In recent weeks, it has been impossible to move, almost literally, without encountering the divisive debate in the United States over illegal immigration. The issue, which had been simmering for months, was ignited when hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and their supporters demonstrated across the country.
By accident, I ran into one such demonstration in New York’s Union Square a couple of weeks ago. It was huge, peaceful and even joyful in its celebration of immigrants’ contribution and commitment to their adopted nation. But there were also the racist hecklers.
The rally’s purpose was to demand a regularisation of the status of the many immigrants who, although entering the country without authority, had nevertheless worked productively and engaged constructively in community affairs, in some cases, for many years.
To understand the magnitude of the illegal immigration problem here, one needs to begin with numbers. I was taken aback to learn that there are between 11 and 12 million illegal immigrants presently in the US and this number is increasing by some 500,000 a year. Of these, approximately 80 per cent are Mexican.
These immigrants make long and arduous journeys across the desert that spans northern Mexico and four southern American States to find a better life. Some make it, others are caught and deported, a few die.
In proportion to population, the equivalent number of illegal immigrants living in Australia would be 800,000. The rate of increase would be 35,000 per annum. Eighty per cent might arrive from the provinces of Indonesia. This is a lot of boat people.
It is remarkable that so many people have been integrated in the US with such seeming success. There is a reason: the American economy ticks over on the back of this illegal workforce. Companies, particularly in the southern States, employ illegal workers en masse to do work that Americans dislike doing. They can pay this willing labour pool far less than industrial regulations require of firms when employing US citizens. It is simply not in employers’ interests to look too carefully at the legal status of their Latino job applicants.
And the employees, although exploited in wage terms, do not kick up too great a fuss because they are still paid well in excess of what they might earn across the border. And with that they can support their families and extended families in both the US and Mexico.
It has suited almost everyone. So what is the problem?
There are several. No nation wishes to admit that it is wilfully blind to mass law-breaking. The Bush Administration has now been called on this and, politically, it has to respond.
On the other side, illegal immigrants who have been conscientious contributors to the economy and society naturally wish to end the uncertainty surrounding their status. They now want to attain legal status as citizens.
That, however, is a major stumbling block for the far-Right conservatives who constitute an important part of Bush’s political base. They won’t stand for any amnesty for ‘illegals’, particularly those of a different ethnic and racial complexion. They rail against the ‘criminals and terrorists’ invading the US from the south. They seethe when their national anthem is sung in a language other than English.
For these extremists, the answer is simple: increased border security. They want armed troops sent south straight away and a fence, if not a wall, built along the entire 2500-kilometre border with Mexico. (One wag asked recently how on earth it would be possible to build such a fence without the employment of cheap Mexican labour.) A well-organised vigilante group called the Minutemen has been formed. They patrol parts of the border with no legal authority, claiming to make citizens arrests. They will hurt someone.
Bush is caught in the middle in all this. And he was haemorrhaging political support when he faced the nation on national television last week to announce new policies to combat the illegal immigration problem.
I don’t often do this, but I have to give him some credit. He could have caved in to the far-Right hysteria. Instead, the Administration has crafted a complex compromise which, if it survives Congressional debate more or less unchanged, might represent the beginnings of a solution to a problem of bewildering complexity.
To assuage the extreme Right, the President announced that 6000 National Guardsmen (reservists) would be sent on rotation to the Mexican border to assist existing border patrol personnel. They will be deployed, initially, for a year and will be engaged principally in construction, engineering, surveillance and medical support activities. This will free the border patrol to concentrate on catching border-crossers. One can hardly complain about this. If one has a border it ought, to some reasonable extent, be secured.
At the same time, a new guest worker program will be introduced. This would permit people to be admitted legally in large numbers to work in the US on a temporary basis meeting the needs of existing employers. At the end of their employment, the guest workers would go home.
Next, the status of the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country would be addressed. They would be offered a path to legal citizenship after working in the country for a specified period of years. Upon payment of a penalty, they would go to the back of the legal queue. This means that most would wait a decade before attaining full citizenship. But they could stay.
Of course there are problems with the Bush plan. It is said that the National Guard would not engage in any law-enforcement activity. At the same time, they would carry arms for their self defence. It is only a matter of time before someone is shot by a Guardsman, whether deliberately or in error.
The guest worker program has major flaws. It is hardly ennobling to permit the employment of ‘a second class army of worker bees’, as a New York Times editorial put it. Its discriminatory aspect should be removed.
The obstacles placed in the way of immigrants presently residing illegally in the country are formidable. A decade’s wait is too long and proposed conditions including a hefty fine, a requirement to demonstrate proficiency in English, to pay all back taxes, to relinquish claims to Social Security entitlements earned while working and a requirement to carry a biometric identity card are too onerous.
And the plan does nothing to address the source of the problem: economic conditions in Mexico. Providing aid and encouraging greater investment in Mexico together with a willingness to add a Social Chapter to the North American Free Trade Agreement might have been a start in this respect.
But it could have been much worse. A Bill currently before the House of Representatives contains no balancing provisions relating to citizenship at all. Its focus is exclusively on border protection, requiring the hiring of more border patrol agents, the erection of a 1000 kilometre fence and the criminalisation of illegal residence.
A Republican amendment to the McCain-Kennedy Senate Bill, which formed the basis for the President’s plan, required that the Department of Homeland Security certify that the border is secure before any consideration would be given to accommodations for existing immigrants.
So the emphasis on balance, even if it is still a somewhat mean-spirited balance, is welcome.
It would be nice to think that a similar spirit of accommodation might imbue Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies. One hopes, for example, that we would not mandatorily detain 800,000 illegal immigrants if they were in our midst.
After all, people who are willing to risk their lives to get to Australia and start anew might even make a contribution.
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