lack of formal education, may play a role. But for most people without papers, the main reason is their lack of legal status. Thanks to decades of ever-harsher anti-immigrant legislation and enforcement, employers can use the threat of detention and deportation to withhold wages from undocumented workers and squelch their organizing efforts. (Not all employers do this, but employers who want to pay fair wages to their workers can’t compete with those who don’t.) Even when employers don’t deliberately exploit the undocumented status of their employees, the fear of deportation serves to discourage workers from asserting their rights.

It’s hard to get an exact number for how much less undocumented workers are paid than other workers with the same skill level, but academic studies suggest the “wage penalty” ranges from 6 percent to over 20 percent.

Anti-immigrant laws are part of a major shift as the US economy relies increasingly on low-paid, vulnerable workers: 8 million undocumented immigrants; nearly 8 million single mothers thrown out of the welfare system by the 1996 “welfare reform” law; millions of workers in offshore sweatshops; and prisoners – including immigration detainees – working for as little as a $1 a day to enrich private prison companies.

It’s not immigration that’s making us poorer; the real culprit is a political class that hypocritically claims it’s protecting our jobs while in fact it’s enacting laws that do the exact opposite. Sanders gets this, but he fails to understand the role that restrictive immigration policies play in perpetuating this system.

Does Immigration Have to Be a Problem?

If immigration is a problem, it’s because US policies have made it one. For someone like Bernie Sanders, there should be no difficulty finding a solution.

We could start by reversing the US foreign policies that drive immigration: the support for repressive regimes, the interventions to defeat progressive movements and governments, and the insistence on neoliberal economic restructuring. Most people don’t want to leave their families and communities; they’re driven to do it. We need to respect what binational Mexican activists call “the right to stay home,” powerfully described by veteran journalist David Bacon in his 2013 book of the same name.

We could end the discriminatory ways in which visitor visas are routinely denied to people of certain nationalities (especially those from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and large parts of Asia), while people from wealthy, predominantly white countries can come here without even needing to apply for a visa. If we want everyone to stop “sneaking in the back door,” then opening up the front door is a great start.

When immigrants do come here, we can help them – and ourselves – by making sure they have full rights in the workplace and in society at large, including the right to a decent wage, the right to safety on the job, the right to be free from discrimination and harassment, and, above all, the right to organize. Currently, we waste $18 billion each year on anti-immigrant enforcement measures that help push wages down for everyone; why not redirect most of that to the underfunded agencies that enforce wage and hour laws and protect workers’ rights?

And if we’re really concerned about youth unemployment, we can institute a jobs program for the long-overdue repair of our infrastructure and for the greening of our economy.

These proposals largely echo the policies Bernie Sanders has supported throughout his political career. As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he opposed the US-backed wars in Central America during the 1980s; as a representative and senator in the 1990s and 2000s, he opposed “free trade” policies and guest-worker programs, and favored granting legal status to the undocumented. Now as a candidate he has repeatedly called for a jobs program.

What’s It Going to Take, Bernie?

What passes for an “immigration debate” in the political establishment is a dispute between those who want to keep labor costs down by forcing immigrants into a vulnerable “illegal” status, and those who want to achieve the same end through guest-worker programs. Neither option is good for workers – immigrant or otherwise.

Bernie Sanders is in an excellent position to break through this false choice and present an honest analysis of immigration. Yet so far he hasn’t stepped up, and his campaign’s press group has failed to answer three emails asking for clarification of his position.

Why hasn’t he done the right thing? Is it because no one is pushing him? In contrast to the challenge Sanders has faced from Black Lives Matter organizers demanding that he address racial justice issues, immigrant rights activists seem to be ignoring his campaign. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has worked harder to project a pro-immigrant image, adding a prominent “dreamer” activist to her campaign staff, and making passionate statements against immigration detention. (Activists would be wise to be suspicious of her sincerity, however. In June 2014, Clinton called for sending back the thousands of Central American children fleeing to the United States, and she continues to defend that position. Many were from Honduras, where corruption and criminal violence had surged since a military coup five years earlier. Clinton, then US secretary of state, did little or nothing to oppose the assault on Honduran democracy, and one of the main advisers to her current campaign, Lanny Davis, was a paid lobbyist for the business interests that backed the coup.)

Sanders is missing an opportunity to speak up about the way immigration enforcement hurts all workers, and to point out the hypocrisy of US government policies that force people to migrate, and then attack them for migrating. This would gain him support among voters – including many Latinos – who favor a fair, humane and pro-worker approach to the issue. It would also help educate those among his supporters who still don’t get it.

What’s it going to take, Bernie? Are disruptive tactics the only way to get your attention?

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