How the Democratic Candidates Can Adopt a More Progressive Immigration Platform
Author and activist David Bacon says increasing deportations will not increase wages, but strengthening unions and workers’ rights and raising the minimum wage will
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Although this country is built on immigration, immigration continues to be one of the most heated issues in the US during and outside of the election cycles. During this US election campaign at the sixth Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders put Clinton on the spot, calling her stance on children crossing the border into question. Let’s have a look.
BERNIE SANDERS: Secretary Clinton, I do have a disagreement here. If my memory is correct, I think when we saw children are coming from these horrendous, horrendously violent areas of Honduras and neighboring countries, people who are fleeing drug violence and cartel violence, I thought it was a good idea to allow those children to stay in this country. That was not, as I understand, the secretary’s position.
PERIES: But Clinton isn’t alone in receiving criticism. Sanders has also come under fire during the debate for not supporting a bill introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy in 2007 which would have allowed immigrants to gain legal status. Joining us now from Oakland, California to unpack all of this is David Bacon. David is an award-winning photojournalist, author, and immigrant rights activist who spent over twenty years as a labor organizer. His most recent book is The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Immigration. David, so good to have you back on the Real News Network.
DAVID BACON: Good morning.
PERIES: So, Sanders, in that comment that we just rolled, seems to be attacking Hillary Clinton on the issue of children coming from Central America. But, give us a sense of where each of the candidates are when it comes to immigration, here I mean Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
BACON: Okay, well, in the exchange, to begin with, Bernie Sanders is bringing up the fact that Hillary Clinton supported the Obama action in 2014, in which he basically began putting the mothers and children who were coming in through Central America into detention enters, in fact built two new detention centers in Texas to hold them, and said that the purpose was to send a message to parents in Central America, so that they were bad parents, not to send their kids north. And, so, Hillary Clinton supported Obama and said it was necessary to send what she called a clear message to people in Central America not to come, not to send their kids.
Now, one of the ironies, this is just a little side note, but, one of the ironies that I’ve been thinking about is that, you know, now we also have a big wave of humans coming from Costa Rica and directly from Cuba, and nobody is saying that there should be a clear message sent to keep Cubans from the United States. In fact, the minute somebody from Cuba puts their foot on US soil, they potentially get a green card and legal permanent resident status, unlike Central American migrants who are thrown into detention centers, so there’s a vast disparity which has to do with US politics. And, you know, sending a message, I didn’t hear the administration or Hillary Clinton say that it was necessary to send a message to anybody else other than these women and their children.
Now, I think, to be fair, we ought to say that she’s backtracked on that, and now says that she doesn’t think that it’s a good idea to throw families into detention centers, has criticized the administration for its deportation raids. Now she is saying that Bernie Sanders voted against the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, and that’s true, but, the reason why he did it was not because he was opposed to legalization, which is what she’s implying. He voted against it because he did not want to vote in favor of the guest worker programs that were a big part of that bill. In fact, he quoted Southern Poverty Law Center’s study, which found that the treatment of guest workers in the United States was what they called ‘close to slavery.’
Bernie Sanders has kind of changed his position, in a way, on this, however. He voted for a comprehensive immigration bill, Senate Bill 744, in 2013, which, in some ways, had guest worker provisions which were worse. And his position, as it’s explained on his website, says that he is in favor of reforms to those guest worker programs, H–They’re called the H programs. You know, H-2A for agricultural workers, H-2B for people who plant pine trees in forests, for instance, and H-1B for tech workers.
That’s a very significant change of position, because many progressive immigrant rights activists, unions, civil rights activists believe that these programs cannot be reformed. That’s why they’re called close to slavery. So calling for reform, in a way, is softening the position, and indirectly this is what employers want. You know, the cry for guest workers is not coming from immigrant communities here in the United States. It’s coming from employers who want these workers because they have very few rights and their wages are low.
So, you know, there’s certain shadings in the position of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders here, but I think that Bernie Sanders’ position has been, generally speaking, more pro-immigrant, and has been more consistent, and it’s easier to tell what he might do if he were president. It’s pretty unclear to tell what Hillary Clinton would do on immigration, other than that she would vote for comprehensive immigration reform bills, and I think doing that, in many ways, because of the labor supply programs just as much as she might do it because she’s in favor of legalization programs.
PERIES: And let’s look at the Republican candidates for a minute here. You know, there is a history, for example, Ronald Reagan had interviews [inaud.] an amnesty bill that was actually a very good policy on the Republican side in terms of immigration. Where are the current candidates on immigration, and who stands out as one of the more progressive ones?
BACON: Well, nobody really stands out as a progressive candidate on immigration. I guess, maybe the one who is less anti-immigrant is the government of Ohio, John Kasich. Jeb Bush, you know, he’s sounding very anti-immigrant now. When he was in Florida he was somewhat less anti-immigrant. But, really, Republicans who are sort of softer on immigration, what they’re really after, again, they’re after the labor supply programs. They’re responding to employers and employer needs. And saying that, you know, we need a kind of immigration policy that’s going to welcome immigrants, but welcome them as workers in programs that are manipulated by employers, really.
