Columns » Warwick Sabin

Stop! In the name of love

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Listening to a “Morning Edition” segment about immigration on National Public Radio last Friday, I nearly choked on my breakfast cereal when I heard California Sen. Dianne Feinstein say:

“I met with landscape contractors this morning. Eighty-six percent of their business in California — the largest business in the nation — is illegal. And they admit it. And it has all of those difficulties of being illegal: fear, furtiveness, a hidden nature. Bring it out into the open.”

Yes, those poor landscape contractors! It must be a drag to have to select a handful of workers from among the crowds of undocumented immigrants that assemble in front of the convenience stores at 6 a.m., bargaining them down to the lowest possible rate and paying them off the books. Reform our immigration laws, and do it for the landscape contractors!

You would think that a senator from California might be familiar with some of John Steinbeck’s novels. But Feinstein’s approach to the immigration issue is typical of Democrats and progressives, who have been tentative, impractical and without moral purpose.

They’re tentative in the sense that there is a huge middle ground to seize in a debate that has split the Republican Party into its two traditional factions. Business conservatives, represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, want the flow of immigrants to continue unabated so they can take advantage of the cheap labor. Social conservatives, upset by what they view as a threat to American culture, want to lock down our borders and deport all of the undocumented immigrants that are already here. There’s going to have to be a compromise, but despite being uniquely positioned to offer one, the Democrats have been unwilling to lead.

That might be because of the unpleasant realities of immigration, which brings us to the part about practicality. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his Mar. 27 New York Times column, unregulated immigration is not good for the U.S. economy, because it depresses wages for unskilled workers and stretches our social services to the breaking point. Acknowledging these facts with a practical solution would mean upsetting business interests as well as the liberal wing of the party, which views the enforcement of immigration restrictions as cruel and essentially racist.

What those people overlook is the fundamental exploitation that is occurring under the current system, and which should provide the moral purpose to drive progressives to demand reform. The recent wave of immigration was enabled by businesses flouting the law so unabashedly that they are twisting a senator’s arm by telling her all about it — and she takes their side! Of course they want to continue paying low wages, denying benefits and enjoying the comforts of a complacent workforce. But what kind of society are we countenancing by allowing such practices to continue? Does achieving the American dream mean first being treated as something less than human?

A sense of social justice should motivate Democrats to propose an end to the acceptance of an illegal immigrant subculture. That means even a guest worker program is off the table, because it has the same effect as undocumented immigration (depressed wages, unempowered workers), with the added regulatory expense and exacerbated cultural problems that come with temporary status.

And we shouldn’t dismiss the cultural complaints. Integration is less plausible without a path to citizenship, which is why the Latino community seems particularly separate. And that lack of citizenship is likely what inspired so much disgust with the Mexican flag-wavers at rallies around the country last week. Americans have never been quite so upset about Italian flags in Little Italy, Irish flags at local pubs or the flags flying at the Puerto Rican Day parades. But that’s because those people have already sworn allegiance to the American flag.

A common-sense immigration policy would limit the inflow, document every new arrival and put each one on a path to citizenship, giving everyone a stake in this nation’s future and guaranteeing them protection against exploitation. That will require tough enforcement mechanisms, and it will make many business owners mad.

But they’ve already admitted breaking the law. If they can’t turn a profit by operating their businesses legally and treating workers fairly, only a senator could feel sorry for them.

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