Economist Paul Krugman is “proud of America’s immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.”
Now, however, he argues that the U.S. should close its door on the poor huddled masses, warning, “We need to do something about immigration, and soon,” in a New York Times op-ed on March 27-the same day the Senate opened debate on immigration reform.
Krugman cites “serious, nonpartisan research” revealing “some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular.”
In reality, the foreign-born population today remains under its historic high point of 15 percent a century ago, when Krugman’s grandparents presumably emigrated to the U.S.
But Krugman claims that the current pool of Mexican migrants reduces wages for unskilled native-born workers, citing a recent Harvard study estimating that “high school dropouts would earn as much as 8 percent more if it weren’t for Mexican immigration.”
Krugman neatly sidesteps another “uncomfortable fact”: the federal minimum wage, unchanged by Congress for eight years, fell to its lowest level in 56 years in 2005-to just 32 percent of the average wage for private sector workers-surely exercising a greater downward pressure on wages than that of Mexican workers.
In addition, he claims, “low-skill immigrants don’t pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive,” threatening to “unravel” America’s (suddenly generous) welfare state.
Yet, according to the National Conference of State Legislators in 2005, immigrants pay on average $1,800 in taxes in excess of their “cost” in government services.
Krugman’s argument, furthermore, fails to account for the millions in unpaid taxes, thanks to Bush’s tax cuts, from extremely wealthy, native-born Americans.
His anti-immigrant stance showcases the bankruptcy of the “liberal” flank in the current immigration debate now supposedly “raging” on Capitol Hill.
Senator Hillary Clinton helped raise the level of melodrama last week, accusing Republicans of promoting legislation that would criminalize “even Jesus himself,” while Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid threatened to filibuster Republican legislation raising the crime level of undocumented immigration to felony status.
Yet back in 2003, Clinton told WABC, “People have to stop employing illegal immigrants.” She also went on record supporting “at least a visa ID, some kind of entry-and-exit ID. And … we might have to move towards an ID system even for citizens.”
Politicians of both parties face a similar dilemma: balancing their search for votes among Red State conservatives with the growing Latino vote, 40 percent of which went to Bush in 2004.
Both Democrats and Republicans have already opportunistically agreed to limit the parameters of debate to varying degrees of “enhancing border security” and the desirability of guest worker programs-both assuring certain deportation for Mexican workers.
Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President, recently argued that “all” bills in Congress “fail to protect even the most basic rights of immigrant workers and their families.”
Wholesale amnesty is not in the cards on either side. Also missing is the notion that foreign-born workers hold the potential to raise working-class wages through their own struggles for union organization.
Immigrant workers have played a key role in advancing the labor movement historically, from the battle for the eight-hour day that led to the 1886 Haymarket Square massacre to the United Farm Workers, a self-organized movement that finally unionized California’s migrant farm workers in the 1960s.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented immigrants make up 24 percent of all workers currently employed in farming occupations, 17 percent in cleaning, 14 percent in construction and 12 percent in food preparation.
Their potential for organizing is far greater today than 100 years ago, when the American Federation of Labor’s president Samuel Gompers routinely described immigrant labor as “garbage”.
In 2000, the AFL-CIO finally reversed its long-standing opposition to undocumented immigrants, supporting amnesty and the right to organize into unions.
Now it is time for the labor movement to make good on this promise to the hundreds of thousands of Mexican-American workers who have been demonstrating across the country, demanding legalization, in recent weeks.
SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org