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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Taking Back the South Pt. 4 - Immigration Policy and "Democratic Values"

A lot of speculation has arisen among Democrats recently surrounding the assertion that the South is lost to the party until demographic factors reshape it -- for at least a generation. I respectfully disagree with this conclusion. We can't just cede that large a part of the country to the the very least, we've got to wage a war there that makes the Republicans feel like they've got to spend time, money and energy contesting them, and not let them automatically chalk them up in the "win" column.

It is exactly this issue of local strategies that is coming to the fore in the battle over who will chair the DNC, and rightfully so. In fact, I can't think of a more important topic than the development of regional policy and tactics that will take the battle to the Republican stronghold and make them fight on their own turf, hopefully undermining their base in the process. This diary is devoted to that discussion, and the topic at hand is immigration, so please join the fracas.

In Part 1 of this diary, I discussed the necessity of developing a progressive platform that squarely addresses immigration, an issue that speaks to the concerns of Southerners and is in danger of being co-opted by wingnuts in their pursuit of a jingoistic, racist agenda. Part 2 was devoted to exploring how Republicans have steadily supported an immigration policy that provides virtual slave labor to industry while undermining unions, wages and working conditions for Americans on the bottom end of the economic scale. Part 3 discussed how Democrats have been slow to take a stand on immigration due to the fact that it pits conflicting Democratic values against each other, and suggests that curbing immigration numbers can serve a progressive agenda to improve working conditions for those who are being victimized by the status quo.

Okay. Whew. So much for recap. We now find ourselves talking about how we can be pro-immigration reform without being anti-immigration, an important distinction that keeps us from blurring into the agenda of jingoistic wingnuts who want to gorge on a cocktail of paranoid nationalism and racism. With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to look at the immigration policies of other countries, and see how they compare to the current US immigration policy.

Despite the fanning of anti-immigrant flames by the right, the fact is that most immigration to this country comes in the form of legal immigration, approximately one million people per year. (Note: I will use the statistics provided by FAIR, because even though their agenda tends to be a bit right-wingy, they are good about documenting their sources and their numbers tend to hold up.) About 20 percent of annual immigrants come from Mexico, with India, China and the Philippines each sending from five to seven percent. Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, Haiti, Bosnia, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Ukraine, Korea, Russia and Nicaragua send between two and three percent. Together, these top 15 countries account for about 60 percent of all immigration to the US; the remaining 40 percent comes from smaller shares from a large number of countries.

Most of these immigrants (almost two-thirds) are sponsored by family members who are now legal permanent residents of the US. Approximately one-sixth are workers (and their families) who have skills that are purportedly undersupplied within the US labor force. About one-tenth go to refugees and those seeking asylum, and approximately one in 25 are those who win admission by lottery.

As these figures attest, most of these spots are being given to people based on their relationship to those already in the United States. And this is one of the areas where US immigration policy differs dramatically from other countries (notably Australia and Canada) whose populations are also by and large composed of immigrants. At the heart of this discussion lies the controversy over what is known as “chain migration,” and since I've only recently become acquainted with this concept myself, I thought it might be good to explore it more fully.

I'll make my life easier by quoting from the FAIR website regarding chain migration. (For the purposes of this discussion, please ignore the somewhat inflammatory rhetoric and focus on the underlying concepts and statistics):

Chain migration happens because present U.S. immigration policy is based on the principle of broadly defined family reunification; immigrants are able to sponsor their relatives back home to be admitted as immigrants here. In other words, most immigrants are admitted simply because they have a relative here who sponsors them, not because of what they might be able to contribute to our society.

Because of the chain reaction described above, immigration numbers continue to rise. Under the "immediate relatives" category, the parents, spouse, and children of a U.S. citizen are admitted without limit. Therefore, once the law was changed in 1965 to create the so-called family reunification system, chain migration caused the numbers in this category to steadily rise. Five years after chain migration began, the number of immediate relative admissions had nearly doubled (from 32,714 in 1965 to 79,213 in 1970); ten years after, it had almost tripled (to 91,504 in 1975); 15 years after, it was nearly five times higher (151,131 in 1980); 20 years after, it was nearly six times higher (204,368 in 1985); 25 years after, it was seven times higher (231,680 in 1990); less than 30 years after, it was eight times higher (249,764 in 1994); and in 2001, 36 years later, the number of immediate relatives admitted 443,964-over 13 times higher.

