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Immigrants Kept in the Shadows by Presidential Frontrunners

by Kari Lydersen

While election-year discourse largely ignores immigrants’ impact and rights, journalist Kari Lydersen examines the candidates’ positions on this hot-button issue.

Oct. 11, 2004 – "Both Bush and Kerry are about as eager to talk about immigration as they are to put their hand in an open flame," said Steven Camarota, research director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.

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He has a point.

Immigration is one of the most crucial issues facing the country this election season. Yet it is also an issue with no easy answers; one that stirs up strong feelings on all sides; and one fraught with misunderstanding and fear.

There are 8 to 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the US, with tens of thousands more entering the country every year. Though these immigrants cannot vote, their low wages form part of the backbone of the US economy.

Meanwhile, naturalized immigrants and citizen children of immigrants represent a large and growing block of voters, with Latinos in particular having a major presence in swing states. There are about six million undocumented Mexican immigrants in the US, and Latinos -- including millions with voting rights -- are considered to be the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. The 2000 census counted over 35 million Latinos in the US, an increase of 50 percent from 1990. Estimates put out by the Census Bureau for 2003 count Hispanics as the largest and fastest growing minority group in the nation, with more than 40 million Hispanic citizens and immigrants present in the US.

Walking a Fine Line

Some saw it as a step in the right direction, allowing immigrants a necessary way to earn money to bring back home. Others decried the proposal, calling it an exploitive way to benefit from cheap immigrant labor without giving them a path to citizenship.

Both candidates have made a point of discussing immigration as a positive and necessary force in the country, and of urging tolerance, respect and advocacy for immigrants. Nevertheless, they don’t want to take it too far, since the focus on national security in the post-9/11 era has led to anti-immigrant hysteria and an intense interest in "securing" the country’s borders. Additionally as the economy continues to sputter, there are large blocks of non-immigrant voters who believe that immigrants are stealing jobs and draining state resources from US-born citizens.

Both Bush and Kerry advocate more scrutiny and tracking of immigrants as well as tighter border security. These policies, say immigrants’ rights advocates, are not inherently contrary to immigrants’ rights but become so when carried out in the wrong way. For example, as part of the so-called "war on terrorism," the Bush administration oversaw raids on airports and other "high security" workplaces in which scores of undocumented immigrants were fired, detained and in some cases deported under the assumption they posed a risk to national security. Not one was found to have any links to terror, and charges of human and civil rights abuses during their detentions were rampant.

There are several key issues seen by advocates as central to immigrants’ rights and viable participation in US society at the current time. These include some level of amnesty -- legal residency and paths to citizenship -- for undocumented workers who are currently here; labor protections for undocumented workers; a way for immigrants to legally work temporarily here then return home; stronger family reunification programs; access to health care, education and civil rights for all immigrants; and an end to deaths and abuses along the Mexican border.

Specific discussions have centered around whether undocumented immigrants can have driver’s licenses and around the DREAM Act, which would free states to set immigrant-friendly in-state tuition policies and open up paths to residency and citizenship for immigrant youth who complete high school and plan to go to college in the US.

The bulk of immigration policy discussion has involved issues affecting Latino low-wage immigrants, documented and undocumented. Nevertheless, immigrants from other parts of the world also are obviously affected by government policy. Refugees from different African countries and Arab immigrants have faced summary deportation, extraordinary discrimination, prolonged detention and disproportionate scrutiny during the domestic "war on terror."

"Bush’s policies after 9/11 have affected Arab and Muslim immigrants in this country probably more than any other group," noted Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). "There were the roundups of 2,000 men who were often detained for months on end without contact with their families, and not one single terrorism-related charge came from that. Then there were the special registrations which resulted in 13,000 deportations of Arab and Muslim men. These are direct results of the administration’s policies."

Arsalan said CAIR is encouraged by Kerry’s emphasis on protecting constitutional rights and ending racial profiling, but he remembers that during his 2000 campaign Bush also promised to end practices and legislation that singled out Muslims, a promise which was never fulfilled.

Amnesty or Guest Worker Program

Bush and Kerry both speak in generally supportive terms about the contributions immigrants make to US society, about the need for more realistic immigration policy and about protecting the labor and human rights of immigrants. They both have called the current immigration system "broken" and have vowed to fix it.

