Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bigger Than Arizona: Immigration and Economic Justice

John Buell
Author of Evil Doers: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics (New York University Press)

The President may have no appetite for an issue he seems to regard as a distraction, but as with volcanoes the intersection of many intensifying currents may produce eruptions that command our attention. A recent Paul Krugman blog
post on the topic highlights a dilemma shared by many on the left:
“Democrats are torn individually… On one side, they favor helping those in need, which inclines them to look sympathetically on immigrants; plus they’re relatively open to a multicultural, multiracial society… today’s Mexicans and Central Americans seem to me fundamentally the same as my grandparents seeking a better life in America… Open immigration, [however] can’t coexist with a strong… safety net; if you’re going to assure… a decent income to everyone, you can’t make that offer global. “

Furthermore, Krugman has argued in a prior column: “Countries with high immigration tend, other things equal, to have less generous welfare states than those with low immigration. U.S. cities with ethnically diverse populations — often the result of immigration — tend to have worse public services than those with more homogeneous populations.”

Krugman sees open immigration as an enemy of the safety net in two senses. Either it overwhelms our scarce resources and/or it undermines the social consensus on which the safety net must rest. Both arguments are problematic.

Current immigration politics is fueled by an image of hordes of Mexicans eager to cross our borders for our welfare benefits. Implicit in this image is the self-flattering view that Mexicans predominantly want our way of life. .Such a view also obscures the role of US policy in the Mexican exodus. Under the 1994 NAFTA accords, Mexican markets were opened to competition from subsidized agribusiness, displacing about two million peasant farmers. They had few options besides emigration. Recent studies also indicate that the flow of Mexicans is now in the other direction—likely because of the severe US recession.

Walling off Mexico will not redress the assault on the working class. Driving undocumented workers back to Mexico would both further destabilize the Mexican economy, lower wages there, and perhaps make Mexico even more attractive to business flight.

Protecting labor rights both in the US and in trading partners is the best answer to the corporate globalization that impels rapid population shifts. Organizing across ethnicity and nationality for labor rights here is crucial and could in turn build support for international labor collaboration to press reform of the current international trade system. Such an agenda would improve economic circumstances in Mexico, foster more full and remunerative employment in the US, thus providing the revenue to finance a generous safety net even for a growing US population. ( Krugman seems strangely to forget that historically the immigrants who seek our safety net are also an asset to our economy.)

Even as he worries about open immigration, Krugman describes the US as having a tradition of welcoming immigrants. But following Bonnie Honig (Democracy and the Foreigner) I read our traditions as more ambivalent. At times immigrants have been treated as advancing the American dream. Full citizenship rights are encouraged. The other side of that coin, however, is that when the dream falters—either because it seems unattainable or is less satisfying than promised, bashing immigrants becomes a means to preserve our commitment to and reverence for that dream.

Economists are conflicted as to the effects of undocumented immigrants on unskilled worker wages. No study, however, puts their impact anywhere close to that of such variables as the Federal Reserve’s manipulation of interest rates and employment levels. All workers advance in a full employment economy. Yet despite overwhelming evidence about the weaknesses in our deregulated banking system, the role of the Fed and investment bankers in creating and abusing that system, and their role in fostering a near depression, there is, other than from Michael Moore, no movement to deport bankers.

Immigrant bashing preceded the current crisis and has taken several forms, including “the English only movement,… blaming immigrants and ethnics for the fragmentation of high culture (perversely enough at a time when the homogenizing powers of American popular culture are at their height and the identification of enclavism with immigrants and ethnics at a time when the propensity to withdraw from public services and public culture is most characteristic not of foreigners but of the wealthy.” (Honig) More recently, immigrants have been blamed for lawlessness at a time when rates of violent crime are actually falling.

A nation most of whose citizens are from away, does not share a common heritage, and has often seen itself as God’s chosen, has often experienced an especially strong need and temptation to affirm the unity and simplicity of a set of core values. ( Paradoxically, portraying ourselves as uniquely open often serves to strengthen our sense of ourselves as a chosen few and to justify new forms of repression of those who are different.) There is a long tradition in the US of treating even domestic dissidents who suggest the limits to or the difficulties in attaining that dream as “foreign inspired.”

