Nader on Immigration: Friend or Foe?

OAKLAND -- In between fending off questions about his spoiler role in the presidential election, Ralph Nader has spent some of his five-day "Don't Waste Your Vote" swing through California and Texas quietly sketching out an immigration policy unlike anything the United States has ever seen.

The Green Party candidate would strengthen the U.S.-Mexico border, set an unspecified limit on immigration (without country-by-country quotas), block "high-tech visas" for Silicon Valley companies, discourage immigration by the wealthy, allow short-term work permits, and guarantee all immigrant workers -- legal and illegal -- full labor and civil rights.

Nader's central philosophy toward immigration is to treat it as a foreign-policy issue.

"First of all, the first stage of our immigration policy is to stop supporting oligarchs, dictatorships [and] authoritarian regimes that drive people to leave their native lands out of economic desperation or political repression," he said in the heavily Latino, fast-growing central California city of Fresno on Saturday. "Lots of people from Mexico and Central America would now be in those countries, not in this country, if they had a decent chance at a democratic society and an adequate standard of living."

Questioned directly about trade and immigration issues with Mexico, Nader consistently refers to the United States' southern neighbor as "dictatorial" and "oligarchical."

"There's no such thing as free trade when the country's not free, and suppresses its workers' rights to form independent trade unions through police actions, suppresses wages, condones corporations violating every law that has been on the books in Mexico -- environmental law, worker protection law, minimum wage law, etc.," he said in Houston Thursday.

According to Nader's worldview, the system works like this: America supports dictators in developing countries who drive out their talented professionals. These skilled workers are then scooped up by ravenous U.S. technology companies under the "H1-B" visa program, which Congress has increased drastically over the past three years.

"I don't think Silicon Valley should be allowed to bring in 250-300,000 computer specialists, scientists and engineers, who are desperately needed in third-world countries," Nader said, charging that Internet companies just "underpay them compared to Americans who are ready to be retrained in the new computer languages."

Asked if he considers India to be an "oppressive regime supported by America," and whether there should be a specific limit to H1-Bs, Nader said:

"Well, a lot of workers in this country can be trained in new computer languages. There are minority groups in this country that formed associations to highlight that. There is no shortage that can be documented that Silicon Valley is trumpeting. It's just that they want foreign, skilled computer programmers and engineers and scientists that they can push around and pay less to.

"We are hogs when it comes to brain-draining," he continued. "There's no country in the history of the world that has consciously drained more talent of other countries who desperately need this talent for public health, for entrepreneurship, for scientific and engineering development. And had any other country pursued that against us, we'd be extraordinarily angry at them. Put the shoe on the other foot for a change."

Consistent with his range of policies, Nader is opposed to any immigration system that favors the rich and brutalizes the poor. If enacted, his would be the first immigration policy in U.S. history to deliberately skew toward low-income workers, and offer them a full range of rights.

"The way immigration operates now ... the well-to-do can multiply their number of immigrants because ... they have connections," he said in Fresno. "There's actually a law now in the United States; you can buy yourself in: if you invest $500,000 in job-producing activities, you just come in, and that's very little known."

To help poor immigrants who want to "do work for a short period of time that Americans don't want to do," Nader would "decriminalize the border," establish work permits, provide full legal protection to anyone employed in the U.S. and their children, and allow all farm workers to be covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"Right now employers have the best of both worlds, right? They exploit workers, they make huge profits, and they escape prosecution," he said.

At the same time, Nader strongly opposes any proposals, such as one made recently by Mexican president-elect Vicente Fox, that the U.S.-Mexico frontier some day be made legally porous.

"We cannot have open borders, that's obviously a totally absurd proposition," he said. "It would depress wages here enormously. Tens of millions of people at all levels, including scientists and workers, would be poring into this country. So we have to have some sort of limit."

And even though the border would be decriminalized, Nader says it needs to be strengthened.

"We obviously have to pour more resources into the border with Mexico," he said. "There's too much corruption, too much smuggling, too much infectious diseases and too much pollution since NAFTA went into effect. And Clinton (and) Gore promised [that] after NAFTA was passed, that they were going to pour in a lot of resources to clean up that border, public health, transportation ... and they haven't done that. It's one of their major broken promises."

Opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization -- treaties which "surrender more sovereignty than at any time in 200 years," Nader says -- is a key plank in the Green Party's platform, and a particularly popular part of Nader's stump speech to college-age kids.

Nader likes to remind people that he "is the only presidential candidate who's ever read all the NAFTA and the WTO documents," an experience that he said revealed mountains of anti-democratic fine print, such as secretive meetings and no chance for appeal. One of his first acts as president would be to announce a unilateral withdrawal from both treaties.

After that, he would demand all trade agreements would be "democratically run," environmental and consumer protections would be part of independent treaties rather than something to be enforced by the WTO and NAFTA, and future trade agreements "will be geared to lift standards up, not pull standards down."

The unraveling of trade agreements dominates Nader's comments on foreign policy, along with a drastic reduction in military spending. In Houston, in fact, one audience member asked Nader to discuss his globalpolitik beyond free trade issues - upon which the candidate delivered a mini-lecture on how there's "too much power in (the hands of) too few giant global corporations that no longer have any allegiance to our country, or any country, other than to control them."

Nader never even hints that trade may be beneficial to people. In more than two-dozen public appearances this reporter has witnessed, his strongest statement in favor of the exchange of goods and services between countries was: "We're not against international trade as such, we're against corporate-managed trade with dictatorially repressed costs."

And, once tyrannical governments and their corporate backers are beaten back by global citizen movements, Nader argues optimistically, the millions now seeking a better life in the richest country in the world will choose instead to stay home and make the long climb out of poverty. Immigration policy, then, will be solved on the supply side.

"The genius of the people in the Third World," he said in San Antonio, "will flower like an expression of massive springtime, once the yoke of oppression and authoritarian dictatorial regimes is lifted from their backs."

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