There are no Republican candidates who are really talking about a legalization program for the undocumented people who are here in the United States. They’re all pretty uniformly against it, and in some cases they’re extremely against it. You know, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are competing with each other to see who can be more hostile to immigrants, more in favor of deportations, more in favor of putting people in detention centers.
In fact, you know, I think one of the things we’re seeing in this current election process is a rising activity, especially among young immigrants, Dreamers, the people who got a sort of semi-legal status under the Obama–what were called DACA, or deferred deportation for child arrivals, which basically said that for young people who were brought to the United States at a very young age, who went to school here and fulfilled certain requirements, that they were going to be given a status that would free them at least from the threat of deportation.
So you see that a lot of young people now, in states like Nevada, on phone banks, handing out leaflets, participating in this process, supporting Democrats, you know, I think on both sides, whether Clinton or Sanders, in part because they are listening to these Republican candidates, and I think recognizing the danger to themselves and to their families and to their communities if they are elected.
Because, after all, Donald Trump is saying that he would immediately deport all of the undocumented people in the United States. You know, at the maximum, in 1954, the United States deported 1,054,000 people in that year in what was called Operation Wetback. But to talk about deporting 11 or 12 million people would be, it would just be an enormous undertaking, and it would terrorize communities, really permanently. My mind boggles, really, at the thought of being able to, you know, through 11 million people out of the United States at one time.
PERIES: David Bacon, let’s continue this discussion in a second segment where I’d like to take up how you would advise some of the candidates on immigration, so stay tuned.
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
I’m speaking to David Bacon about immigration policy this election season. David Bacon is an award-winning photojournalist, author and immigrant rights activist who spent over twenty years as a labor organizer. His most recent book is The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration. David, thank you so much for joining us again.
DAVID BACON: My pleasure.
PERIES: So, David, this election season Bernie Sanders is perhaps looking like the most reasonable when it comes to immigration policy. So, I want you to pretend you’re one of his advisors and give us a sense of how he can up his game when it comes to immigration policy.
BACON: Well, first I want to give Bernie Sanders credit for something that I think is very, very important, and that is that on his website he says that he recognizes that the North American Free Trade Agreement and that our trade policy is resulting in migration to the United States. It displaces people. And he even says that the number of migrants from Mexico coming to the United States during the twenty years of the North American Free Trade Agreement increased by what he says is 185 percent. Actually, I think the increase is even more than that.
That is the first time I have heard somebody on the national stage in the US political process recognizing what is one of the most important truths, and what it really means is we need, in order to deal with migration, we need to look at what the US does abroad, both in terms of trade policy and in terms of intervention policy, and for Hillary Clinton I think this is a big problem, because she is not critical, essentially, of our trade policy, and in fact she has advisors in her campaign.
I was reading a recent article in the New York Times, which I think was inspired by the Clinton campaign, critical of Sanders’ proposals on single-payer health care, and one of the people they trotted out was this guy Austan Goolsbee, and Austan Goolsbee we might remember from the 2008 campaign when Obama was saying publicly that he was going to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement because of its impact on workers in the US, and Mr. Goolsbee, of the Economist, then went to Canada and assured the Canadian government, don’t worry about it. He doesn’t really mean it. We’re not going to touch NAFTA if he’s elected, and in fact that’s exactly what happened. So, I think that, on this one, Sanders gets it right and Clinton gets it wrong. But I think–
PERIES: Can I ask you something, just to clarify?
PERIES: You cited, in a Truthout article, that Bernie Sanders suggested that the open border policy was really a Koch Brothers policy. Can you give us some clarity on what exactly Bernie said, and the problem with that?
BACON: Well, I think that what Bernie was referring to was that employers want a policy in which they have access to a lot of cheap labor, and I think this is a very unfortunate remark for him to make, because what it really should have done was, it should have criticized the guest worker programs in these very organized ways in which employers seek to recruit and bring workers to the United States in very vulnerable position. And, talking about the open border policy, I mean, well, first of all, there is no open border. I mean, otherwise we wouldn’t be deporting 400 thousand people a year.
But it’s also sort of, it could be interpreted to say that the migration of undocumented people is something that we ought to try and stop with enforcement and by deportations and so forth, because employers are going to employ workers who don’t have papers at low wages, and the solution to low wages is to organize unions and to raise the wages. It’s not to basically say that the workers then should be deported because they’re basically in a very vulnerable situation. So immigration enforcement is not an answer to the problem of low wages. The problem of low wages is what Bernie himself says, which is, you know, fight for 15, raise the wages, strengthen unions, and so forth.
PERIES: How should the candidates be addressing this issue now? You know, perhaps Bernie was referring to the fact that sometimes extreme right-wing people advocate for open borders because free-flowing labor drives the price of labor down, and some very conservative members have supported that policy.
