Sep
01
2007

Fencing Off the Immigration Debate

Why workers cross the border is off the agenda

Upon the proposed omnibus immigration bill’s final defeat in the Senate, the Washington Post (6/29/07) published an editorial titled “An Immigrant’s Lament,” which told the sad story of Ernesto, “a 31-year old Salvadoran handyman” who “watched ruefully as the senators dealt their lethal blow to his prospects for a normal life on the right side of the law”:

He does better here as a painter, carpenter, landscaper and electrician than he ever could in Cabañas, his hardscrabble native region of northern El Salvador, which is rich in beans and sugar cane but bereft of jobs.

The Post scolded politicians for “squashing the last, best hope for now” for Ernesto and his estimated 12 million fellow undocumented immigrants in the country.

Likewise, the Los Angeles Times wrote (6/8/07) that the Senate bill “was fully satisfying to none but should have been amenable to all, given the prize—the opportunity of citizenship for millions of men and women living and working in this country, forging its culture and contributing to its life.”

It was the same across the mainstream corporate media (with notable nativist exceptions like CNN’s Lou Dobbs—Extra!, 1-2/04), which frequently cast their support for the bill as a bid for justice and a better life for the huddled masses. But while undocumented immigrants do indeed suffer an unjust and even deadly immigration system in the United States, and all immigrant rights groups seek major changes to that system, most grassroots groups and their supporters strongly opposed the bill’s passage because, contrary to the media myth, it was simply a bad deal for current and future immigrants.

A bad deal for immigrants

As plainly acknowledged by all major media, the bill would have furthered militarization of the U.S./Mexico border; a Washington Post editorial (6/17/07) approvingly highlighted the “$4.4 billion in guaranteed, upfront funding for tighter border security, expanded detention facilities and a crackdown on employers who hire illegal workers.” The “path to legalization” would not have even begun until those enforcement measures were all implemented, which could easily have taken years. In the meantime, immigrants like the Post’s Ernesto would have lived under stepped-up enforcement in even greater fear of raids, detention, deportation and an even more life-threatening border crossing.

Many immigrant rights groups emphasized that the “path to legalization,” far from being an amnesty, would have required immigrants to pay onerous fines and fees of over $10,000, and those who managed to clear all the hurdles and pay all the penalties would still have to wait a total of around 16 years to finally receive their citizenship (Immigrant Solidarity Network, 5/25/07; National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 6/7/07). Moreover, the proposed temporary worker program would have created a new and separate class of vulnerable workers—essentially legalizing the exploitation of immigrant workers. The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report (3/07) on similar but smaller-scale guest worker programs already in effect, and concluded that they were “fundamentally flawed” and even “close to slavery” because of the workers’ dependence upon employers to both enter and stay in the country.

Those immigrant rights advocates, their voices marginalized by the supposedly pro-immigrant media (Extra!, 5-6/06), called instead for truly humane, pro-immigrant policies that would unite families and provide fundamental rights for all people living and working within U.S. borders.

But as those advocates also pointed out, beyond a better bill, a truly humane immigration agenda would have to include a look at the “why” of immigration. The Post would need to ask why Ernesto’s El Salvador is “rich in beans and sugar cane but bereft of jobs,” and why millions of others like him are driven to leave their homes and families to come to the United States. The question is critical, and the answers are not hard to find—except in corporate media.

The elephant in the room

At the same time as they put out report after report on the “immigration crisis,” media pushed hard for passage of bilateral trade deals negotiated by George W. Bush with various Latin American countries and South Korea, and the renewal of presidential “fast-track” trade authority. But while it’s precisely that so-called “free trade” model that has been a major cause of a recent spike in immigration to the U.S. in the first place, readers would have had better luck finding that connection made in letters to the editor than in hard news articles or editorials in the country’s major papers.

The media haven’t always feigned such ignorance, though. In 1993, the Clinton administration was pushing hard for the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to speed up the neoliberal process of opening up Mexico’s economy to foreign corporations and imports, and immigration was also a high-profile issue; at the time, USA Today wrote (9/30/93), “With the exception of healthcare and NAFTA, perhaps no other issue preoccupies Congress more this year than immigration reform.” But unlike today, media then often linked trade and immigration, and the “push factors” of immigration were sought out and highlighted. It’s not that the media were more astute then, or had more integrity; it’s because it was seen at the time as politically useful.

