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Reframing the Immigration Debate Amid Election Season Xenophobia

Candidates debating immigration policy rarely consider how US policy encourages migration, let alone the benefits of immigration.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has gone so far as to say "the immigration system is being used to attack us." (Photo: a katz /

3 September, 2015 - New York City, NY: Republican candidate for president Donald Trump announced he had signed a pledge not to run as an independent candidate should he fail to win the 2016 nomination. Trump, who has framed Latin American immigrants as criminals taking advantage of what he sees as lax border security, has gone so far as to say that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has gone so far as to say “the immigration system is being used to attack us.” (Photo: a katz /

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At the core of the immigration debate is an unanswered question: How does the United States define citizenship? Critical to this question is the development of laws, public policy and institutions that appropriately align the demand for labor, while recognizing unauthorized workers are granted individual rights and liberties associated with a pathway to full-fledged citizenship.

Globalization and the development of neoliberal economic policies have created a new, more volatile dynamic in the immigration debate. Both the United States and the European Union have failed to address the pressing issue of how to accommodate immigrants who enter countries without documentation. Governmental paralysis, closing borders, paranoia over the spread of terrorism and the growing influence of right-wing extremism have characterized the issue in many Western democracies. Xenophobia has obscured a critical aspect of the immigration issue: the manner in which domestic and foreign policies of democratic nations act as push factors that encourage migration, thus creating the economic and political context for an “immigration crisis.”

Neoliberal economic policies instigated by industrialized nations have played a significant role in generating landlessness and poverty in many developing countries. Free trade agreements have created asymmetrical trade relationships that have led to the dislocation of small-scale farmers throughout Latin America, especially in Mexico. Gerardo Otero has shown how the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that came into force in 1994 initiated a seismic shift in Mexico’s agricultural sector. Trade liberalization policies associated with NAFTA created a highly profitable market for fruit and vegetable production designed for export to North America and consumption by Mexico’s increasingly urban, middle-class consumers. However, it destabilized the market for lower-value grains like maize, the staple of many small-scale farmers in Mexico.

Continued government subsidies for US farmers led to surplus grain production in the United States. The grain surplus was then exported to Mexico, creating a major decline in grain prices that negatively effected Mexico’s “food self-sufficiency.” As a result, many small farmers could not compete against US imported agricultural produce, forcing them off their landholdings. Otero notes these landless farmers had no other employment alternatives due to lackluster growth in Mexico’s manufacturing sector (primarily from Chinese competition). Rising unemployment ensued, leading many Mexican farmers to seek work in the United States. Otero argues this asymmetrical trade relationship resulted in Mexico becoming “the main contributor to international labor migration in the world.”

Another study of NAFTA’s impact on Mexico concludes, “U.S. agricultural subsidies undermine free trade and augment U.S. labor demand, luring the displaced Mexican farm workers to migrate to the U.S.” The Migration Policy Institute found “between 1990-2010, 7.5 million Mexican immigrants – many unauthorized – came to the United States.” According to Pew Research, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States in 2014 was estimated at 11.3 million, 3.5 percent of the US population, an actual decline from 12.2 million in 2007. Migrants from Mexico make up about half (52 percent) of the undocumented population, and their numbers are decreasing.

How recipient countries respond to newly arrived immigrant populations is an important aspect of immigration policy. For example, in the United States, a century-old nativist trope portrays the immigrant as a threat to American exceptionalism, and a harbinger of violent crime, illicit drugs and an insatiable appetite for the United States’ dwindling public resources. Since 9/11, many immigrant groups have been viewed as possible terrorist threats that will undermine national security. This trope of xenophobia reflects Henry Giroux and Brad Evans’ idea that undocumented immigrants constitute a “disposable” social group. They become collateral damage in the neoliberal assault to establish “free trade,” privatized social provisions and the destruction of civic agency in capitalist societies around the world. In their disposable state, they are vulnerable to scapegoating.

The scapegoating of undocumented immigrants became apparent during the Republican presidential primary debates on August 6. The candidates gave the US public an early indicator that undocumented workers will be the next target of neoconservative militarization of society, should a Republican candidate be elected. Each candidate tried to outdo the other on how tough they would get on immigration. “Murders, crime, criminal organizations, build walls, no amnesty, control the border, e-verify” – these are the neoconservative frames for an upcoming “war on immigration.” Donald Trump has gone so far as to claim on his website “the immigration system is being used to attack us.”

This unyielding xenophobia by Republican candidates runs contrary to decades of research on immigrant integration into US society. For example, a study published in July 2015, by the American Immigration Council (AIC) found approximately 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 are incarcerated, compared with 3.3 percent of native-born males. This difference in incarceration rates has held constant for more than three decades. The AIC found a similar relationship involving undocumented immigrants. Alejandra Marchevsky and Beth Baker cite a Syracuse University study that found the US government has deported only 37 people on terrorism charges since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Studies in Chicago by Harvard professor Robert Sampson found wide-reaching social benefits from immigration. Sampson notes, “the large influx of first-generation immigrants has had spillover effects on local communities, such as economic renewal in formerly poor areas, reduction of vacancies, population growth, and possibly the diffusion of non-violent social mores.” A 2014 report by the Business Roundtable argues immigrant labor complements rather than competes with US workers, and a pathway to citizenship would lead to higher employment rates, increased productivity and higher wages for all workers.

As the 2016 presidential election approaches, Democratic candidates must provide a clear alternative to the xenophobia of the right. The US public supports immigration reform. In a July 10, 2015, Gallup poll, 65 percent of respondents favored a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Among the respondents who claimed they were Republican, 50 percent favored the citizenship path. This preference for citizenship has remained relatively constant for a decade.

Comprehensive immigration reform must be framed as a human rights issue that creates legislation to end wage exploitation of immigrant workers. This includes rejecting guest-worker programs that exacerbate low wages and create a tiered employment structure that weakens the rights of all workers.

Comprehensive immigration reform must also develop fast-track citizenship pathways for undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years and meet the qualifications of naturalized citizenship. Finally, comprehensive immigration reform must delink immigration control from the war on terror by demilitarizing the southern US border, and providing full due process rights for undocumented immigrants facing the prospect of deportation.

Progressive immigration reform framed around workers’ rights, citizenship rights for undocumented immigrants and the benefits immigrants create for local communities will not only neutralize the politics of xenophobia. It will also galvanize votes for progressive candidates in the 2016 election.

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