Immigration Reform: A path to servitude?

Eric Holt-Giménez and Leah Scrivener | 07.12.2013

After a disappointing decision in late June that flew in the face of immigrant rights, the Senate successfully passed their immigration reform bill. While the Obama Administration refers to Senate Bill 744 as “common sense immigration reform,” the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights calls it “punitive, flawed, and dangerous.”1 The House of Representatives still needs to approve the bill in order for the President to sign it into law, and it is currently unclear what the House will decide.2However, if passed, S.744 would have disastrous consequences for working class immigrant communities.3 Instead of supporting immigrant families and addressing the economic forces that drive them to seek work in the United States, this piece of legislation would “transform our immigration policy into a corporate labor supply stream.”4

The bill sets forth a program that would prevent four to five million currently undocumented immigrants from earning a path to citizenship; dramatically increase the militarization of the border; increase the flow of guest workers into the United States; and reduce the number of family visas distributed.5 These provisions would all serve to further punish and criminalize undocumented immigrants entering the United States.

The Obama Administration claims this immigration reform will provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. However, upon closer examination, the “path” outlined in S.744 is highly inaccessible to millions of immigrants (especially from low-income communities) because of its stringent requirements. It is first important to note that under the bill’s provisions, it could take up to 20 years for an immigrant to obtain a green card.6 Furthermore, for the entire duration of an individual’s period as a registered provisional immigrant, the bill requires “continuous employment”— a gap of unemployment no longer than 60 days—as well as an average income that is consistently above at least 125% of the Federal poverty level.7 With these harsh and exclusionary provisions, Peter Schey, President of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, estimates that 40 percent of all undocumented immigrants living in the US may be disqualified from the naturalization process.8

These draconian regulations discriminate against low-income immigrant communities, sidestepping the fact that poverty is the major cause of migration. Employers—especially those who provide low-wage, dangerous jobs—benefit when low-income, undocumented immigrants are unable to attain citizenship. This is because undocumented workers often fear deportation and are unable to access better jobs and labor protections due to their immigration status.

Another detrimental piece of the Senate’s Bill is the Corker-Hoeven “border surge” amendment, adopted a week before the Senate vote, which added $46.3 billion in increased border spending.9 This sum would fund an additional 700 miles of fencing along the border, 20,000 new border patrol agents, and an increased use of drones and other surveillance technology.10 This costly amendment—in the midst of significant federal budget cuts—further encourages the criminalization of immigrants. The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights commented: “Military contractors, Silicon Valley and enforcement construction companies, who all lobbied heavily for more enforcement, must be cheering at the billions of dollars that could be headed their way.”11

The guest worker program is attractive to business because it is legal in name, but functions in practice just like the undocumented labor market: maintaining a steady flow of workers who earn low wages and have limited opportunities to organize.

Two other provisions of this bill are an expanded guest worker program and a gross reduction in family visas. These two provisions signal a shifting immigration policy that, notes David Bacon, “benefits those industries dependent on cheap labor much more than it benefits immigrant communities themselves.”12

The expanded guest worker program offsets the Senate Bill’s proposals to crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants through the electronic verification (“e-verify”) system. This structure allows employers to continue to benefit from cheap foreign labor—labor that is actually highly skilled, but in no position to organize for higher wages—and frees them from scrutiny regarding the nature of their employees’ documentation status.

As such, the guest worker program is attractive to business because it is legal in name, but functions in practice just like the undocumented labor market: the guest worker program maintains a steady flow of workers who earn low wages, and have limited opportunities to organize.

Clearly, big business is the big winner from the Senate’s immigration reform bill. Not only would the bill push immigration as a vehicle to maintain inexpensive labor in the United States, but it would also further criminalize immigrants and encourage wasteful military spending at the US-Mexico border.

The proposed reform bill is certainly not “comprehensive,” as it does not acknowledge the root causes of immigration to the US—namely, the destruction of rural livelihoods in regions of the world such as Latin America due to US grain “dumping” and free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA. The only “path” the Immigration Reform Bill offers immigrant families struggling to survive after 30 years of failed neoliberal economic policies is a path to servitude.

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1National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “Senate Nears Vote on Flawed Immigration Bill.” June 26, 2013. http://www.nnirr.org/drupal/senate-nears-vote-on-flawed-immigration-bill
2 New York Times Editorial Board. “Immigration in the House.” The New York Times, July 7, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/08/opinion/immigration-in-the-house.html?emc=eta1
3 National Immigration Law Center. “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.” April 22, 2013.http://www.nilc.org/s744summary1.html
4 Bacon, David, Rosalinda Guillén and Mark Day. “The Price of Immigration is Steep.” New America Media, June 6, 2013. http://newamericamedia.org/2013/06/the-price-of-immigration-reform-is-steep.php
5 National Immigration Law Center. ”The Senate Immigration Reform Bill (S.744): What’s Good, What’s Not.” June 27, 2013. http://nilc.org/irsenatesummanalysis.html
6 National Immigration Law Center, June 27, 2013. Op Cit.
7 National Immigration Law Center, June 27, 2013. Op Cit.
8 Schey, Peter. “Analysis of Senate Bill 744’s pathway to legalization and citizenship: An Extensive Critique of Title II.” June 22, 2013.http://mexmigration.blogspot.com/2013/06/peter-schey-deconstructs-s-744.html
9 National Immigration Law Center, June 27, 2013. Op Cit.
10 Lenoir, Gerald. “Senate Immigration Bill Goes from Bad to Worse.” Black Alliance for Just Immigration, June 28, 2013. http://www.blackalliance.org/senate-immigration-bill-goes-from-bad-to-worse/
11 National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights 2013. Op Cit.
12 Bacon et al. 2013. Op Cit.