The wailing in our country about the “invasion of immigrants” has been long and loud. As one complainant put it, “Few of their children in the country learn English… The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages… Unless the stream of the importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”
That’s not some diatribe from the alt-right. It’s the anxious cry of none other than Ben Franklin, deploring the wave of Germans pouring into the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1750s. Thus, anti-immigrant eruptions are older than the U.S. itself, and they’ve flared up periodically throughout our history, targeting the Irish, French, Italians and Chinese among others. Even Donald Trump’s project to wall off our border is not a new bit of nuttiness – around the time of the nation’s founding, John Jay, who later became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, proposed “a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics.”
Luckily for the development and enrichment of our country, these past public frenzies ultimately failed to exclude the teeming masses, and those uproars now appear through the telescope of time to have been some combination of ridiculous panic, political demagoguery and xenophobic ugliness.
In our current national imbroglio over immigration coming from our 2,000-mile shared southern border, our “leaders” have set us up to look down at impoverished working people forced to leave their homeland and risk death in order to help their families escape poverty.
Instead of coming down on them, why not start looking up – up at the executive suites on both sides of the border. Up is where the power is. The moneyed elites in those suites are the profiteering few who have rigged all of our trade and labor policies to knock down workers, farmers and small businesses – not only in Mexico, but in our country as well.
In the U.S., the middle class feels imperiled because… well, because it is imperiled. Politicians, economists and the richly paid pundits keep telling us that the American economy is robust and that people’s financial pessimism and anxieties are irrational. At the kitchen table level, however, folks know the difference between chicken salad and chicken manure. Yes, these are boom times for the luxury class, but the middle and working classes are feeling pinched. In a letter to the editor, a working stiff put it this way:
“We’ve replaced steaks with corn flakes; we can’t afford to get sick; we hope that our 10-year-old van keeps running because we can’t afford a new one; our kids can’t buy a home because housing prices are exorbitant; our purchasing power continually regresses; and worst of all, the poverty and near-poverty classes are growing.”
It’s this economic fragility that anti-immigrant forces play on. But pointing to the undocumented workers in the fields and kitchens and blaming them for the economic pain working Americans are feeling is a lie. The truth is that even if there were no undocumented workers in our country – none – the fragility that is felt would remain, for poor undocumented laborers are not the ones who:
- Downsized and offshored our middle class jobs
- Perverted our bankruptcy laws to let corporations abrogate their union contracts
- Stopped enforcement of America’s wage and hour laws
- Perverted the National Labor Relations Board into an anti-worker tool for corporations
- Illegally reclassified millions of employees as “independent contractors,” leaving them with no benefits or labor rights
- Subverted the right of workers to organize
- Made good health care a luxury item
- Let rich campaign donors take over both political parties
Powerless immigrants didn’t do these things to us. The richest, most-powerful, best-connected corporate interests did them.
Immigration reform cannot be separated from labor and trade reform. We can’t fix the former without dealing with the other two. We must stop the exploitative NAFTA-fication of such aspiring economies as Mexico and instead develop genuine grassroots investment policies that give people there an ability to remain in their homeland. Then we must enforce our own labor laws against American corporations who violate them – from wage and hour rules to the National Labor Regulations Board – so as to empower American workers to enforce their own rights.
Eliminating the need to migrate from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, etc., and rebuilding the middle-class ladder here is an “immigration policy” that will work. But it requires us to go right at the corporate kleptocracy that now owns Washington and controls the debate, for America’s immigration problem is not down on the border – it’s in Washington and on Wall Street.