Immigration and Trade: Which System is Broken?

By David Schmidt

Immigrants’ rights activist Elvira Arellano sent a letter to the Obama administration this past summer calling for a moratorium on deportations, stating:

“We need to insure that no permanent damage is done until the broken immigration system is fixed.” [Emphasis mine]

To their credit, the Obama administration took steps to repair certain elements of this broken system. The President installed parts of the “DREAM Act,” giving young people who have grown up in the US a chance to get legal status. The Supreme Court shot down portions of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law, partially rolling back some of the racial profiling that has been taking place in the state.

Still, the broken portions of US immigration policy which were “fixed” via these actions are fairly peripheral. At a more fundamental level, what do we mean when we say that our immigration system is “broken”?

For folks on the extreme right, this is an easy question to answer: “The only thing broken about the system is that it isn’t enforced enough.” The message implied in the anti-immigrant argument, of course, is that US immigration law is perfect in its current state. The anti-immigrant crowd invests a nearly religious degree of faith in the divine infallibility of the canon of our immigration policy.

As ludicrous, myopic and untenable as their position may be, at least it’s easy to grasp and articulate: “Enforce current immigration laws, exactly as they are written on the books, without leniency.” A bumper sticker that I saw at a gun show in West Florida puts it in simpler terms: “BUILD A WALL AND DEPORT THEM ALL”.

Things become more complicated for those of us who argue in favor of immigrants’ rights. We talk about reforming the system — but what would that change look like?

Most of the proposals for immigration reform that have emerged in recent years involve some form of legalization, or path to residency/citizenship, for people who don’t have documents. The most radical proposals call for “legalization for all.”

But even if Obama were to legalize everybody with the stroke of a pen — would this really be “reforming” the system itself? Today’s immigrants would be legalized — but what of tomorrow’s immigrants? As far as I can tell, unless it’s made easier for future immigrants to come here without risking their lives crossing the border, not much has been “reformed” in the system.

There is a strong case to be made for fully legalizing migration from Mexico. Author Peter Laufer makes convincing arguments for this policy in his book, Wetback Nation: the Case for Opening the US-Mexican Border. If people are allowed to cross legally, they won’t have to cross through the desert. Border officials in US and Mexico can then concentrate their efforts on fighting real threats — drug and weapons traffickers — rather than chasing after hard-working men and women.

Legalizing migration is a fairly modest proposal. We would be doing nothing more than applying to today’s immigrants the same policies that were applied to the ancestors of white Americans for centuries — Europeans were allowed to freely, legally enter the US through ports of entry. But one key factor is missing in all of this — in all the talk about changing the immigration system, reforming the system, “fixing the broken system”.

Nobody is talking about how our companies, our trade policies, our foreign policies, have forced people to migrate in the first place.

In our world’s globalized economy, the very countries that receive immigrants have, historically, taken advantage of the country sending those immigrants. This applies to the relationship between France and Northern Africa, England and Pakistan/India, the US and Mexico/Philippines. As a slogan of immigrants’ rights protesters in Europe goes, “We are here [in Europe] because you were there [in the former colonies].”

Here in North America, “free trade” agreements like NAFTA have increased inequality and poverty, driving Mexican farmers off their land, flooding Mexico’s market with cheap, US government-subsidized corn, taking over Mexico’s retail market with US.chains like Wal-Mart.

And NAFTA is just the tip of the iceberg. Across the world, corporations from Europe, Asia and North America are free to set up shop in the countries they choose, taking advantage of cheap labor and driving wages down. The principle is simple: cheap labor is used to create profits for companies that aren’t based in the same nations as the people working for them. This results in certain regions of the world being bled of their wealth.

When we examine these two issues — unfair trade and immigration — it becomes obvious that they are intricately connected with each other. So how can we reform them both?

One option would be to follow in the footsteps of the Roman Empire.

Back when Rome set about conquering new lands, they would give Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of the new colony. Given the fact that people in much of the Developing World are working for companies that are not native to their homeland, why not give them dual citizenship? Give these workers a passport for the country their employers are from. They are, after all, a part of that country’s economy.

Under the Roman Imperial model, we would keep Canada’s mines in Peru, keep sourcing Cadbury’s cocoa from Ghana, keep US sweatshops on Mexico’s northern border — keep the system intact. But the African children working on the cocoa plantations would be given British citizenship, and guaranteed freedom of movement. Peruvian miners would receive Canadian citizenship. Women working in the maquiladoras would receive US passports.

Of course, there is a second — and much more rational — option available.

We could drastically restructure the way international trade is done, so nobody is forced to leave their homeland in the first place. If we fix our world’s broken trade system — making it fair and equitable — immigration reform will suddenly become of secondary concern.

David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, Calif. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade. He can be contacted at

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2012

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