Labor Day and Illegal Immigration

Want to stop this? Hold employers accountable.

Today is Labor Day and tomorrow I start teaching. Even though I’m at the very university from which I graduated and at which I’ve taught on and off for over twenty years—including the last five—I couldn’t sign a contract until my social security number was verified and I produced a passport and another photo ID. I also had to take an online ethics quiz. Ridiculous, right? Not really. It all took about ten minutes. I’ve no problem at all with needing to prove that I’m a legal citizen. In fact, the entire debate over illegal immigration could be solved if we had in place national laws like the procedure I just followed—employers should be required to verify the legal employment status of each employee and they should be held accountable for every one on the payroll who is undocumented.

This strikes me as a reasonable middle ground on the hotly contested immigration issue. Let’s start here: There is no reason whatsoever to respect the views of the GOP right on immigration. They would like you to see Arizona’s tough law as a model for the nation—when you go to the voting booth, that is. They are liars. They don’t want to curtail illegal immigration at all. God forbid they would cut off the supply of cheap grounds crews for their favorite golf courses, nannies to care for their spawn, or—most importantly—a secondary labor force for their corporate cronies. Suggest to the GOP that employers should be responsible for authenticating the documentation of workers and it will take all of three seconds before you hear the phrases “needless government regulations” and “unfunded mandates.”

The Arizona law should be resisted for what it is—a draconian crackdown on desperate individuals that is more in keeping with the Gestapo than with democratic institutions. Still, the liberal point of view is hopelessly muddled. Indulge me in another story. A few years back I was a paid researcher in New Zealand. I had to get a special work visa in order to earn money there—something akin to the “green card” we’re supposed to require in the United States (and which dozens of my academic friends have obtained). During a break I took a trip to Australia. When I tried to check in to fly back to New Zealand I was detained because I wasn’t carrying my return ticket to the United States! In what was surely the most convoluted logic I’ve ever heard, the Aussies feared that if I didn’t have a return ticket to the USA I might attempt to smuggle myself into Australia and take a job there. Huh!? I was already in Australia and was trying to leave it, but I still had to get Air New Zealand to fax a copy of my return ticket four months hence before the Aussies would allow me to depart.

Australia’s law is stupid, but the greater point is that the United States is practically alone in fostering a large group of citizens who somehow think that immigration laws should not be enforced. There are discussions worth having. If capital can cross borders freely, shouldn’t labor be allowed to do so? If immigrants need to get green cards, shouldn’t employers have to secure permits to move jobs? Should the U.S. do more to help impoverished neighbors to our south? Should citizenship be global? Let’s have those discussions. I’d love to have one on free trade, which I think is the biggest fraud ever perpetuated upon working people. But until the current laws are changed, the liberal position that we should not deport illegal immigrants is fruitless and mushy-headed. (Why not give them each an achievement ribbon while we’re at it?) More to the point, it’s also politically untenable. The vast majority of Americans oppose illegal immigration and it’s really, really bad electoral strategy for Democrats to take a contrary view in the belief that they will make up in Latino votes what they’ll lose elsewhere. (Hello—part of the constituency you’re trying to capture can’t vote!)

The automatic liberal position is to assert that “rights” are legally enshrined and that we cannot allow popular will to set these aside. If people could have voted, after all, the 1964 Civil Rights Act would not have passed, nor would gay rights be respected. That’s absolutely right, which is exactly why liberals who would turn their backs to existing immigration law are embarked upon a dangerous course. The very notion of “rights” is embedded within the larger of “citizenship.” Take this away and you open the door for allowing global capital to impose its own standards of human (and environmental) rights—the very reason why left progressives (a group much more realistic than most liberals) do battle with the World Trade Organization and other such bodies.

Illegal immigrants do not have the same rights of American citizens—that’s the whole damn point of citizenship! Illegal immigrants cannot be treated as disposable objects, but the rights they hold are enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not the US Bill of Rights. Read it. It says many inspiring things, including the fact that people should be treated with dignity and cannot be subjected to cruelty or illegal detention—reasons enough for opposing Arizona’s harsh law. It also outlaws slavery, sanctifies property rights, and upholds freedom of conscience. But check out Articles 13-15. They guarantee freedom of movement “within the borders of each state,” not between them. They also guarantee the “right to seek” political asylum, but there is not a word about seeking employment; in fact, the article is mostly limited to political asylum. Article 15 is especially instructive as it upholds “the right to a nationality” as well as the right to “change” nationality. It does not uphold the right to go underground and pretend to hold nationality for the purpose of getting a job. None of the clauses on work and standards of living say a word about setting aside nationality.

I am in no way advocating that the United States should ignore world problems, but open borders is a non-starter under current law (and current weak economic conditions). We’ve no need to adopt heatless laws like those in Arizona, but there’s not a damn thing wrong with making every employee jump through the same hoops I did. Can’t we at least agree that the real problem here is one of supply and demand? It’s time to end the debate by putting responsibility where it belongs. How about a million-dollar fine for every undocumented employee on the payroll and mandatory jail time for employers who do not seek documentation? And, yes, we’d need to impose harsh sentences for those falsifying documents as well. As long as we countenance employers willing to hire illegal immigrants we’re going to have them. Call it the National Dignity Law—one that would make everyone assume that those with an accent or dark skin are green card holders, not a job-stealers.

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