BACON: Well, I think it’s become kind of like a, you know, a manipulated issue in a way, or at least the words are. The only Republican source I think that uses those words and says that they’re for it is the Wall Street Journal. And does that for exactly the reason you’re saying. They say, you know, an open border policy essentially means that the US economy becomes, as they would say in their coded language, more competitive. In other words, wages go down. Now, it’s true that, you know, if workers are working at low wages what it does is it sort of puts a limit on all workers.
So, you know, employers use the threat of low wages against workers who are getting more, by essentially saying to people, “Look,” in union negotiations, for instance, “You should accept what we’re offering. We’re going to cut your medical care, we want to cut your wages, and if you don’t like it, there are a lot of people out there who are willing to work for less than you are.” This is, you know, wage competition, this has been part of capitalism. It’s part of the way our country has functioned from the very beginning, and so the progressive answer that unions have had to this, and basically it does–what certain employers are trying to do is, they are trying to make workers feel very fearful about their jobs, so fearful that they will not ask for very much.
And so, the answer that our labor movement has historically had to that, especially the progressive parts of our labor movement, is to say that what we’ll need to do then is we’ll need to get workers together and we’re going to go to employers together, and we are going to demand what we want, and we are going to fight to ensure that all workers have rights.
And so, if we have undocumented people, for instance, who are vulnerable, say, because of our deportation policy. After all, if we’re deporting 400 thousand people a year, anybody in their right mind is going to feel very worried about their status if they don’t have papers. So, we need to stop the deportation policy. We need to ensure that everybody in our work place have rights, and are able to stand up and advocate for themselves. And if we have an immigration policy, which we do, that makes people vulnerable, then we need to change that policy.
And this is one place where I think the Sanders campaign really needs to think about seriously, so does Hillary Clinton, and that is they both are calling for what they’re saying are, making our policy called E-Verify function more fairly.
Now, E-Verify is an enforcement policy that takes place at work, on the job. And what it does is it requires employers to check the immigration status of workers, and then the government comes in and essentially forces employers to fire workers if they don’t have legal status. That makes people feel very fearful and very afraid. It makes it hard for people to organize unions. It gets used against workers when they do try to organize unions, and it is an enforcement policy that cannot be reformed.
There is no way to make the firing of people over their immigration status softer so that people are not going to fear. You either are going to fire people because of their immigration status or you are not, and it is in the interest of workers here that we have as much security, as many rights as we can, in the workplace. So simply saying that we need to kind of make sure that we only fire people in a fair way is not a solution here.
PERIES: Hillary Clinton is on record saying that she supports comprehensive immigration policy. What does she mean by that, and what is on the table to be negotiated in terms of comprehensive immigration policy?
BACON: Comprehensive immigration policy, essentially, is the name for the kind of immigration bills we have seen in Congress over the last several years, and they’re sort of three-part bills. So, one part is the legalization part for people who are here as undocumented people, and there’s a lot of variation in how that gets treated, so some of the proposals for legalizing people legalize almost everybody and some only legalize a very small percentage of people. But that’s the part that most immigrant communities want to have. People need legalization. They need legal status.
But the other two parts of those bills, one part, and we’ve been talking about them, one part is increased enforcement, so that either [inaud.] program, firing people at work. That increases under comprehensive immigration reform. And then the guest worker programs, you know, these contract labor programs that bring people to the US in this very vulnerable situation. That also increases under these comprehensive bills.
That’s why they’re called comprehensive, is because they include all of these elements, and so really these bills, if you go back and you look at what the origin of these bills were, they were originally written by employers as labor supply bills. In other words, to say, we need to expand, get us worker programs, and in order to make these programs function well we need to have a lot of enforcement so that we’re going to force people to come to the United States that way.
That’s why we have these big enforcement provisions in those bills, including enforcement at the border. And then it’s sort of like a carrot that gets dangled in front of people, and say, if you agree to these things then we’ll give you a little bit of legalization, or a little bit more of legalization, depending on the bill.
So I think that when Bernie Sanders said in 2007 that he was against the comprehensive immigration reform bill, he was saying something that was very important, which is, I am against these guest worker programs, this is, you know, something that is manipulated by employers, that employers want. We’re not against immigrants, but we want people to be able to have rights here in the United States as workers, and guest workers don’t have rights. That’s why they’re, these programs exist. When he voted for Senate Bill 744 later on, I think that that was kind of going backwards, really, because in a sense it was saying, I accept the deal, this tradeoff.
And Hillary Clinton has always been in favor of the deal. I think maybe partly because she thinks that legalization is a good idea, but really mostly because she thinks that employers should be given workers under these guest worker programs, and also is in favor of increased enforcement, and even though she’s sort of trying to soften her position on enforcement now somewhat, historically speaking Hillary Clinton has been very much in favor of immigration enforcement. That’s why it’s kind of hard to figure out what she would do if she were president.
I think that Bernie Sanders is more predictable, but I think that he should stick to his guns. he should stick to the positions, the progressive positions that he’s taken in the past, and also really look at the real-life impact of things like increased enforcement, especially increased enforcement at work.
PERIES: David Bacon, the author of the book, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration. David, thank you so much for joining.
BACON: My pleasure, thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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