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Vito de la Cruz

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Immigration Truths

Posted: 10/24/11 01:30 AM ET

A pointedly appropriate saying comes to mind as the nation continues to heatedly debate immigration reform and some states launch anti-immigrant laws: the truth won't kill you but it sure is inconvenient. People opposed to immigration reform don't like hearing the truth about immigrants and consequently try to drown out rational debate with venomous polemics. Some state legislatures invent emergencies to stoke anti-immigrant fear and pass racist laws that will not withstand constitutional scrutiny. But, the truth lives in every street corner labor pool, hiring line, construction site, farm, and meatpacking plant. Just as it has since colonial days, the inconvenient truth is that America is addicted to immigrant labor. Always has been and always will be. We can't ignore it. Our love of our reasonably-priced standard of living won't let us. Even now despite the fact that 99 percent of us struggle through an anemic economic environment, big money makes its profits not in small part because of its exploitation of immigrant and foreign labor. The truth is that the big players in America's economy thrive because America shoots up immigrant labor. Nowadays, however, in addition to sucking up immigrant labor within our borders, big capital goes out to the source and still comes up big while the rest of us founder on the shreds of the American dream.

This addiction started almost from the beginning. English, German, Dutch, Spanish, French, even Russian colonizers entered and claimed separate parts of Native America. Through force or trickery or both, these powers carved up what didn't belong to them and settled this country, Canada, and Latin America. Yet, from the earliest of times, landowners and mercantile men felt entitled to import immigrant labor, first indentured servants and later slaves. Our country even ripped itself asunder over the issue of the forced migration and subjugation of African slaves. Some believed they had the right to own other human beings for profit. Others saw the savagery in human exploitation.

Ironically, even before the Civil War, America cleaved to its current addiction. Imported Irish and Chinese workers fueled industry, especially the railroads, foundries, and stockyards of a growing America. Every generation witnessed a wave of immigration feeding the addict's pipe dream. And, vocal minorities in each generation self-righteously clamored to "send them all back where they came from."

Now, again, and perhaps even forever we debate the fate of people with the ingenuity, drive, and wherewithal to cross oceans, deserts, and frontiers to replicate what every preceding wave of immigrants has done - meet America's demand for labor while at the same time try to make a small piece of America's dream its own. Those who myopically cry from the mountaintops to deport or imprison all undocumented aliens don't speak for the majority of Americans who understand the intimate connection between immigrant labor and American success. Moreover, even if sending them all back were possible (which it isn't), what would result? Farmers, ranchers, construction companies, and canneries and meatpackers from Alabama to Arizona to Alaska all know the score. That's why some states in our Union buck the Alabama-Arizona trend.

Our economy thrives on a delicate balance struck between skilled and unskilled labor, tech, service, sales, and professional workers. Immigrant labor is part of that entire balance. Lose it and businesses, big and small, suffer. Big business, however, can pay for the alternative. It flees oversees chasing even cheaper foreign labor, stripping local communities of vital jobs and collecting federal subsidies along the way. Small business unfortunately has nowhere to go. Doubters, look around you. In addition, the economy loses the capital and tax revenues created by immigrant workers, including the 30 billion dollar positive effect on wages documented by the federal government.

None of the immigration reform bills discussed recently is perfect. There's no ideal fix. There is, however, much that rational people can agree on and which just might for once strike a solution to America's addiction. Do we need to shore up the border? Absolutely. Do we need a process for legalization that includes stiff monetary penalties, waiting periods, proficiency in history and English, additional disqualification for public benefits (which strengthen existing prohibitions), and increased employer responsibility? Most assuredly. Should immigrants who are already in line get their long-pending applications adjudicated first? Of course. It's imperfect but not a bad start.

The alternative is rot in American agricultural fields bereft of immigrant workers willing but too afraid to do the job for fear of being profiled, targeted, and arrested. It's small businesses shuttering their shops because they are deprived of the money spent there by immigrants and their families. It's a brain and entrepreneurial drain from the departure of folks hardy and ingenious enough to suffer the hardships and privations of poverty to make something better for themselves and their communities. It's workers and communities in foreign countries exploited and sacrificed to big capital.

Legalizing immigrants is the painfully honest solution to America's addiction to illegal immigrant labor. Rationally addressing the details alleviates the pain. That's the truth.