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An Open Letter to Lou Dobbs


Dear Mr. Dobbs:

When you say that "Never before in our country's history have both the president and Congress been so out of touch with most Americans. Never before have so few of our elected officials and corporate leaders been less willing to commit to the national interest. And never before has our nation's largest constituent group -- some 200 million middle-class Americans -- been without representation in our nation's capital," I could not agree more.

Yet I write to you today confused about the role that you have decided to play in our nation's immigration debate, and with the hope that you will use your tremendous influence to facilitate a substantive discussion about the impact of immigration on America's current and aspiring middle class.

With one in six middle-class Americans without health insurance, 1.3 million applying for bankruptcy in 2003 alone, the cost of higher education at public universities skyrocketing by a rate of almost 50% during the president's term, and wages stagnating while CEO profits increase, the middle class as we know it is at risk of disappearing.

Our nation is in need of comprehensive immigration policy that operates not from the agendas of special interests - big business, immigration advocates, the entrenched right-wing lobby - but from that of the current and aspiring middle class.

In fact, that's why last year DMI released "Principles for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class," which created a two-part litmus test to evaluate immigration policy based on its impact on the middle class.
1. Recognizing that the American middle class relies on the economic contributions of immigrants, the first part of the test holds that pro-middle class immigration policy should bolster - not undermine - the critical contribution that immigrants make to our economy as workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, and consumers.
2. Further recognizing that, when immigrants lack rights in the workplace, labor standards are driven down and all working people have less opportunity to enter or remain in the middle class, the second part of the test holds that a pro-middle class immigration policy must strengthen the rights of immigrants in the workplace.

You recently wrote that "This president and Congress talk about bringing illegal aliens out of the shadows while they turn out the lights on our middle class." But in doing so, you are misconstruing the situation. Bringing illegal aliens out of the shadows is in the best interest of the middle class. The lights are turning off on the middle class in part because employers have found it so easy to exploit immigrants. And employers have found it so easy to exploit immigrants because the current immigration policy has forced them to stay in the shadows. Under the House's immigration bill, immigrants will only become even more vulnerable to exploitation. When Americans compete in the labor market with exploited immigrants, we risk driving down wages and workplace standards for everyone.

Americans need secure borders, yes. But they also need immigration. They benefit from the economic contributions of immigrants. They benefit from the taxes paid by immigrants, they benefit from the labor provided by immigrants, they benefit from the new businesses started by immigrants, they benefit from the consumer demand and new markets created by immigrants. But when it comes to public policy, what the middle-class needs above all is a comprehensive policy that both secures the borders and secures our bottom lines by protecting the rights of everyone in the workplace.

We share a distaste for Guest Worker Programs and other efforts that create a legalized underclass of exploited workers who have minimal enforceable rights and who will drag down the wages of American workers, just as currently undocumented immigrants who are vulnerable to exploitation already threaten to do. This "race to the bottom" is perpetuated by our broken immigration system. It must be fixed.

But the answer isn't to pit immigrant workers - who play a critical role in our economy - against Americans. Why not place blame where it belongs - not with immigrants who cross the border in search of economic opportunity, but with a private sector that is more interested in their bottom line than our nation's health, and with a complacent Congress that is detached from their responsibility to speak for its people?

The desperate quest on the part of big business for an influx of cheap labor is not just about immigrants. In fact, it is about a larger dynamic in an economy that has forsaken its middle class and the progressive policies that have helped to create it. It is about the damaging role of money in politics. It is seen in the dismantling of unions, in our dramatic rates of incumbency, in our failure to address globalization. You call your show "Broken Borders." Why not "Broken Economy?," or better yet, the "Broken Social Contract."

Your commitment to securing the borders needs to be matched by a commitment to creating good jobs in this country. Your call for a policy that enforces the border must be matched by a call for a policy that will strengthen the rights of all immigrants in the workplace, with the recognition that a permanent underclass helps no one, and that a massive deportation of those who are here will unsettle communities across this country and ultimately hurt the bottom line of the middle class (and with the recognition that a massive deportation will not work, leaving millions of workers ripe for exploitation). If, instead, we raise workplace standards and guarantee that everyone participating in our economy can exercise full workplace rights, there will be no more jobs "Americans won't do." I believe that we will still see demand for a larger workforce to fill jobs that are equally attractive to Americans and immigrants alike. But if I'm wrong, and there are no jobs available for new immigrants in the absence of exploitation, they will not come. As you know Mr. Dobbs, people come here in pursuit of economic opportunity. If economic opportunity isn't here, if a private sector willing to exploit isn't allowed to, and there isn't legitimate demand for a larger workforce apart from exploitation, they will not come.

Please consider spending as much time talking about employers deliberately violating the law as you do immigrants who sneak across the border. Please consider spending as much time talking about the economic contributions of immigrants to the American middle class as you do talking about fraudulent documents. If you engaged in a conversation about what a meaningful immigration policy could look like, you would use your enormous microphone to a constructive end.

We are as frustrated as you are by the limitations in the existing conversation about immigration. The way to address those limitations, however, is not to appeal to the easy press angle. It is to lead by facilitating a meaningful conversation about what kind of immigration reform would truly be in the best interest of the current and aspiring middle class.

I look forward to continuing this conversation. You can reach me at 212.909.9674 or abs@drummajorinstitute.org. For more information about us, please visit www.drummajorinstitute.org.

Respectfully,

Andrea Batista Schlesinger
Executive Director

UPDATE (5/25: 12pm) Lou Dobbs just called me himself. He liked the letter and wants to talk about it on his show. Stay tuned!