Indentured servitude

President Bush's proposed immigration reform has yet to take shape as an actual policy proposal. Since it exists now only as a broad outline, any response has to be equally broad.

Immigration isn't an area I know a lot about, and my first reaction was that the president's plan could either be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, depending on the details.

James K. Galbraith, who knows more about this sort of thing, thinks that Bush's plan will be a Bad Thing: for immigrants, for Mexico and for low-wage American workers. In his Salon article, "The no jobs president," he outlines one polar possibility for how this immigration reform could turn out to be a very, very Bad Thing:

The new class of migrants would have to leave when their permits are up, unless renewed. They would have to leave if fired from their jobs. In a word, employers would judge who stays in the country and who is kicked out. Forget labor rights. Forget unions. …

Worse, workers coming into the program would in practice be giving up their path to political rights. They would, for the most part, never become citizens. They would never get to vote. No one will represent their interests. No one will speak for their schools, their clinics, their wages. No one will stand in their defense when they are abused on the job, hurt, sacked, blacklisted, and sent home.

There is worse still. Bush made clear that this program is not just for workers presently in the country … This program will permit any employer to admit any worker. From any country. At any time. The only requirement is that it be for a job Americans are not willing to take. But it is easy to create such jobs: Cut wages. Terminate the unions. Lengthen the hours. Speed up the lines. Chicken farmers have known this for years. Bush's plan is a blank check for every bad boss this country has.

There is no reason why principal recruitment of new workers would be from Mexico. It might be, very massively, from China. Or perhaps from India, with its large English-speaking population. Temp agencies would go out on recruiting missions. Some of this competition may displace Mexican and Central American nationals presently working illegally in the United States (and hoping to stay). That would only drive them even further underground.

And for those who take up the program, register as temporary workers, and then see their permits expire? Bush is at pains to say that he expects this group to go home. But who will make them? Will the government organize a mass campaign of roundups and deportations? Or will the workers just quietly disappear back into the sub-underground of the truly illegal?

And for those who do go home, who will replace them? Another cohort of strangers? This is a program to create a rotating underclass of foreign workers, who never assimilate to American ways or adopt American values. It's hard to imagine anything worse for our social life — more productive of petty crime — or for that matter, riskier for our national security.

For millions of citizen workers, what would happen? The answer is clear: Bad bosses drive out the good. Good bosses will turn bad under pressure. The terms of our jobs would get worse and worse. Who would want a citizen worker? A bracero will be so much cheaper, more loyal, and under control.

Keep Galbraith's analysis in mind as we learn more details about the shape of Bush's coming immigration reform. He paints a horrifying picture. My fear is it also seems to be an accurate one.

  • none

    I came to many of the same conclusions that Galbraith did on my own. My reaction is not like his. The Bush proposal basically recognizes the facts on the ground right now, as near as I can see. There is downward price pressure on labor, mainly caused by immigration but also by offshoring and outsourcing. The idea that we can somehow protect unskilled labor from downward price pressure is, well, quaint. Imagine the “war on drugs” but even less effective. That’s about what it would be like. Actually, strike “unskilled” from that sentence. Any and all labor faces downward price pressure, here and everywhere. Bush didn’t make that happen, but will surely take some of the political blame for it.
    So the pain of the Bush plan is essentially the pain we currently have. What about the status quo–what has that done? It has stimulated a dangerous trade in human smuggling. The thin silver lining in the Bush plan is that we can reduce or eliminate this black market, which definitely leads to people dying (in the desert, locked in trailers or train cars) who are struggling to reach this country for work. Imagine if those people could save the thousands they paid to smugglers and send that home along with the wages earned here.
    There seems to be a presumption made by Galbraith that there is some sort of legitimate “path to political rights” conferred by mere presence within our borders. I don’t understand the legal underpinnings of that–certainly the government has granted clemency and citizenship to whoever happens to be here illegally (more than once). Does that previous practice somehow become a legitimate path to citizenship? I’m not a fan of the INS, but aren’t they supposed to be involved in immigration? Don’t we already have a “legitimate” path to political rights within this country?

  • none

    Perhaps Bush did not creat downward labor price pressure, but his administration has certainly done nothing to alleviate it. Galbraith’s assessment is correct. This policy will actually hasten the downward trend of labor price. It’s a matter of simple Supply and Demand. Taking a position that says that nothing can be done to slow down that pressure sounds disingenuous; somewhat like saying that the Federal Reserve can do absolutely nothing to slow down an recessionary spiral.

  • none

    Perhaps Bush did not creat downward labor price pressure, but his administration has certainly done nothing to alleviate it. Galbraith’s assessment is correct. This policy will actually hasten the downward trend of labor price. It’s a matter of simple Supply and Demand. Taking a position that says that nothing can be done to slow down that pressure sounds disingenuous; somewhat like saying that the Federal Reserve can do absolutely nothing to slow down an recessionary spiral.