On several major issues their records and proposals differ significantly, however. For starters, Kerry promises fairly liberal immigration reform within his first 100 days in office, while Bush focuses on discouraging illegal immigration and developing a temporary guest worker program. Kerry’s proposals include reuniting immigrant families more quickly by reducing the backlog in processing residence applications for relatives of legal immigrants, opening amnesty to immigrants who pass security checks and have worked and paid taxes here for at least five years, and creating a visa program for a limited number of temporary workers that would allow them to work legally here and enjoy full labor protections.

Bush opposes amnesty, saying it encourages breaking the country’s laws.

In January 2004 Bush announced his proposed guest worker program, a rough draft of which would have allowed immigrants to work in the US legally for three years or more provided they continued to work for a specific employer and leave after their allotted time. Since his speeches about the proposed program, nothing has been formalized and no legislation has been introduced.

The proposal met with mixed reaction from various immigrants rights groups. Some saw it as a step in the right direction, allowing immigrants a necessary way to earn money to bring back home. Others decried the proposal, calling it an exploitive way to benefit from cheap immigrant labor without giving them a path to citizenship.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots alliance of farm workers in South Florida, criticized the proposal. "Why, when there are nine million workers -- US-born and immigrant alike -- unemployed in this country today, do US industries need to look to guest workers to fill jobs?" reads a statement from the Coalition.

"Rather than raise wages and improve conditions to attract and maintain a stable workforce," the statement continues, "these employers have lobbied their friends in the Bush administration for the right to circumvent the US labor market altogether and import low-wage workers directly from countries far poorer than the US. The President’s proposal would grant their wish, while cloaking this thinly-veiled subsidy to low-wage industry in the compassionate clothing of immigration reform."

Bush’s proposal was also criticized from the right. Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies thinks offering amnesty or even guest worker status to immigrants who entered illegally means the candidates "do not favor enforcing the law and are out of touch with public opinion." Like many conservative groups, his think tank believes amnesty should only be an option once the borders are effectively closed to prevent successive waves of immigration.

"If [amnesty] was decided by newspaper editors and ethnic advocacy groups and church groups, it would pass," he said. "But that’s an elite perspective. There’s a divide between the common people and the elites on this. This system is already completely overwhelmed, and they want to talk about millions more amnesty applications."

Contrasting Records on Immigration Issues

The country’s major Latino advocacy groups are generally critical of Bush for his vague immigration-related proposals and a record characterized by lack of action on immigration reform initiatives.

"Bush has talked a lot about his guest worker proposal but he hasn’t put pen to paper and given us anything specific," said James Ferg-Cadima, interim regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF). "With nothing [from the Bush administration] in writing there’s little we can do to support, shape or move an immigration agenda. Bush is in the driver’s seat to offer immigration reform right now. The need is now, the relief is long overdue."

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) criticizes Bush for failing to appoint Latinos to cabinet positions or confront anti-immigrant voices in his own administration. The group notes that while Kerry attended several major conferences sponsored by Latino groups, including NCLR and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), Bush failed to attend any such conventions. They contrast this to his record as Texas governor and his performance earlier in his term, when he made a visible effort to reach out to Latinos.

While the guest worker proposal Bush discussed still hasn’t been formalized, immigrants rights groups blast him for stalling on the proposed bi-partisan AgJOBS Act (Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act) of 2003 which could allow about 500,000 agricultural workers and their families to gain legal status. In the past few months labor unions including the United Farm Workers have blamed the Bush administration for blocking passage of the bill, which was a compromise proposal developed in negotiations.

Kerry strongly supports passage of AgJOBS, and he supports amnesty for immigrants "of good moral character" who have been working and paying taxes for at least five years. His campaign web site describes an immigration reform bill within the first 100 days that will offer this "earned legalization," reunite families by cutting down the administrative backlog in applications, offer a visa program for temporary workers who will be covered by full labor protections and increase border security.

Kerry also supports the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which would allow immigrant youth who have been in the US for five years to apply for conditional residency and then, if they attend college or join the military, apply for citizenship. The act would also allow undocumented students to qualify for federal aid subsidies and enable states to set in-state tuition policies to cover immigrant students.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the DREAM Act, which now sits on the Senate floor. The act has also been rolled into the Department of Justice authorization bill, and advocates hope the act remains intact in this bill and is on its way to passage by the Senate and House, where it is called the Student Adjustment Act.

Ferg-Cadima of MALDEF notes that the bi-partisan DREAM Act is an ideal piece of immigration reform legislation since it is modest in scope and provides a path to citizenship for "children who played no part in the decision to enter or stay in this country yet have excelled in our schools. It will help them to give back to the only communities they know."

