The Real Immigrant Underclass: The People Who Wanted To Come, But Could Not

June 20, 2007
The New Republic's lead editorial (free registration required) blasts the now-moribund Immigration Reform Act for including a provision to admit hundreds of thousands of temporary workers each year. It bitterly condemns America's "unsavory tradition" of "importing non-Europeans to do the difficult tasks that our own citizens shun" as part of a "shadowy underclass". To the editors, this is "the tradition of the African slave ship, the Chinese coolie, and the Mexican bracero" and is "one of the worst ... instincts in American democracy". I take a breath and count to ten. First, and emphatically, we must set the brutal, coercive slave trade completely and irrevocably apart from Chinese and Mexican immigration, which has been almost universally voluntary. Forcing Africans to come to this country and work for nothing was indeed far beyond unsavory and it did reflect, in its time, the worst instincts of this country. A colossal difference lies between this and the braceros' decision to come here and work for pay. Slaves were indeed "imported" as subhuman commodities. Mexicans and Chinese chose to come. And allowing people to voluntarily pursue their dreams is not something for which we should hang our heads in shame. Now: What is the alternative to admitting Chinese and Mexicans to do "difficult" work here in a "shadowy" underclass? The alternative was not mass admission of unskilled labor with full citizenship, which would have been politically impossible and continues to be. For most of them, the alternative was not to come at all, and the temporary worker provision of the Immigration Act embodies a sophisticated understanding of this fact. If the US had not admitted Chinese and Mexicans in the past, those people would have remained where they were: doing far more difficult work in a sub-sub-underclass in the places they came from --- not just shadowy, but completely invisible to Americans. How do we know it was that bad where they were before? Because despite the enormous hardships of coming here, both groups kept on choosing to come, for many decades. Immigrants, bluntly, are not stupid; they know what makes them better off, and they act on it. The failure of the Immigration Reform Act means no temporary worker program, so fewer people will have that chance for a better life. The way the editors of the New Republic excoriate that provision of the bill, you'd think the bill's collapse is a victory in the fight against poverty. Those editors would appear to prefer that the non-Europeans who have been afforded tremendous opportunities to improve their lives here had stayed home and kept their desperation out of sight, out of mind --- as the bill's failure ensures many more will. If the New Republic didn't prefer this, it might point out that admitting Chinese and Mexican laborers is precisely the act of setting them free from the very, very "shadowy underclass" in which they lived prior to coming here, when most did much more "difficult" work for a lesser reward. It might note that giving those enterprising people a chance is one of the best "instincts in American democracy", one that is not emulated by other rich democracies like Japan. It might also point out that it was the precisely the halting of Chinese immigration, via the unapologetically racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, that indeed reflects our "worst instincts". Was that law any less repugnant because building railroads is "difficult" work? This doesn't mean that there are no problems with immigration and assimilation here; those need to be solved. But let us not patronize the migrants. "Saving" them from the conditions they face here, if that means sending them home or not admitting them, means "saving" them from something they have told us loudly that they prefer --- by voting with their feet. Full and immediate citizenship for hundreds of thousands of unskilled Mexican laborers a year is politically infeasible, and the temporary worker program was a great shot at an outcome that still would have made a lot of people better off. Now we face the alternative, which is that those people will never have the chance to come, or will try to come through very dangerous and harmful illegal channels. The New Republic might like the sound of that, but I don't. Whatever you think of how America has handled the people it did let in, the fact is that it did let them in, and many other countries simply have not and do not allow as many people to better their lives in this fashion as we do. That is a distinction of which we can be proud. It is light years away from the slave trade. The death of the Immigration Bill and its temporary worker program means more people will be "saved" from the chance to pursue their dreams and see their hard work better rewarded. Now there's something to be ashamed of.


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