  • Ross Judson

    It’s not just unskilled labor that’s got downward pressure. The software industry has gone through dual devastations these past three years: First, the recession, which hit our business far worse than any other. People have gone years without being able to find a job.
    At the same time, massive outsourcing has hit. Very high paying, skilled jobs are being shipped overseas.
    This will drop wages in the software sector once again, and further widen the yawning gap that unethical companies drive right through.

  • Grunt

    [I also wrote mistakenly double-posted comment at 11:29-11:29]
    from Ross Judson, 11:56: “At the same time, massive outsourcing has hit. Very high paying, skilled jobs are being shipped overseas.”
    The entire post seems to be a correct observation. Beware of those who will soon argue that allowing domestic companies to bring in foreign workers to fill domestic low- or high-skilled jobs will prevent the overseas exodus. This argument would be arguing along only one vector, and would not be accounting for the fact that there are other reasons besides labor price that encourage US companies to move operations overseas.

  • Eli Bishop

    Anonymous: “the pain of the Bush plan is essentially the pain we currently have”
    I don’t think it’s quite right to argue that since offshoring is happening now, a guest-worker plan won’t significantly increase downward price pressure.
    It’s still not terribly convenient for every industry to move its operations overseas – Internet or no Internet. Given a choice, most would prefer to keep their people where they can see them, while still getting cheaper people who have no bargaining power.

  • marky

    This is one issue where it doesn’t take a lot of smarts (like us bloggers have) to see where Bush is heading with his immigration proposal.
    I think Bush .. i mean Rove… made a BIG miscalculation in trying to pander to the hispanics here. The first reaction of the person on the street is an instant “What about american jobs?”. I believe the explanation behind this horrible policy proposal is that it reflects election-year desperation on the part of Rove.
    Bush has been heading steadily downward in the polls for months now. Rove reasons that it will take massive pandering to key constituencies to get W. re-elected.

  • marky

    By the way, I’m guessing that any immigration proposal that Fox likes will be unpopular with the people who actually immigrate. Is that correct?

  • Jeff S.

    I agree that it is mainly pandering to the Hispanic vote. The real problem is that it legitimizes breaking the law.

  • Firebug

    Most of the comments here and on other related weblogs have been opposed to the Neo-Bracero program, and rightly so. Whether more immigration is a good idea is an issue with reasonable arguments on both sides, but this isn’t immigration; it is indentured servitude. But I think that many people underestimate the nature and scope of this program. I find it truly frightening because I think that I know where Team Dubya is going with it.
    A lot of you think that the Neo-Bracero program is merely designed to give employers cheap indentured labor and screw over the American middle class. But this is not the path to long-term Republican dominance. “God, guns, and gays” only goes so far, and if the job market remains stagnant, Bush’s base will start to defect, either to centrist Democrats or to obscure third party protectionists. No, I think that what they have in mind is the creation of a permanent stratified American society. I think that they intend to create a situation where neo-braceros do all the shit work for shit pay, while American citizens are given handouts so that they can maintain the trappings of the middle-class lifestyle and keep them quiescent. These handouts won’t be called welfare, of course; a lot of them will probably be well-paid but largely useless make-work government jobs. Perhaps Team Dubya plans to soak up a lot of the unemployed scientists and engineers with their Mars project – even if it never gets off the ground, it will provide a lot of paychecks. Or they’ll expand disability programs so that American citizens who are unable to find jobs are quietly removed from the unemployment rolls. Or expand other agencies of government to give the middle class workers downsized by corporations cushy sinecures that they’ll be indebted to the Republicans for. Meanwhile, the neo-braceros will do all the real work, paying taxes without any rights or any hope of an American middle-class lifestyle – until some day in the future, they get tired of this shit and overthrow the whole rotten edifice, probably accompanied by copious bloodshed. Sound familiar? It’s the history of the late Roman Empire (bread and circuses for the masses of the citizenry while the slaves did all the work). Or present-day Saudi Arabia (and several other Arab nations) with their abused, rightless “guest workers”. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bush got this idea from our “friends” the Saudis.
    What we have to worry about here isn’t the end of the American middle-class lifestyle, as maintaining _that_ is a prerequisite to continuing to hold political power. What we need to fear is the destruction of the _idea_ of America as a welcoming land where all men are created equal. And the eventual bloody destruction that is the fate of all societies that create a brutal stratified system.

  • jfk

    On Slacktivist’s initial post: Based on my observations of the past 3+ years of the Bush presidency, it’s likely that anything the administration comes up with is a Bad Thing. That’s not my final judgement, of course, but it’s where I usually end up.
    On Firebug’s post: I think we *also* have to worry about the end of the American middle-class lifestyle. I see a possible future of a large lower-middle-class, who have large amounts of debt, and who spend most of their energy on keeping their heads far enough above water to get at least some fun out of life. I also see a tendency to reward “right-thinking” people, so that morality becomes a factor in who the government takes care of, and who it neglects, which strikes at the very core of the “created equal” concept on which America was founded.


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