Two Years After the Big Immigrants Rights Marches, Where Do Things Stand?

U.S. communities that have absorbed new immigrant populations in recent decades have seen incomes and opportunities rise more quickly than communities with no such immigrant influx.
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On May 1, 2006 millions of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets in 140 cities in 39 states across the United States as part of a wave of mass marches that spring in repudiation of extreme anti-immigrant legislation, passed by Republicans in the House of Representatives. The vast size and scope of the mobilization was stunning. And not only did it mortally wound the far-right Republican initiative, it led some of us to think we might be seeing the birth of an important new movement.

Yet, as we look back two years later, it is hard to say things have improved. In 2007 Congress failed to agree on any meaningful immigration reforms. That failure created policy drift and a myopic focus on border barrier construction and stepped up workplace raids. To make matters worse, the legislative impasse has encouraged a withering barrage of anti-immigrant laws at the state and city level.

Some of the worst state and local anti-immigrant measures recently passed are constitutionally suspect and may eventually be voided in the courts. Nevertheless, whether it is criminal penalties for illegally holding a job (Mississippi), denial of services to undocumented migrants (Prince William, VA), discriminatory housing laws (Hazleton, PA, and Farmers Branch, TX), or local police (Maricopa County, AZ, and Irving, TX) who track immigrants and find pretexts to arrest and then deport them: the message of rejection is clear. Meanwhile, this official sanctioning of prejudice is being echoed in what the FBI reports is a spike of hate crimes against Latinos nationwide.

As recession deepens its bite on the U.S., the sponsors of anti-immigrant laws and ordinances are succeeding by playing on widespread economic insecurity and the false perception that immigrants hurt local economies. In fact, as University of California Law Professor, Bill Hing has painstakingly documented, U.S. communities that have absorbed new immigrant populations in recent decades have seen incomes and opportunities rise more quickly than communities with no such immigrant influx. Just last year the town of Riverside, NJ passed and then quickly repealed anti-immigrant statutes when the local business complained immigrants were leaving and they were losing essential customers.

The root cause of accelerating immigration from Mexico and Central America -- the source of more than 80% of our undocumented population -- is the stunning opportunity and wage gap. Jobs are scarce in Mexico, but even a fully employed worker will earn only about a tenth of what a comparable worker earns in the United States. NAFTA -- which was supposed to deliver wage equalization and reduced migration pressures -- has instead brutally squeezed Mexico's poorest workers and pushed millions onto the migrant trail. A recent Washington Post estimate says as many as 600,000 Mexicans will attempt the trek this year.

For better or for worse, migration has become an essential component of the North American economy. It is not something that can be stopped by fences or punitive laws.

Whoever moves into the White House next year will be faced with the question of whether and how to reopen the immigration debate, but on the campaign trail the candidates will likely treat immigration like the political hot potato it is. But let's hope not. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have endorsed the idea of renegotiating NAFTA, specifically pointing to labor rights and environmental protection. If the candidates are serious about opening NAFTA to review, they will also have an opportunity to reframe the immigration debate in common sense economic terms.

As part of NAFTA renegotiation we should both push and help Mexico to invest major public resources in productive projects aimed at stabilizing and even repopulating economically broken communities. Rather than raiding American businesses in search of unauthorized workers, federal resources should be used to help re-train American workers displaced by the same forces of globalization that have made Mexico's communities come unglued. A candidate bold enough to suggest actually doing something to stem immigration by tackling its roots would be taking a risk, but by their willingness to talk about solutions rather than rely on free trade panaceas they could dramatically -- and positively -- change the character of an otherwise increasingly ugly debate.

During the great immigrant rights marches of 2006 people who prepare America's meals, care for America's children and elderly, pick America's crops, and build America's houses stepped from the shadows for a day in the sun. In 2008, there will be similar marches in 60 cities all over the nation. Let's make sure it was not all in vain.

Dr. Gabriela Lemus is the Executive Director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA). Hector E. Sanchez is the Mexico-DC Policy Education Coordinator for Global Exchange

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