The Rest of the Story: a Response to Stephen Pizzo

Editor's note: this is one of two pieces in a point/ counterpoint format. Please see Stephen's Pizzo's argument here.

Just about everyone agrees that our immigration system is a train wreck, but we're divided over how to go about fixing it. One of the reasons it's been so hard to agree on a policy is that the arguments surrounding the issue are often more emotional than grounded in fact, and the result is that it can be difficult to even agree to the terms of the debate.

Stephen Pizzo's essay on immigration is a perfect example. The great irony of the piece -- the punch line for anyone who followed the policy debates last year -- is this: After devoting considerable column inches to the evils of "comprehensive" immigration reform, Pizzo offers up his preferred solution to the problem, which turns out to be … yes, comprehensive immigration reform.

For 25 paragraphs, Pizzo describes comprehensive reform as a neocon plot to destroy America's working class, a brilliant scheme to sucker those overly empathetic Democrats onto a path that will ultimately separate them from the "very people they claim should vote Democrat [sic]." Then, taking a populist stance, he argues that all those morons in Washington are making things too complex, and he has a simple solution based on good old-fashioned horse sense: We could just have a guest worker program; a database that allows employers to check on potential workers' legal status; some tougher laws for employers; stepped up enforcement of those laws and, grudgingly or not, an opportunity for undocumented immigrants who have put five years into the American workforce to get a Green Card and then "get in line" for permanent status "behind those who followed the rules in the first place."

Those are, of course, the meat and bones of the various proposals for "comprehensive" immigration reform that bounced around in Congress last summer (which got quite a bit of bipartisan support in the Senate but couldn't be reconciled with the bill passed by hard-liners in the House). I'll concede that Pizzo's version of comprehensive reform isn't quite as comprehensive as the proposals cooked up in DC. He leaves out the most popular provisions -- beefed up border security, tougher penalties for immigrants who commit serious crimes, federal money for health care and law enforcement in the states with the largest immigrant populations and provisions requiring immigrants to pay any back taxes they owe, pay a fine for having broken the law, study English and have an understanding of American civics before getting on the back of that line.

The details might vary, but the approach favored by Pizzo and, as he says, George W. Bush and La Raza (along with the majority of Congressional Democrats, the NAACP and forward-looking unions like UNITE HERE!) is basically the same. The internal incoherence of Pizzo's argument makes it hard to know what he thinks "comprehensive immigration reform" means when he writes that it'll drive the left to its "inevitabl[e] end in excess."

For progressives, the more comprehensive the better; when we talk about immigration we should also talk about how our trade and other economic policies influence its flows. We should talk about how reforming the World Bank and the IMF and giving debt relief to the poorer countries in our hemisphere might decrease the number of migrants at the source.

In Congress, those who oppose a comprehensive approach put a premium on enforcement -- they want to make it a felony to be or even to aid an illegal immigrant; they want mass deportations of (at least a large chunk of) the estimated 12 million undocumented aliens already here; they want to dispatch (more) federal troops to the Southern border; build fences and detention centers and do whatever possible to make things tough for the immigrants themselves. (Some proposals, like that made by John Cornyn (R-TX) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) are hybrids; heavy on enforcement, there's a big fence involved, but it also contains a guest worker program).

An analysis by the decidedly un-empathetic and illiberal Heritage foundation concluded that enforcement-only simply hasn't worked (something I discussed at length here):
Increased border enforcement has only succeeded in pushing immigration flows into more remote regions. That has resulted in a tripling of the death rate at the border and, at the same time, a dramatic fall in the rate of apprehension. As a result, the cost to U.S. taxpayers of making one arrest along the border increased from $300 in 1992 to $1,700 in 2002, an increase of 467 percent in just a decade.
Pizzo's analysis of the politics of immigration is as problematic as his take on the policy. He calls it the "GOP's comprehensive immigration reform" and makes much of the fact that Bush supports it. But the comprehensive approach -- dubbed "amnesty" by the organized anti-immigration movement -- is tearing apart the conservative coalition. The issue lays bare the huge gap between the patrician, corporatist wing of the GOP and the nationalist and socially conservative rank-and-file, who have long been in bloody revolt over their Fearless Leader's approach to immigration.

It's true that one party's heading for a crack-up over the issue, but it's not the Dems; progressives and Democrats are as close to unanimity on the broad approach to immigration (if not always on the details) as they get on anything. (I should add that one of the reasons many activists on the left want reforms at the federal level is that they fear that leaving it up to the states -- especially the deep "red states" -- will lead to a patchwork of ugly legislative outcomes).

And this is one area where a huge majority of Americans are right there with most progressives and Democrats -- there's no need to triangulate, no need to appeal to some imaginary center. When the issue was at its hottest early last summer, political scientist Ruy Teixeira analyzed a number of large polls and concluded that while "the public believes immigration is a serious problem and levels of concern appear to be growing," there was "little enthusiasm for an enforcement approach that focuses exclusively on illegal immigrants themselves and removing them from the country, especially when posed against alternatives."

When Americans were asked "whether we should make it easier for illegal immigrants to become legal workers," a majority responded negatively (54 percent against/41 percent for), but that turned right around when pollsters offered more details about the proposed reforms. A Time Magazine poll asked people what they thought of "allowing illegal immigrants now in this country to earn U.S. citizenship if they learn to speak English, have a job and pay taxes," and the public supported it "by a very wide 78-21 margin."

