Editor’s note: Rinku Sen and Fekkak Mamdouh are in bookstores in the Bay Area, Seattle, and Portland, OR this week discussing their book, The Accidental American.
As we travel around with the book, I’m fascinated that at every event, people ask totally different questions. Here’s the featured question of this week:
What are the policies we can use to get immigrants treated differently? This one comes to us in different ways. One man asked why couldn’t we use the clause in the UN Declaration of Human Rights that says people have the right to choose their own national identity to liberalize our policies. A young woman told us about her friend being sponsored to be a sushi chef and wanted to know if getting employers to do more of this was a way out. Another asked what exactly would a new immigration policy look like? These people are wanting specifics; I understand why, and there are a few in the book, but I caution us not to assume that if we have specific technical fixes, we will control the debate. We have to change the debate’s frame in order to get traction for the fixes.
There are lots of policy ideas, but we can’t talk about any of them in the current discourse, which is all about punishment on one side, and on the other side, all about how much cheap labor to let in legally. Remember, legalization can mean anything, including giving undocumented people 1 year visas tied to employment that they always have to renew. Legalization does not necessarily mean green card. Sponsorship could be expanded in many ways, but we don’t generally want immigrants to be tied to their employer without any independence. That makes them more exploitable. Note all the stories Domestic Workers United collected of nannies and housekeepers enduring beatings, hunger, constant back breaking work for years as their employers reassure them that their paperwork is “in process,” only to find that no such papers had ever been filed. To judge whether a specific policy idea is a good one, we need to compare them to some criteria. Does the policy help complete globalization so that workers have power equal to corporations? Does it allow for cultural change rather than trying to hold onto some notion of purity? Does it recognize that US residents and immigrants hold the same interests?
What we need to do is get people talking about these principles and the criteria that should guide our immigration policy by asking new questions. Questions like, why do people come to this country in the first place? What is the theory behind our local and national economic development plans – are they about building something sustainable and raising the value of all jobs, or are they simply about trusting corporations to move to our town by giving them huge tax breaks? What do immigrants and native-born Americans have in common? In what system can we take care of all the world’s people – including, but not just Americans – so that migration can become a choice rather than an act of desperation? How do we protect the right to organize for all workers? Unless we can change the foundation of the discourse, none of these specifics will ever get air time.