Cesar Chavez's Immigration Legacy

Cesar Chavez's Immigration Legacy

By Ben Domenech - January 29, 2013

Start with this recognition when it comes to the current immigration debate: it’s Cesar Chavez’s world, and we’re just living in it. The labor movement he apotheosized is the primary reason our immigration system is wrecked today – a direct descendant of Chavez’s 1969 march with Ralph Abernathy and Walter Mondale along the Mexican border to protest against growers hiring illegal immigrants, or the riots that followed over the next decade where Chavez and his organization would routinely report immigrant workers with questionable histories to the INS.

Organized labor has been for decades the chief obstacle to broad-based common sense reform. There is an assumption that this time, because a Democrat is in the White House and not a Republican, labor will come along for the ride. But that’s still an open question, and the White House does not appear to be an active conduit: “Neither Mr. Obama nor his White House have reached out to Mr. Rubio.” Obama’s slated to roll out his reportedly more liberal approach today.

The irony is that this broken regime, which Chavez helped create when he destroyed the Bracero Program in a rampant anti-immigrant power-grab, is ripe for libertarian pro-market criticism. The immigration policy reality we have today is the sort of market-warping governmentally driven system which Republicans criticize in nearly every other arena, yet it has been embraced by the GOP as a worthy “law and order” practice which must be defended as a matter of principle.

The labor-left alliance handed an unenforceable and wrong-headed bureaucratic regime to the right, and said “you make it work” – and the right has gamely obliged, to the point of criticism of this regime becoming a litmus test in Republican primaries. Simpson-Mazzoli didn’t do anything to solve this, and it appears unlikely the current steps under discussion will take a different path.

What is particularly problematic is that, with the Chavez view of the world enshrined into law, the focus of reformers is typically focused on less significant parts of the problem – such as the idea, espoused by just about everybody, that the high-skilled immigration system needs fixing (a topic everyone who doesn’t understand the real immigration problem brings up without fail – high skilled immigration impacts relatively few people, is driven by the interests of corporations, and you could solve it without even touching the real issues; it also makes real immigration and security policy experts laugh, since it’s similar to suggesting you can solve school violence issues by making everyone wear uniforms).

The McCain-Graham+Rubio/Flake reworked proposal released yesterday is another example of wrongheadedness: The senators would increase the scope of government instead of liberty, make normalization contingent upon border security (which just sets up another fight between interest groups on the border -- Republican says it’s not secure, Democrat says it is, etc.), and create employer provisions which 1) forces employers to prove a negative and 2) turns them into criminals if they can’t. Oh, I’m sure that won’t result in any profiling at all.

The Obama administration has, to this point, done nothing to improve current immigration realities in a permanent sense. Instead, it’s been a servant of organized labor in an economy with stagnant job opportunities. Deportations are at record highs; ICE audits of employers are at record highs; and the border is more militarized than it’s been in almost a century. These steps all serve to incentivize behavior which keeps unskilled migrant labor in the shadows. It is far easier to cross the border, hop a train near El Paso, be in the Midwest within two days, and send money back home as an individual male than it is as a family -- so the current approach makes that the most appealing and least dangerous path.

The truth is that government policy forces the demand for unskilled migrant labor to fill its needs through a black market. With the political forces arrayed as they currently are, nothing will likely come out of the current debate which addresses the real need for labor market reform. It’s high time we focused on the real cause of the vast majority of illegal immigration and allow for a regular legal pathway for unskilled migrant labor. Until we do, Chavez’s policy inheritance will persist, and it will continue to incentivize law-breaking by employers and workers alike. 

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.

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