The mammoth trade deal was not an easy sell to the public, and its backers had to pull arguments from all directions; since immigration, too, was a hot-button issue, touting NAFTA as the panacea for illegal immigration, in a way, killed two birds with one stone. Then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno wrote in an L.A. Times op-ed (10/22/93): “The bottom line . . . is this: Mexicans come to America illegally because they seek work. It’s that simple. We will not stop the flow of illegal immigrants until these immigrants find decent jobs, at decent wages, in Mexico.” Reno concluded that NAFTA was “the only real, sustainable way to substantially halt illegal immigration.”

Corporate media fell right in line, clamoring for NAFTA’s passage and likewise tying it to immigration in making its case. A USA Today editorial (11/16/93) argued that “NAFTA will give Mexicans more jobs and higher pay. That reduces pressure on them to come here, where they compete for low-wage jobs with Americans.” In a piece on the heated immigration debate, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter (7/26/93) left no doubts: “Clearly the only real solution is to create jobs in Mexico, and the only way to do that is through NAFTA.”

After Congress passed the deal, the L.A. Times editorial board (12/6/93) wrote approvingly:

As for dealing with illegal immigration at the source, Congress did itself proud by approving the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA will eventually slow the movement of illegal migrants from Mexico, who may represent 60 percent of the illegal U.S. population, by helping the Mexican economy prosper. But the fact that even a sensible step like NAFTA was so controversial proves how tough it can be to achieve immigration-control measures.

The NAFTA reality

Of course, NAFTA’s version of “free trade” was far from fair trade, and critics correctly predicted its disastrous effect on the Mexican economy (Extra!, 5-6/04). While the deal required Mexico to lift most protective tariffs and other barriers to U.S. farm exports, the U.S. maintained its enormous agricultural subsidies—most notably corn subsidies, which are so high that U.S. agribusiness can sell corn profitably for well under what it costs to produce. Millions of Mexican small farmers were left without a prayer; Mexico’s agricultural sector hemorrhaged over 2 million job by 2006, largely as a direct result of NAFTA (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 9/11/06).

Meanwhile, on the heels of NAFTA’s passage, Mexico’s peso collapsed in 1995; an artificially high peso during negotiations provided the essential illusion that Mexico would be a robust importer of U.S. goods, while its collapse, which drastically lowered labor costs in Mexico, was key to attracting foreign industry to the country and increasing its own exports (Economic Policy Institute, 1997; Extra!, 9-10/97).

So maquiladora jobs were indeed created by the combination of NAFTA and the peso crash—but they couldn’t possibly absorb all of the displaced farmers. What’s more, NAFTA’s corporate-friendly rules ensured that those jobs would offer next to nothing in terms of wages, benefits, safety or workers’ rights; they were high-turnover jobs that offered no future and did little to stem the flow of workers across the border. By 2001, new global trade agreements with China had taken effect, and even those maquiladoras started closing up shop and shipping jobs overseas in the never-ending search for even cheaper labor, resulting in yet more waves of migrants heading northward. And NAFTA’s work still isn’t done: Its final stage comes in 2008, when the last lingering tariffs on corn and beans will be lifted, offering little hope for the struggling small farmers that remain.

The numbers make clear the result of NAFTA’s overall economic effects in Mexico: The average household labor income actually fell by 15 percent from 1994 to 2004 (EPI, 9/28/06). Between 1990 and 1994, pre-NAFTA, the average annual yearly increase in the undocumented Mexican immigrant population in the United States was 260,000; from 1995-99, that number jumped to 400,000, and from 2000-04 it rose yet again to 485,000 (Pew Hispanic Center, 3/21/05).

A critical piece missing

While NAFTA is not the only factor in the swelling undocumented population, it’s clearly an enormous and critical piece of the puzzle—but (or perhaps therefore) corporate media have conveniently managed to forget that connection they once made between immigration and economics. And of those few that do dare to broach the subject, many still can’t admit that NAFTA did not solve the problem of illegal immigration but worsened it.

The Houston Chronicle (3/15/07) concluded tepidly that NAFTA “has fallen short” on its promise to end illegal immigration; later the same month (3/24/07), it cited a Mexican university professor to explain that “the number of immigrants has increased, but not because of NAFTA. . . . It’s more the result of income disparities between the U.S. and Mexico.” Of course, the income disparities were exactly what NAFTA was supposedly going to decrease—and instead exacerbated.

The Christian Science Monitor (6/20/07) actually argued that NAFTA was a good first step in slowing illegal immigration and that more such economic policies were needed:

Opening up these key parts of the economy—telecommunications, oil, cement and electricity—to fair competition under the law would be [Mexican President Felipe] Calderon’s greatest legacy. It would build on two other major reforms: the opening of Mexico’s markets since the mid-1990s through NAFTA and the establishment of real democracy with the end of one-party rule in 2000.

