The Immigration Debate: Legality or Justice?

By Lydia Lowe
Director, Chinese Progessive Association 

Today’s misguided immigration debate centers on the question of legality.

Many argue that immigrants with legal status should have rights to government benefits and services, but the undocumented should not, because they are illegal.  If our government already doesn’t have the money to adequately provide for our own citizens, the argument goes, how can we extend services to those who came here illegally?  Immigration is out of control and can be solved with more border patrols and ID checks.

There are several major problems with this argument.

The Undocumented Give More Than They Take

Many politicians, talk show hosts, and voters are not aware that the undocumented are in fact ineligible for most government benefits.  Welfare, unemployment, social security, SSI, job training programs, MassHealth, food stamps—all of these programs require legal residency, and many require five to ten years of contributing as a taxpayer before becoming eligible to receive benefits.

There are an estimated 6 to 8 million undocumented workers in the UStoday, doing jobs like farm labor or janitorial services that few domestic workers seek.  The undocumented also pay taxes; researchers believe the majority of the undocumented pay federal, state, and local taxes.  The average immigrant will pay $80,000 more in taxes than they use in government services over their lifetime.  Since many undocumented workers must use false Social Security numbers to work, the Social Security Administration holds more than $400 billion in deductions from undocumented immigrants who will never reclaim these benefits.

The primary government benefits which the undocumented may receive are access to the public schools for their children and limited emergency medical services.

Our Government Has Money for War and Bank Bailouts

If immigrants and the undocumented are not eating up government revenues, then why are we constantly facing budget shortfalls?  Isn’t the Social Security system going bankrupt and the unemployment trust fund running out of funds?

Factors like a larger aging population and the economic recession have combined to stress certain government accounts.  Yet our tax dollars could provide adequate funds to cover our basic human needs if our government had its priorities straight.  About 58 percent of our tax dollars goes to military expenditures, and we have spent trillions of dollars on the bank bailout.

The United States has only 6 percent of the world’s population but is responsible for about 45 percent of the world’s military expenditures—as much as the next ten countries combined! A 25 percent reduction in the military budget would free up $250 billion that could be redirected to human needs.  Withdrawal fromIraqandAfghanistanwould result in $110 billion in savings in the first year.

The Global Economy Drives Increased Immigration

The undocumented are trying to earn a living and support their families.

As recently as 1970, nearly 70 percent of immigration to theUSwas from Europe andCanada, with only 8 percent fromMexico.  When most immigrants were white, we did not have the same public outcry against immigration.  Today, about three quarters of the immigrants, and of the undocumented, come from Asia orLatin America.  The largest sector of the undocumented (about 57%) come from Mexico.

Why, and what happened to shift immigration patterns?

Changes in immigration law account for some of the shift.  In 1965, the USchanged its system of immigration quotas from one that favored Great Britain, Ireland, and Germanyto one that equalized national quotas and favored family reunification and employment skills.  At the time, this was an important step forward, and immigration from Asiaincreased significantly after 1965.  But today, it is practically impossible for a Mexican national to get a green card, while an immigrant from New Zealand would have no wait at all, because national immigration quotas are the same regardless of a country’s size or need.

The biggest recent factor increasing immigration is globalization of the economy.  As economic growth slowed andThird World nations claimed independence during the 1970s, corporate elites developed new strategies for growth.  Raw materials, production, and sales are now coordinated across the globe to maximize profit.

New economic policies since the 1970s, centered on the ideas of free trade and small government, have served to develop the new global economy:

  • Privatization and deregulation of core industries like telecommunications, utilities, and financial services;
  • Union-busting and striker replacement;
  • Cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations and shifting the burden onto working families;
  • An 80 percent reduction in federal service programs;
  • Passage of free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened up markets to benefit US-based corporations and set up zones along the US-Mexico border free of normal labor laws.

The same set of free trade and small government policies driving increased immigration, particularly fromLatin America, are allowing the runaway factories and financial speculation that cause joblessness and impoverishment of our communities here.

More Immigration Enforcement Hurts Us All

Will increased immigration enforcement solve our problems?

Between 1986 and 2002, the number of border enforcement agents tripled, the number of hours they patrolled grew eightfold, and the Border Patrol’s budget increased tenfold.  During this same time, the number of undocumented immigrants continued to increase!

Proposals like the new Arizona law, which creates new systems of ID checks focused on anyone suspected of being undocumented, will lead to increased discrimination and civil rights violations against all immigrants and native-born people of color.

Recent studies of state government programs to increase immigration enforcement show that these crackdowns spent millions of dollars to create new bureaucracies, identified few if any undocumented benefit recipients, and prevented manyUScitizens and permanent residents from accessing their rightful benefits.

Proposals to crack down on the undocumented with new ID checks won’t solve the economic and political imbalance that brings the undocumented to the US.  These crackdowns will only reinforce undocumented workers’ position as an underclass to be freely exploited, driving down conditions for all workers.

A Question of Law or Justice?

The recent preoccupation with legality and illegality distracts us from the real social question:  what is the right thing to do?

Is it right that agribusiness can freely exploit Mexican nationals for cheap labor but that these working families are treated as criminals for trying to earn a living?

When many of our ancestors came to theUSfromChinaduring the period from 1882 until the 1940s, they came as “paper sons” with false documents because they were excluded from legal immigration by the Chinese Exclusion Act. They were all illegal immigrants.  Were they criminals, or was the law unjust?

During the 1800s, theUSannexed half of theterritoryofMexico, now the American Southwest.  Millions of Mexicans share family, social, cultural and economic ties on either side of the border. NAFTA allows big business to freely cross borders for its benefit, but the workers are punished.

Are they criminals, or is the law unfair and outdated?

Solidarity for Immigrant Rights

A fair and humane immigration policy should focus less on punishing immigrant workers and more on changing the laws to reflect today’s global realities.

Recently, an Arizona-based Chinese American politician named Barry Wong called for immigration checks to qualify for electricity, water, natural gas or telephone service! This extremist proposal would cause needless suffering and hurt the undocumented, permanent residents, and citizens alike.

As the national immigration debate unfolds, the Chinese community needs to better understand our own interests and stand in solidarity with other immigrants.  CPA is working as a member of the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative (IWCC) to increase immigrant workers’ solidarity across ethnic communities, and with other Asian American groups to increase our communities’ identification with and participation in the immigrant rights movement.

If you are interested in participating in immigrant rights activities, contact us at 617-357-4499.

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