Since most immigration categories have a limit to the number of people who can be admitted each year, immigrants' relatives back home must often wait for years to be admitted. Because of chain migration, over three million aliens have been told they are eligible to immigrate but have to wait. Many of them do not, figuring that, since they are eligible anyway, they should not have to wait for the U.S. government to get around to doing the paperwork. In this way, chain migration - and the expectations and long lines it produces - increases illegal immigration.

The problem will get worse. The illegal aliens given amnesty by Congress in 1986 are just now fueling naturalization in record numbers. As these former illegal aliens become citizens, all of their immediate relatives qualify to come immediately to the United States, and start new migration chains of their own.

In short, most people are being granted citizenship based on nepotism -- who they are related to -- not what they can contribute to the culture and economy.

In contrast to the United States, where birth rates are pretty stable, Canadian immigration policy is designed to address a falling birth rate, an aging population and the continuing relocation of Canadian workers to the United States. Immigrants are admitted primarily because they are skilled workers who are needed in select fields to promote Canadian industry. They are also required to prove that they have sufficient settlement funding prior to acceptance, as opposed to the US where the sponsoring family member simply has to pledge that they have adequate funds to support the immigrant. This pledge is not binding and its abuse has been a hotly debated topic in Congress.

Australia's policy is similar to Canada's. They have developed a list of “occupations eligible for migration,” targeting those “possessing skills immediately relevant to employers.” Those who do not possess an occupation on this list are barred from applying. Applicants must also pass a “vocational English” test before being allowed admission. An exception to the above is granted to those applying for citizenship based on humanitarian purposes. Recent legislation has also been designed to make it easier for those foreign students who sought higher education in Australia to gain citizenship upon graduation.

Both Canada and Australia embrace a more limited, nuclear definition of “family” than does the US, which currently allows for immigration entitlements for extended relatives (adult siblings, adult children, and parents). The late great Barbara Jordan was one of the first Democrats to take the lead in pushing for “nuclear migration” as opposed to “chain migration”; it was her commission that recommended cutting the major links of family chain migration in the Immigration Control and Financial Responsibility Act of 1996, eliminating the categories for adult children and siblings and limiting that for parents of adults, and capping immigration levels at roughly half their current rate. Although these recommendations did not make it into the final draft of the bill, she was acutely aware of the fact that the economic pressure brought to bear by a continuous large influx of unskilled workers is always felt hardest by minorities, especially African Americans and Hispanics, and she wasn't afraid to say so.

Now my knowledge of the economic theory behind NAFTA is incomplete at best, so correct me anyone who knows better, but as it was explained to me the basic notion is that we will lose unskilled manufacturing jobs that will be compensated for by the development of businesses that pay higher wages. Why then are we not orienting our immigration policy, like Canada and Australia, towards professions that can promote the growth of such businesses?

To wit: The Department of Labor defines nursing as a "shortage occupation," and those who suffer most from this shortage tend to be located in poor, rural areas. My own experience with this is anecdotal, but a friend who is a nurse from Zimbabwe has suffered nothing but bureaucratic red tape and exploitation at the hands of immigration lawyers and potential employers for years in her efforts to migrate here legally. Why aren't we making immigration easier for those who could potentially contribute so much? And why do we propose to naturalize others who openly flaunt immigration law under vaguely defined and conflicting notions of inclusiveness?

The Democrats continue to dodge the issue of immigration, and in doing so fail to protect the working poor who already bear the brunt of this administration's brutal domestic policies. And they do so under the slightly creepy notion that in tightening immigration restrictions they will alienate the Hispanic vote, as if the only thing Hispanics care about is getting their relatives over here. This view seems to me short sighted and not a little racist (more on this later). We need to open a dialog as to how we can value and safeguard the influx of many different cultural voices through immigration policy; how we can insure that we continue to provide haven for those in need of asylum; and how can we promote economic growth and protect those on the most vulnerable end of the economic spectrum.

I sincerely believe that a unifying, populist-based discussion of this topic could take root in the South, and derail all the anti-gay, anti-abortion claptrap that the right has been so successful in pulling to the center of any political debate.

Your comments, as always, are sincerely encouraged and valued.

Stay tuned for Pt. 5 - “Poor Mexico - So Far From God, and So Close to the United States.”

Other posts in this series:

Taking Back the South Pt. 1 - Welcome to Flea Country
Taking Back the South Pt. 2 - Bring Me The Head of David Dreier
Taking Back the South Pt. 3 - What Would A Progressive Immigration Policy Look Like?