As for Pizzo's underlying economic argument, it's a common one, but it's also one that lacks empirical support. Immigration has costs and benefits. Over the long haul, the economic benefits outweigh the costs, but the gains are widely distributed and the pain is borne by a much smaller number -- that's important to recognize (I discussed the economic issues in detail here).

Like so many Americans, Pizzo holds that immigrants take American jobs and are a drain on public services and that's the end of the story. It's a belief based on looking at only one side of the ledger -- adding up the costs without counting the benefits.

A case in point is the story Pizzo tells about the Crider chicken processing plant in Stillmore, Georgia. In his account, immigration agents made a sweep of the town, rounded up all the illegals and the plant was forced to raise wages. That attracted unemployed African-American workers who filled those jobs and everyone lived happily ever after. Pizzo cites a Wall Street Journal article titled "Immigration Raid Aids Blacks," which he summarized like this:
Who got jobs once the illegals were herded out of Crider's factory?
Unemployed local African/Americans, mostly.
And where had all those worker [sic] been?
Cooling their heels at the Stillmore unemployment office waiting for a job that paid something approximating a livable wage.
And what happened when such jobs were offered?
They stormed the Crider plant to claim one of those jobs the company had claimed "Americans won't do."
But Pizzo edited the article's title -- it was "An Immigration Raid Aids Blacks - For a Time" (emphasis mine) -- and then he offered readers only the half of the story that supported his conclusion that "liberal/progressives need to get their politically correct heads out of their butts on immigration reform."

Here's what he didn't mention. The AP reported that, since the raid, the "Georgia community of about 1,000 people has become little more than a ghost town…"
Trailer parks lie abandoned. The poultry plant is scrambling to replace more than half its workforce. Business has dried up at stores where Mexican laborers once lined up to buy food, beer and cigarettes just weeks ago.
According to the rest of the Wall Street Journal article, after the initial rush of black workers got jobs at the plant, many realized that processing chickens is extraordinarily shitty work. It offers long shifts of hard, dangerous labor in a refrigerated environment for crappy pay. And while the plant raised wages by exactly one dollar, the loss of its immigrant workforce did nothing to compel the firm to improve working conditions.

Many of the African Americans first hired have since left; "Turnover has been high. The population of workers hired since last September's immigration raids has turned over three times, according to Crider."

The company then hired a somewhat shady "recruiter" to bus in unskilled workers -- mostly blacks -- from as far as 200 miles away. But the workers accused the recruiter of short-changing them of their pay. The firm then hired a different recruiter -- one who specialized in Latino workers -- but stopped doing business with him when some of the workers he brought in turned out to be among the same illegals that had been swept up in the September raids.

Pizzo wrote: "All that changed at the Crider plant were the wages on offer," but didn't mention that the raids decimated the community, or that the company remains in the hole: "Still struggling to fill its ranks, Crider began busing in felons on probation from a state prison and residents of a homeless mission from nearby Macon." It's now bringing Laotian Hmong immigrant workers and their families from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Remember, this story was supposed to illustrate just how dishonest the claim is "that immigrants, legal or otherwise, are simply taking jobs Americans won't do." But it really shows that the fact that there are unemployed steelworkers in Pennsylvania doesn't mean that there's a rush to the middle of nowhere in rural Georgia to fill crappy jobs at a chicken processing plant. Laid off Silicon Valley computer geeks aren't falling all over themselves to move to Imperial Valley to pick lettuce -- "labor" is not as fungible as some believe.

Pizzo also neglected to mention the human toll that this kind of heavy enforcement takes. According to the AP, "Some women and children hid for days in the scrubland and pine woods outside of town without food or shelter while they waited for immigration agents to leave."
At least one child, born a U.S. citizen, was left behind by his Mexican parents: Victor Perez-Lopez, 2. The toddler's mother, Rosa Lopez, left her son with Julie Rodas when the raids began and fled the state. The boy's father was deported to Mexico.
"When his momma brought this baby here and left him, tears rolled down her face and mine, too," Rodas said. "She said, 'Julie, will you please take care of my son because I have no money, no way of paying rent?'"
Also unmentioned is that the Southern Poverty Law Center ended up suing the Feds, alleging that they "conducted illegal searches and relied on racial and ethnic profiling while carrying out a massive series of raids that terrorized residents of several towns in southeast Georgia in early September."

That's what the enforcement approach -- that favored by opponents of comprehensive immigration reform -- looks like in the real world.

Ultimately, Crider's working conditions and wages are as bad as they are because its employees aren't unionized and have zero negotiating power. Pizzo blames that on immigrant labor -- a familiar scapegoat -- but while foreign workers certainly have been used to break strikes, that's not the case in Stillmore. Latino workers didn't hit the town until the late 1990s, more than 15 years after Reagan had stacked the National Labor Relations Board with cronies who were hostile to unions, broken the air traffic controllers' strike and changed the ground rules that governed union organizing. That was the beginning of a long decline in labor's power, but that decline simply doesn't line up with the ebbs and flows of immigration in the 25 years since. Georgia became a "right-to-work" state way back in 1947.

Foreign-born labor is a complex issue. At the end of the day, we can tackle it with a comprehensive approach, leave it up to the states to figure it out on their own -- and on their own dimes -- or punish people who are just trying to make a living. I understand the desire of some liberals, like Pizzo, to look tough on issues like immigration, but with the public willing to embrace a more comprehensive solution, there isn't a reason in the world for the rest of us to jump on board.


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