EDITORIAL: The peculiar institution of US immigration policy

NYHTC — August 06, 2011



According to an article in the New York Times, a new bill introduced by Republicans in Congress to require employers to participate in the E-Verify program to prevent the employment of undocumented immigrants has provoked strong opposition from American farmers, who depend on the exploitation of such workers.

The controversy highlights the stresses caused by the essential contradiction inherent in the peculiar institution known as U.S. immigration policy. We call it a "peculiar institution" because that was the infamous euphemism used to describe the institution of slavery by its supporters before it was abolished. Since the inception of our republic, the desire of a powerful few to profit by ruthlessly exploiting working people has been an important, and often dominating, political motivation that has shaped our history and our lives. The struggle against this tendency has provided our country with its greatest moments of glory. Like slavery, the tacit deal between employers and politicians to invite millions to slip into the country to be used and abused, without legal rights, is a great evil.

The policy is peculiar also, because it is based on a wink and a nod to illegal behavior. Many businesses want an ample supply of immigrant workers desperate for low-paying jobs, willing to suffer miserable working conditions and too afraid to organize or complain. To satisfy all of those essential criteria, Congress excessively restricts the flow of legal immigration, and has erected a system of deliberate non-enforcement, designed to permit employers to openly and notoriously hire undocumented workers with impunity, while simultaneously forcing those exploited workers to hide from the law, in constant fear of arrest and deportation. The immense human suffering this policy causes appears not to concern most Americans.

To many employers, the criminalization of these workers is the first necessary prerequisite to any acceptable immigration policy. Immigrant workers without legal status or rights are desperate and, therefore, willing to work under any conditions. The second factor on which the system depends is non-enforcement of the law as it applies to employers. To remove either of those two elements would be a dangerous step toward the abolition of the exploitation of undocumented immigrant workers. This would be a radical subversion of the fundamental objective of immigration policy.

Of course, this immigration policy (which has been the real law of the land for many years) is embarrassingly hypocritical, cynical, and immoral. Therefore, politicians cannot acknowledge its existence. Many of their constituents do not profit from the employment of undocumented workers and don't understand the underlying logic of the policy. So, politicians must pretend they are trying to solve the difficult "immigration problem." Hence, the spate of brutal roundups of immigrant workers around the country which conveniently serve to further intimidate the immigrants while deluding the public. The introduction of a bill requiring employers to participate in E-Verify, a program which, if mandatory, might really impede the hiring of undocumented workers, is yet another pretense.

Farmers have little reason to worry about who will pick their crops because the Republicans likely have no intention to enact the measure. It will be interesting to see how they amend their bill to preserve the peculiar institution their masters love, while tricking gullible constituents into believing something was accomplished against "illegal" immigration.

McKinley, Jesse and Julia Preston. Farmers Oppose G.O.P. Bill on Immigration. The New York Times. July 30, 2011.