A bedrock fact to keep in mind during the immigration debate is where the public is at on this issue, and that it isn’t where the far right would have you think it is. A truly astonishing percentage of American voters support progressive immigration policies when they’re compared with conservative ones. 79% favor earned paths to citizenship for people who come to this country to work. The National Immigration Forum has aggregated a bunch of data on this.
This data seems almost shocking because, as usual, the tone of the debate is being set by a few hard-right sources with incredible amount of media reach and impact. But in this case, the distance between the bloviating ideologues and both the mainstream of American opinion and the leadership of their party is a lot farther to travel than usual. The RNC and President Bush both did amazing outreach to Latinos in the 2004 and they appear absolutely serious about delivering the goods to this group of voters.
One topic that has been almost completely missing from this debate – Jimmy Smits character on the West Wing was the closest thing to a politician to mention this in public – is what the root economic causes of immigration are, and how we can address those. Remember back in the 90s, when one of the original selling points of NAFTA was that it would decrease immigration pressure? Obviously that hasn’t worked out. The questions now are why, and what we can do to fix it.
The why is that, in short, NAFTA was terrible policy, written by and for large multinational corporations so they could sneak across the border and escape labor and environmental regulations. It wasn’t sold that way, sure, but in retrospect, that has been exactly how it has worked out.
The way to fix it isn’t easy, because it requires progressives to develop a coherent, accessible economic narrative, which so far they have stubbornly refused to do. My attempt at doing this is the high road, and I’ve been printing out copies of that and handing it to every progressive who comes to San Francisco to talk about economics. But neither that nor any alternative seems to be gaining traction. Phil Angelides has said the words the “high road” on the stump, but he didn’t go into details then and hasn’t since. The blank in “conservatives are to supply-side economics as progressives are to ???” remains blank.
If it weren’t still blank, we could say things like this: The people are trying to move into our economy is because we’ve taken the high road. Over the course of the 20th century, the American federal government both invested in its people and housebroke capitalism. We learned how to transparently regulate and nudge markets in the right direction so the benefits were broadly distributed into the middle class. Those policies are why while the Mexican economy has done alright, our economy has done better and created millions of jobs for new workers. We could be addressing the root causes of this problem by encouraging the government of Mexico to take the high road with our trade policies, but we haven’t.
All the right ever talks about is the Horatio Alger, nebulous values stuff – how many times have we heard the President say the phrase “hard work?” – but the values and the policies are tied together. Our high road economy is exactly the kind of democracy we should be trying to export. NAFTA moved us in the wrong direction, it’s time to start thinking about progressive solutions.
Giving immigrant workers a path towards citizenship would start to bring to a close a period of suffering, subjugation and hardship for millions of people. If the President gets this done – and that’s still a very big if, given the open revolt in at least half of his party – it will be far and away the most significant American progressive victory of this century so far.