The U.S.’s role, the Monitor suggested, should simply be to support more privatization and lend a hand by beefing up border security.

Denver Post columnist Cindy Rodriguez, in a column headlined “Immigration Reform’s Best Chance Is Now” (3/25/07), made a nod to trade policies’ effect on immigration, but inexplicably argued that “the devastating effect NAFTA has had on the Mexican economy is complex, and it’s not practical to expect the American public to push for fairer trade agreements.”

Rewarded for being wrong

The New York Times published an analysis (2/18/07) that proposed to take the bull by the horns, headlined, “NAFTA Should Have Stopped Illegal Immigration, Right?” The reason it failed, columnist Louis Uchitelle concluded, was rooted in the faulty “assumptions about the way governments would behave (that is, rationally) and the way markets would respond (rationally, as well)”—in other words, the model was sound, but the actors failed to conform to that model.

And how did Uchitelle reach that conclusion? His sources were four economists and a demographer; of the economists, three were men whose wrong predictions about NAFTA helped gain it passage back in 1993. The fourth, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, offered criticisms of laissez-faire orthodoxy, but went out of his way to assure readers, “I am not saying NAFTA was a bad agreement.”

The more logical and enlightening sources for such a story, those who were right all along about NAFTA (the Economic Policy Institute, for example, or the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy) continued to be marginalized as they were in the original NAFTA debate, saving the Times from a more damning analysis of the deal—and of its media cheerleaders.

One rare exception to media’s tiptoeing around NAFTA was a surprisingly frank article in the San Diego Union-Tribune by business reporter Dean Calbreath (5/6/07), who proposed an alternative to radical enforcement measures:

Why not take a look at why this mass migration is happening? A spate of recent studies suggest the latest wave of immigration parallels a decline in the Mexican economy. And the root causes of the decline have as much to do with trade policies in Washington, D.C., and Beijing as with economic blundering in Mexico City.

“Blame NAFTA” for the recent rise in illegal immigration from Mexico, Calbreath wrote bluntly, spelling out many of its devastating consequences for the Mexican economy. He concluded by advocating a European Union-style approach that would fund “economic development programs” for Mexico and “insist on domestic reforms to ensure that everyone would benefit from the economic growth.”

The economics of exploitation

Much more commonly, though, the media simply left NAFTA out of the immigration picture entirely, rewriting the connection between immigration and the economy: No longer credible as a solution to increased immigration, the neoliberal version of “globalization” has been recast as an inexorable, unquestionable force that might spur immigration but must be accommodated. This new scenario leaves no room in the debate for looking to stop migration at its root, and solutions like sealing off the border and establishing guest worker programs follow as perfectly logical.

The New York Times pronounced that “Globalization has accelerated and complicated” immigration (6/9/07), and that “solutions will have to correspond with the complex realities of global economic change” (6/30/07). The L.A. Times agreed (6/29/07): “In a globalized marketplace, there’s almost no way to escape [low-wage competition]. And as long as countries to the south and west struggle economically, many of their residents will do whatever it takes to find work here.”

USA Today (6/22/07) wrote that “fences and border agents won’t keep undocumented workers out if the magnet of appealing jobs constantly lures them in,” and judged the solution to be found in workplace enforcement. The Washington Post picked up the same thread, arguing on June 10 that immigrants are “drawn by the great magnet of the American economy to fill jobs that most Americans won’t do,” and a week later (6/17/07) reiterating that “trying to seal the border without recognizing the reality that the U.S. economy relies on immigrant labor is a recipe for failure.”

It’s worth pointing out that many of the jobs “Americans won’t do”—such as construction and meat-packing—were until recently overwhelmingly done by U.S.-born citizens, and that immigrants only became a key part of these work forces when wages dropped precipitously (Dollars and Sense, 5-6/06). Car buyers wouldn’t usually complain that a dealer “wasn’t willing to sell” if they offered to pay $100 for a new model—but employers do argue that rather than raising wages (and improving working conditions) to attract legal workers, they should be able to do an end run around the market system and seek out a more vulnerable, exploitable labor pool: people fleeing even worse economic situations and finding themselves with few legal protections in the United States.

At least one opinion piece noted the Mexican poverty factor in immigration, and it made clear how much a serious discussion of global economic policies is off the media table: The New York Times published an op-ed by Harvard’s Rodrik (6/1/07), who argued that, because of remittances immigrant workers send back to their home countries, “A guest worker program is the most effective contribution we can make to improving the lives of the world’s working poor.”