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda gave Kerry an "exemplary" rating for his voting record in both the 106th and 107th Congresses. In 2001 Kerry voted for a year extension to Section 245(i), giving undocumented immigrants in the US more time to gain legal status here rather than being forced to do so from outside the country.

However, in 1996 he voted for the sweeping immigration reforms known as IIRIRA (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act), which is often described as "draconian" by immigrants rights groups. IIRIRA made family reunification for immigrants harder and made legal and undocumented immigrants deportable for felony and some misdemeanor offenses.

But that year Kerry also voted against the Feinstein and Simpson amendments which would have cut down on family reunification. Back in 1990 he voted to increase limits on immigration and in 2000 he voted for the Abraham foreign worker bill to increase the number of foreign high tech workers allowed in the US.

Kerry has stated that he opposes undocumented immigrants getting driver’s licenses, a measure proponents of which say would increase road safety since undocumented people who are driving anyway could then be trained and insured.

Bush has said the driver’s license issue should be left up to individual states.

Bolstering Foreign Economies

Most analysts across the political spectrum agree that at the heart of the immigration debate is the need to bolster economies in Mexico and other impoverished countries from which migrants are coming.

Many see a solution in free trade, including NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and "fast track" trade negotiating powers in the hands of the president. Bush has pointed to increased free trade with Mexico as an avenue for improving economic opportunities there, and hence lessening the drive to immigrate.

But other economists and immigration analysts on the left and right actually blame NAFTA and free trade in general for increasing poverty and migration in Mexico. Bush has talked about investing in Pemex, Mexico’s nationalized oil company, as a way to stimulate economic growth there. But this is a risky proposal since over the past decade Mexicans have campaigned widely against the privatization of Pemex, which they see as an economic and symbolic anchor of Mexico’s self-sufficiency and sovereignty.

Luis Alberto Urrea, a noted author whose recent book Devil’s Highway chronicles the death of fourteen migrants crossing the border in 2001, sees spurring economic activity in Mexico as the key to reducing immigration and improving the lives of immigrants in the US. He suggests suspending or forgiving Mexico’s foreign debt to the US.

"If we put the debt aside for even five years, the economy in Mexico could really flower," he said. "[Immigrants in the US] are the best generation Mexico has. These are people of vision, people who will not give up, who have come here against all odds. If this group were back in Mexico, all that potential would be there."

Third Party Platforms

Focusing on Mexico and conditions there is a specific platform of David Cobb on the Green Party ticket. Cobb’s website also calls for "a friendlier (less intimidating) attitude toward immigration in all nations within certain guidelines," with "reciprocity as a practical goal."

In general Cobb and Independent candidate Ralph Nader both advocate progressive immigration policies that are mostly in line with the wish lists of immigrant rights groups. Cobb advocates abandoning quotas based on race, class and ideology, in favor of non-discrimination and family reunification. He wants to see permanent border passes for Canadian and Mexican citizens to help eliminate the coyote (human smuggler) business; adjustments made to labor law to protect and cover seasonal workers; an end to sanctions against employers who hire undocumented immigrants; the elimination of racial profiling and English-only legislation; and increased federal support for social programs for immigrants.

Nader’s platform is similar, calling for fair labor standards for all immigrant workers and amnesty for those already here as "the least we can do as reparations to those whose lives our government has directly or indirectly wrecked."

Nader also condemns the US acting as a "brain drain" on developing countries, attracting their best doctors and engineers, noting that some big business forces advocate open borders with this supply of cheap, highly skilled labor in mind.

"The long term solution to immigration is reducing the rich-poor divide between the United States and other nations by peacefully supporting democratic movements," Nader’s statement says. "When the average American wage exceeds the average Mexican wage by more than a factor of ten, even the most menial American job can be a strong reason to emigrate."

Editors' Note: This article is the fifth in a series of pieces taking a serious look at the actual issues facing American voters (and non-voters) this election season -- not in partisan commentary format, but as hard news exposing a plurality of views. As the campaigns of both major parties focus more on gossip and rhetoric than on substance, The NewStandard will investigate what we can expect from each candidate, including how their positions differ (or do not), as well as alternatives overlooked or downplayed by politicians and the mainstream media.

For the previous articles in this series see:
"Civil Liberties Considered Peripheral by Major Candidates"
"Labor Organizers Call Bush’s Threat to Workers ‘Unprecedented’"
"Spat Over N. Korea Nukes Almost Sparks Real Policy Debate"
"At Least On Health Coverage, Candidates Diverge Greatly"

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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