Saturday, May 13, 2006

Irony, Perversity and Misdirection as Immigration Policy: 6,000 Troops and Their Sisyphean Labors

I am pleased to note that the president has not lost his great sense of irony. Irony, and the perversity that seems to attach itself to the sort of irony indulged during these past several years with some accelerating frequency, was very much in evidence last night as the President announced his support of a grand plan to end uncontrolled immigration along our Southern border with Mexico—and land a blow against international terrorism at the same time. The President suggested that it might be a grand idea, in the context of the great overhaul of American immigration laws, to post National Guard troops at the U.S.-Mexico border, to be paid for by the federal government. Specifically, he proposed the posting of about 6,000 troops along the border, initially for one year until an equal number of Border Patrol agents could be added to the ranks. All of this was part of a series of proposals aimed at seeking compromise over conflicting plans for the reworking of the nation’s immigration laws.

The ideas that surfaced in the speech, like those drifting about the Senate and House of Representatives was amusing because of its irony and perversity, and the likelihood that its purposes and goals are less obvious than one might think. Let me very briefly suggest the points of irony, perversity and misdirection:

1. Irony: The president, like many before him (and no doubt many after) continue to focus on the connection between uncontrolled immigration (from or through Mexico) and the securing of the (U.S.-Mexico) border. The brunt of all immigration reform plans falls on individuals crossing the border. Little is done to eliminate the magnet that attracts those who risk much to cross a border without documentation--the prospect of employment. Think of this greatest of ironies—and from a Republican President, no less—job seeking is criminalized and the status of those so seeking employment forever affected by the act of seeking employment. But job giving—the act of employers in enticing and luring and taking advantage of dysfunctions in markets for labor caused by the illegality of free movement of labor, pay virtually nothing. On the other hand, and this borders on perversity, this sort of pattern is quite common—though usually reserved for the relationship of prostitute and client. Labor is vilified and employers can continue their irresponsible behavior with little worry about taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Six thousand additional people sitting at the border will do little to upset the international market for labor that the American state continues to nurture and that American business continues (and quite rightly) to take advantage of. I do not believe it is meant to. For a longer discussion, see Larry Catá Backer, Ideologies of Globalization and Sovereign Debt: Cuba and the IMF, 24 Pennsylvania State International Law Review497 (2006).

2. Perversity: The system is now geared to work like an great mousetrap. The cheese is the employment opportunities in the United States. The individuals crossing the borders seeking those jobs are the mice. And the mouse trap sits all over the United States. No effort has been made to modify the trap to avoid attracting mice. No effort is made to prohibit the production of mice attracting cheese. We are content to elaborate a system of laws in which we continue to attract workers from outside our borders and then seek to punish those so attracted who are unlucky enough to get caught. Because, of course, the greatest perversity in this system is that the cheese is enticing and can be found virtually everywhere, but the traps are small and often do not work.

3. Misdirection. An immigration policy that focuses on labor entering the country continues to turn attention away from the larger picture--labor policy. Immigration happens because there are incentives in the labor market, but little is done for those segments of the American population that are essentially cut out of the labor market. Perhaps, to add irony, these unemployed and uncounted people ought to be hired by the government to keep everyone else out. But who would pay? The usual line is that America’s poor are too lazy, spoiled, untrained, unwilling or unable to participate in to labor market segment in which people newly arrived from other states seem to have less trouble entering. And so the focus of immigration policy is on control of the borders, leaving again, both the structure of demand untouched, and the demands of the local unemployed unfulfilled. Nowhere in the discussion of immigration reform is there much concern about the way in which training local labor might reduce the demand for foreign labor and thus reduce the incentives to travel to this country in search of work. The immigrant laborer is demonized, the local labor pool is forgotten, and the local employers are treated as passive saints. Now THAT is one great piece of legerdemain.

4. The construction of false relationships: Much of the discussion about labor immigration is focused on a conflation of economic and political rights. People who come to this country for work must also be treated as coming for the attainment of political rights as American citizens. But why is this connection inevitably true? One of the great opportunities that President Bush has provided through the proposal of guest worker programs, is the possibility of discussing the viability of this great nexus. It is not clear that the basic foundation of American policy toward people physically in the country ought to be to treat all individuals as seeking economic and political rights. Why not give people the choice? Coming to this country to take advantage of the opportunities of the global labor market, with absolutely no intention of assimilating its culture, values, politics, language, mores, etc. is neither shameful nor necessarily ought it to be discouraged. Some people may merely seek to make money here. Just as capital has long been understood to move freely without necessarily losing its connection with its place of origin, so too should labor be permitted free movement without the imposition of political obligation. The Europeans really may have it right here in the construction of their vast, complicated, but ultimately successful program of free movement of labor with the European Union. True, the free movement rights in Europe are very limited in territorial scope and are tied to a number of other limitations that may be impossible to duplicate outside of the EU. Still, the idea, and the system as implemented, might serve us as inspiration for a humane yet realistic approach to the connection between wealth creation, labor markets and the movement of individuals who have no intention of abandoning their nationality. Why should Americans make it a precondition to enter our labor markets for such workers to abandon their nationality. At the same time, political rights ought to be more jealously guarded. Political rights should be less willingly shared, and then only with those who willingly embrace the place in which they reside as their political home. Here Latin America provides inspiration. Americans should embrace more fully the Latin notion of patria. Ours should not become a citizenship of convenience. This is not to suggest the creation of some sort of mindless or ignorant set of assimilative standards based on meaningless surface considerations—like customs, cultural norms of the most benign sort and the like. This is not an invitation to prejudice or cultural chauvinism. But is it an invitation to consider more carefully the meaning of citizenship and the characteristics important enough to bind us as a political community. This is another conversation the President’s plan suggests but will not undertake.

So much opportunity to be squandered. Within a year we will no doubt strengthen the culture of disdain for immigrants, continue to subsidize the ability of employers to avoid penalties for inducing the breaking of law, and continue to avoid the national obligation to induce our poor and unemployed back into the labor markets. And then, a dozen or so years from now, we will again be in a similar place. That will be the greatest, and saddest irony of all.

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