“Grown-up” policies

With trade policy being a forbidden topic in immigration coverage, it’s not surprising that immigration didn’t come up in corporate media coverage of the trade deals and fast-track authority being batted around Congress. The new trade deals take a page from NAFTA, eliminating all protective tariffs on U.S. farm exports; critics forecast major agricultural job losses and drops in income, swelling the ranks of the poor and the unemployed (Oxfam, 3/07). The deals also include NAFTA-style rules that allow foreign corporations to sue countries for “unfair barriers to trade”—which includes things like health, safety, labor or environmental laws. In other words, protections for workers and their environment would be dismantled in the name of 'investors’ rights,” and the pressures for people to seek a better life elsewhere would increase.

On June 27, a group of immigrant rights and Latino organizations held a press conference to draw attention to their opposition to those trade deals and particularly those NAFTA-modeled agricultural rules: “We are calling on members of Congress today to realize that in order to fix the immigration problem of the United States, we need to look at the root cause,” said Gabriela Lemus, Executive Director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. “If we don’t fix the failed NAFTA model of free trade, we’ll be fighting over immigration again and again.” A Nexis search revealed that to find a mainstream media mention of the press conference or the groups’ stance, you’d have to look overseas (Financial Times, 6/28/07).

To the U.S. media, the only real connection to occasionally be made between the two issues was that both trade deals and the immigration bill were sensible pieces of legislation. Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby (6/11/07) praised Democrats for their “economic seriousness” on both immigration and trade, arguing that, based on their immigration and trade positions, they “may be supplanting Republicans as the grown-ups on this issue.” He repeated the media refrain that “anyone who understands Globalization 101 knows that immigration, including large-scale unskilled immigration, is a fact of the modern world.” Mallaby lauded Democrats for recognizing this and argued that their recent stances on trade issues are “sounding less bad on globalization than might have been expected.” He concluded that the Dems deserve to win in 2008 because they get “closest to a fiscally responsible platform that accepts globalization while helping the losers.”

His Post colleague David Broder (7/5/07) evinced less sympathy for Democrats, comparing Democrats’ foot-dragging on the trade deals with Republicans’ recalcitrance on immigration. Broder denounced what he saw as a “mob-rule moment” of runaway populism, writing that “the latest cave-ins involve immigration and trade policy, and both seriously threaten the national interest.” Blaming the Republicans’ populist pandering for the defeat of the immigration bill that, “with all its shortcomings . . . offered some prospect of improving at least some aspects of that broken system,” Broder found the House Dems “no more courageous” for killing Bush’s fast-track trade authority, which Broder declared “has been the key to a vast expansion in world trade” despite “populist protests” from the left.

Dots begging for connection

Meanwhile, the farm bill, which governs U.S. agricultural subsidies and comes up for renewal approximately every five years, also happened to take the stage during the heated immigration debate. Media couldn’t have asked for an easier setup; the dots were practically begging to be connected. And as New York Times Magazine contributing writer Michael Pollan explained in an exceptional piece on the farm bill (4/22/07), “You can’t fully comprehend the pressures driving immigration without comprehending what U.S. agricultural policy is doing to rural agriculture in Mexico.”

But, just as with the trade deals, the Beltway wasn’t about to make those connections. As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (6/28/07), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) argued against addressing immigrant agricultural workers in the farm bill because he didn’t “think it would be appropriate to have a debate on immigration in the farm bill.”

Corporate media apparently agreed. The farm bill didn’t get a tremendous amount of coverage, period, but next to none of that coverage tied it to immigration. One rare exception came in a May 7 Orlando Sentinel editorial:

The negative impact of subsidies goes far beyond U.S. borders. . . . They doom farmers and deepen poverty in countries that can’t afford to pay their own subsidies; U.S. taxpayers end up sending more foreign aid to those countries to compensate. Subsidized U.S. corn has helped drive millions of Mexican farmers off their land and added to the flow of illegal immigrants heading north.

Apparently the paper’s sympathy didn’t extend to the doomed factory workers or other victims of unfair trade deals, though; it lamented that subsidies “undermine negotiations on trade agreements that would open more international markets to U.S. goods and services.” The paper’s stance is not so surprising; as the editorial itself notes, the farm bill’s subsidies “cost U.S. taxpayers at least $20 billion a year,” yet “less than 1 percent of payments between 1995 and 2005 went to Florida farms.”

And really, that’s what it boils down to in the end: To understand corporate media’s positions, you often need look no further than the positions of the corporate sphere they exist in. When it comes to immigration, media’s “pro-immigrant” sympathies have all along been more about advancing a greater pro-business agenda than finding a just and humane remedy to the plight of immigrants like the Washington Post’s Ernesto.