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Immigration Reform Requires Dismantling NAFTA and Respecting Migrants’ Rights

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David Bacon explains the essentials of immigration reform.


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The topic of immigration reform continues to be hotly debated across the country. But what does a just and progressive immigration reform policy look like?

Now joining us to discuss this is David Bacon. He’s an award-winning photojournalist, author, immigrant rights activist, who has spent over 20 years as a labor organizer. His most recent book: The Right to Stay at Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Immigration.

Thanks for joining us, David.

And let’s get right into it. Immigration reform is being debated across the country. It’s been debated for years and years now. But many rights advocates that we speak to don’t like the policies that the Democrats and Republicans are supporting. You talk to a lot of undocumented workers, undocumented activists, immigrant rights advocates across the country. What does a just and progressive immigration reform policy look like?

DAVID BACON, AUTHOR, JOURNALIST, PHOTOJOURNALIST: Well, first it looks at the reasons why people are coming here to begin with. One of the main reasons is the trade agreements that the United States has negotiated with Mexico, countries in Central and Latin America, because these trade agreements increase the poverty of people in communities that are then forced to leave home and begin looking for work elsewhere, what they call the displacement of communities. When the North American Free Trade Agreement allowed big U.S. grain companies, for instance, to dump cheap, cheap corn on the Mexican market, hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers essentially were not able to sell their crops for the cost of growing it, had to leave home in order to survive, wound up migrating to the north of Mexico, crossing the border, and coming here to the United States.

So part of a just immigration policy would be to take a look at our trade policy and the economic policies that we’re imposing on countries like Mexico and change them so that we are not increasing poverty and giving people no alternative if they want to survive. So communities in Mexico are looking for what they’re calling the right to stay home, which essentially means a future, an economic future in Mexico and the countries that people are coming from. So changing trade policy should be part of any immigration bill that is really trying to take a rational look at migration here.

But other parts of a just immigration policy that people are talking about are things that would decriminalize migrations, to stop looking at immigrants as being criminals or potential criminals, which means, for instance, getting rid of the law that makes it illegal for somebody to work if they don’t have papers, so that people would have rights at work. They would be able to advocate for themselves, raise their wages. This would be something that would help other workers around them, too, not just immigrants.

Another part of decriminalizing migration would be to end the policy of mass deportations and mass detentions. We now have immigration prisons in which over 350,000 people every year spend some time in immigration prison. We didn’t even have a system like that 15 and 20 years ago. So a just immigration policy, as it’s defined by most migrant communities, would include decriminalizing migration and ending the detention system and ending this system which is leading to 400,000 deportations a year by, for instance, not having it become the responsibility of local police to enforce immigration laws, by returning it to immigration authorities themselves the way it used to be.

Clearly, the legalization of people who don’t have papers would also be part of a just immigration policy. We have 11 million people plus in this country who don’t have legal status. They need some kind of legal status so that people can lead normal lives and don’t have to be afraid all the time of being picked up for deportation. That also would be a part of a just immigration policy. So, essentially, what a just immigration policy would do is it would look at migrants as being members of communities that exist here and try and ensure that people have the same rights and the same social status here, regardless of whether people were born in another country or whether people were born here. It would promote people’s families by fixing the system for family migration. The ability of people to petition for their family members who are living in other countries to come and join them here in this country, that used to be the main basis of immigration to the United States. Now we’re seeing proposals in Congress that would look at migration as being a system for supplying cheap labor to employers. So most people who are advocating a just immigration policy would say, we don’t need a cheap labor system for employers; what we need is the ability of people to reunite their families, so our immigration policy should be reoriented to make it possible for people to come here because of their family relationships here and less so because they are recruited by an employer who simply wants to pay low wages. So all of those things would be elements of a just immigration policy, at least, as that policy is defined by immigrant rights groups, by immigrant communities, by many unions, essentially by grassroots organizations, especially when it’s outside of Washington, D.C.

NOOR: Now, David, a critic might say: how do you balance that with the need of a country or the right of a country to control who comes into their borders?

BACON: Well, countries do have a right to control who comes into their borders. But if we are really concerned about that, first of all, we need to take a look at what the United States is doing that essentially puts pressure on people to come here to begin with. In other words, changing immigration policies. That should be part of it.

But also I think that we have to look realistically at what happens as a result of criminalizing migrants, that a just immigration policy should include making sure that the people in this country, living in this country, have rights, especially the right to organize, the right to advocate for themselves. This is something that helps all people. When people have the ability to, for instance, advocate for higher wages and more secure jobs, it helps the other workers around them, whether they’re workers who were born here or workers who were born somewhere else. So if the consequences of crossing the border are that somebody becomes somebody without legal status, somebody who is having to live in fear all the time, that’s not something that’s good for the rest of the people that live around them in the communities that we had here in the United States or our workplaces. So controlling the movement of people across the border, we used to have the system of border control so, to speak, but did not criminalize people in the way they do today. And we didn’t have enormous problems with crime or with many of the other negative consequences that are ascribed to immigrants. In fact, if you go back to the time when people were coming over from Europe in vast waves of people in the late 1800s, or the early 1900s, where millions of people were coming from Europe, we didn’t even have a visa system at all. There was no such thing as illegal migration, because people didn’t have to have visas to come to the United States. They simply bought tickets, get on the boat, and came here. And nobody, I think, said at that time, at least the people who—the grandparents and great grandparents of people who were alive now didn’t believe that that was the source of negative consequences. In fact, communities in the United States here oh their origin to the migration of people at that time.

So there are many different ways in which we can look at how we deal with the people who want to come to the United States to live here and decide whether, for instance, it’s more in our interest to encourage people to come here because of their relationships to people who are already here, in other words, family relationships, or whether we want to simply look at people as being a source of cheap labor for corporations? That’s certainly in the interest of corporations, but it’s not in the interests of either those workers themselves or of immigrant communities who are here or who might be forced into competition with them.

NOOR: David Bacon, thank you so much for joining us.

BACON: My pleasure.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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