The Obama Administration’s rather tepid and overhyped stimulus package, leaving unemployment at extraordinarily high levels, invites continued scapegoating. What else is left to blame if the stimulus package has failed? Democrats need to return to a vigorous jobs agenda, But building support not only for job creation but long- term safety nets requires addressing ethnic politics and immigration.

Krugman argues that studies indicate ethnic diversity must be limited to achieve broad support for the safety net. But perhaps the very repetition of such regularities along with the larger theoretical understanding that society always proceeds in an orderly fashion help reproduce the phenomenon and is part of the problem. It may give undue solidity to the very murky notion of ethnicity and freeze existing boundaries.

In addition, Krugman assumes that enactment of a more just safety net depends on what is happening within the society. A dynamic between internal and external may play a more vital role than in earlier eras. Perhaps a world as marked by the rapid flow of ideas, populations, and products offers possibilities as well as risks.

Rather than build commitment to the safety net—especially in our globalizing world-- on cultural or ethnic homogeneity, the best foundation may be far more pluralistic. Such a coalition might spring from multiple ethnicities, gender justice, labor, and religious and secular sources, all of whom recognize or can be indueced to see the damage to each from forms of political repression and exclusion. They cultivate among themselves and others a willingness to risk challenge to the certainty of their identities in an effort to have a political life together. Sister cities movements, the World Social Forum (WSF) and experiments on cross national labor collaboration may be early examples. At their best, their participants are willing to concede that some of their deepest beliefs about God and truth are not or have not been fully proven. They admit their participation in historic injustices. (Mexicans who break laws by crossing our borders are returning to land stolen from Mexico.) They recognize that the established rights or democratic forms—important as they are-- may not be the last word. Many of the most alienated will not join such a collaboration, but others confused and disturbed by the drift of our politics may. Such a coaltion seems better prepared to resist the worst forms of exclusionary and authoritarian politics. The endeavor to build on a diverse and open foundation seems worth it to me.

In Arizona even as activists oppose the new law both in the courts and through boycotts, they can reach out to some members of the law enforcement community who see the cost and inequities in the law. And within the Hispanic community itself, new alliances may be built as some who have shared opposition to the undocumented (perhaps because they or their parents came legally) may come to see that demonization of the undocumented comes to touch them also. A pluralistic politics on the international scene may be equally vital, especially as walls between inside and outside become more porous. Of these early efforts, the WSF may deserve the most attention in a world of rapid population flows. Critics of a consensus that pits workers against each other, exacerbates inequalities among nations, and treats the environment as an open sewer are often called “anti-global.” Yet from its inception participants in the WSF have been committed to finding global alternatives to international corporate capitalism. The WSF’s motto, “another world is possible”, implies globalization with two big differences. The emphasis is on initiatives from the bottom up. Just as basically, the WSF rejects not only the corporate dominated model but also even the underlying assumption that the world can be united through one underlying ideology, philosophy, or worldview. As one commentator puts it, the WSF “was constituted as an important initiative of mobilization and articulation of the global civil society. From then on it has maintained a central role against "single thought"…offering a rich space for sharing experiences, drawing up campaigns and for debates on alternatives to social problems at global level.”

In order to remain a focus for continuing debate and inspiration, WSF takes no positions as an organization, Its only membership requirements are opposition to corporate domination, an international outlook, nonviolence, and open participation, terms whose meaning it continually re-examines.

Thus WSF participants have generally opposed the anti-labor thrust of Washington deregulators. But the body does not serve to foster “socialism” as conventionally defined. Some labor and left parties have seen as their mission greater equality in material standards achieved primarily by endless growth in wages and affluence, including autos and more air travel, for poor and working class citizens. But as an organization that includes first people’s movements and others moved by reverence for the earth, the WSF challenges conventional left to explore the limits of their preconceptions. More broadly its ongoing dialogues are premised on and seek to advance responsiveness to new and emerging injustices. Only a flexible, self-organized mesh can cover a globe that may be more volatile and unpredictable than monomaniacal corporate globalizers and old time socialists assume. Here in the US immigrants can be a catalyst to fundamental transformations in our politics. Many have engaged at great personal risk in demonstrations and union organizing. They are more than an economic asset. Coming from a variety of Christian and indigenous perspectives, many value cultural, religous, and family commitments more than endless material growth. Many also share a greater appreciation for the centrality of political participation both as a value itself and a means to a more dynamic pluralism. They may be key players in our enactment of a more generous society.


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