The Failure of Nativism

This op-ed from the NY Times points out a fundamental flaw in American perspectives on immigration: on the one hand, the nativists want immigrants out.  On the other, they can’t live without immigrant labor. This point has been satirized most recently on South Park.  As a nation, we can’t seem to get past the fact that we need immigrants; we just don’t want to see them in our communities.

Here’s a Capitol riddle for you: Representative Lamar Smith, one of the most reflexively anti-immigrant hard-liners in Congress, is sponsoring a bill to flood the agriculture sector with up to half-a-million visas for guest workers. Understand why and you’re well on your way to unpacking the nation’s dysfunctional relationship with undocumented immigrants.

Mr. Smith, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has a bill to require every employer in the country to use E-Verify, the federal hiring database, and fire the workers it flags as unauthorized.

He says it will give American jobs back to Americans. But it has angered small-business owners, who know a job-killing regulation when they see one. And it has enraged the farm industry, where more than half of the work force is undocumented. Thus the need for Mr. Smith’s second bill, the American Specialty Agriculture Act.

A well-designed agricultural guest worker program is not a bad idea. Even when unemployment is above 9 percent, Americans don’t want to stoop in the fields anymore.

But this is an awful guest worker bill. It would create a system that is far worse than the current cumbersome guest worker program. It would let growers pay even lower wages and weaken the rules on providing workers with housing and reimbursing their travel expenses. Growers would get a break on having to certify that they tried to hire Americans first. Oversight would shift from the Labor Department, with its pesky insistence on wage-and-hour protections, to the Department of Agriculture, which has never run a program like this before.

The growers’ rebellion against E-Verify, and Mr. Smith’s contortions to buy them off, is further proof that the country cannot live without immigrant labor — no matter what the nativists may claim. That is why, even as Congress has abdicated its duty to fix immigration and left the states to run amok on enforcement, there is still an abundance of visa-related bills on Capitol Hill.

Representative Raúl Labrador, an Idaho Republican, and Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat of California, both have sensible bills to promote the hiring of foreign college graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the workers coveted by high-tech employers.

In the trivial category, Senators Charles Schumer, a Democrat of New York, and Mike Lee, a Republican of Utah, want to give visas to foreigners who buy expensive houses. Mr. Lee has another bill to allow guest dairy workers to stay in the United States year-round.

Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, has co-sponsored a bill with Mr. Smith to speed the entry of high-tech workers by eliminating the per-country quotas on employment-based green cards that force Ph.D.’s in countries like India to wait years for visas. There are also bills to let in Cuban baseball players, Tibetan refugees and the children of Filipino veterans of World War II.

There’s one group that badly needs and deserves visas that no one seems to want to go to bat for. They are the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already living here and helping make things work. If they had a deal — pay fines, learn English, get to the back of the immigration line and, meanwhile, get back to work — the economic benefits would be enormous. We don’t expect Mr. Smith to admit that. But we would like to hear a lot more from President Obama, and others, about why real immigration reform is so important for America.


2 thoughts on “The Failure of Nativism

  1. John A. Bartelloni

    “Let them in,” thundered a headline in a FORBES special report covering immigration. Indeed, savvy corporate chieftains such as Bill Marriott have long known of the significant contributions made in the work place by those born outside the United States.

    Click on this link to read the FORBES special report:

    As my late father Henry often remarked, “Dukes and queens do not migrate.” Most of us are here (Native Americans and African Americans aside) because someone did not like someplace else. There is no royalty in the United States. We are all equal in the eyes of the law.

    Let them in and let them work.

  2. Stephen Colbert was talking about Alabama’s crops going bad in the fields on Wednesday’s show — apparently they’re using prison labor to pick tomatoes now, but the farmers are complaining that the prisoners don’t do as good a job as migrant workers. Duh. I think Georgia is doing the same thing. Stephen speaks truthiness: “Turns out Americans who have chosen a life of crime don’t have quite the same work ethic as Guatemalans who walked through 500 miles of desert to feed their children.”

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