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Cruelty as Policy: Part One

Child or woman's hand in jail

Euphemisms can be well-intentioned. Perhaps the most famous of all New Yorker cartoons depicts a mother offering a plate of greens to her toddler. “It’s broccoli, dear,” she says. The toddler glares at the plate and says, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”

Euphemisms can also mask evil intent and remarkable cruelty. Consider the term “self-deportation.”  Promoted to one degree or another by various proponents of curtailing immigration, this is typically described as the notion that the flow of immigrants into the United States, and the percentage of the U.S. population represented by undocumented immigrants, can be reduced by taking away economic and other incentives for them to enter or remain in this country, so that they never come or they decide to leave after arrival. A quick scan of such a description might suggest that self-deportation is a relatively moderate political goal that relies on voluntary acts rather than draconian changes to existing law.

Think about that. The decision to flee one’s home country permanently and come to a strange land is not made lightly. Many refugees seek to escape starvation, persecution, torture or certain death, which could be due to their ethnicity, gender or gender orientation, political beliefs or religion, or it could be simply because conditions in their country of origin make it impossible to stay. Such people often have a legal right to asylum.

What the concept of encouraging “self-deportation” embraces is intentionally making conditions in the United States worse for undocumented immigrants than the conditions in the country from which they fled. Not the American Dream, but the American Nightmare. On purpose.

Consider one of the most egregious ideas, that undocumented parents be separated from their children at the border, with the parents placed in a detention center for adults and their children in a children’s detention center.  This proposal, which had the stated goal of deterring families from making the journey in the first place by threatening to have their children pulled from their presence and separately incarcerated, was seriously advanced by the Department of Homeland Security until public outcry forced it to be walked back. The Advocates for Human Rights was one of 184 organizations that have signed onto a letter to Secretary John Kelly of the Department of Homeland Security, registering outraged protests over this proposal. Among other objections, the letter points out that family unity is a fundamental human right under international law, and that the American Academy of Pediatrics has called the proposal “harsh and counterproductive” and pointed to the inevitable emotional and physical trauma to children from family separation

The proposal to separate families by no means exhausted the ingenuity of the “self-deportation” advocates. An anti-immigrant organization that calls itself the Immigration Law Reform Institute has promulgated a menu of 24 methods by which state and local legislatures can make life miserable for immigrants while supposedly minimizing the danger of being found in contravention of federal immigration authority. The related Federation for American Law Reform (cutely called “FAIR”) has published a similar list of anti-immigrant actions to be taken by the federal government, entitled “Immigration Priorities for the 2017 Presidential Transition.”

To refer once again to the New Yorker, the issue of April 3, 2017 contains an article by Rachel Aviv entitled “The Apathetic.” It tells of the heartbreaking suffering of refugees, especially children, resulting both from the trauma which they flee and from the prospect of deportation. In Sweden hundreds of children aged eight to fifteen, all refugees and most from Russia or the former Yugoslavia, have fallen prey to what Swedish psychologists are calling resignation syndrome. In response to the emotional trauma resulting from the prospect of deportation and return to their countries of origin, these children simply fade away. They stop speaking, lose muscle tone, stop eating, and become mute, incontinent and unresponsive to stimuli, including pain. The article compares this syndrome, the particular symptoms of which are likely culture-related, to other severe psychological reactions to the emotional trauma suffered by refugees, such as when one hundred and fifty Cambodian women who had seen family members tortured by the Khmer Rouge lost the ability to see, or when Laotian refugees would cry out in their sleep and die, apparently frightened to death by their dreams.

Think about these refugees and what sort of trauma could cause the body to shut down in this fashion. Then think about comfortable, intelligent Americans who advocate that our country should intentionally create an environment for those refugees that is less nurturing and less attractive than they already face, and do so in order to promote “self-deportation.” Does putting America First require us to make ourselves ashamed of our country?

I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

By James O’Neal, volunteer attorney and Vice Chair of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Board of Directors. 

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Our Economy Needs More Immigrants – Not Less

Immigration issues and concepts word cloud illustration. Word collage concept.
Image credit: Dollar Photo Club via Revitalization News

Since 1994, The Advocates for Human Rights has been working to dispel myths about immigration by bringing the facts into the public debate. Guest blogger and board member Steve Carlson, former Deputy Commissioner of Commerce for the State of Minnesota, helps put questions about the impact of immigrant workers on Minnesota’s economy in context.

There is a myth that immigration is hurting our economy. Some say that the 1 million immigrants that have come to the United States each year for more than 25 years are an economic problem. I would suggest instead that immigrants are essential. Without them, our economy would barely grow. It would stagnate.

Without immigrants and their children, the U.S. population would only be growing slightly more than 1 million people per year. With them, growth is more like 2.3 million people per year. Without more workers, our national income (GDP) is unlikely to grow more than a trickle.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected in January that GDP growth for the next decade will likely be only 2 percent per year, much below rates from 1946 – 2006. And the CBO assumes that 1 million immigrants will continue to arrive each year. Without them, GDP growth would fall by about a quarter, to 1.5 percent per year. This is substantially less than President Trump’s promise of 3-4 percent. At 1.5 percent growth, Americans would feel economic hardship. Hope for the future would wither.

Here are a few more facts (not myths) to consider:

  • The foreign born are more likely to be working than native-born Americans. They are 17 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 13 percent of our population.
  • Unauthorized immigrants are even more likely to be working than all other U.S. workers. They constitute about 5 percent of the U.S. workforce (8 million).
  • The U.S. population is aging. People will be retiring from the workforce faster than young people enter it. Forecasters are projecting worker shortages.
  • Medicare and Social Security are running out of money, as benefits paid out each year exceed contributions. A growing workforce would strengthen both programs.
  • Unemployment is currently about 4.5 percent. This is close to “full employment” according to the Federal Reserve. Some sectors are already facing worker shortages. Unemployment for college graduates is only about 2.4 percent.
  • Immigrants are more likely than U.S. citizens to start new businesses.

These are simply a few of the facts which suggest that we need to encourage more immigration for economic reasons. There are of course a few others which might encourage less immigration. One such argument has been concern about reduced income for U.S. workers because of immigration. This is a complex question about which much has been written on both sides.

The question has two parts: 1) do immigrants take jobs away from U.S. workers? 2) would wages rise if there were fewer immigrants?

For the first question, it is difficult to find definitive data that proves immigrants are taking jobs U.S. workers want or could perform. Some of the work immigrants undertake in agriculture, restaurants and health care, for example, are jobs that have often been taken by immigrants for a variety of reasons, including relatively low wages. Other positions require engineering and other technical skills that are in short supply among American workers. These are far from complete answers, but the relatively low current rates of unemployment imply that immigrants are not taking jobs away.

For the second question, it is certainly true that if there were fewer workers available to do certain jobs (up to a point), then wages for those jobs should rise (also, up to a point). This breaks down to a sector by sector and job by job analysis. If, for example, a farmer needed more workers to pick strawberries, he might raise wages to get sufficient workers. But if he was obliged to pay workers more than what he might earn from selling strawberries, then he would be better off letting the crop rot in his fields. In that example, the question is whether there are enough non-immigrant workers willing to pick strawberries at a wage the farmer would pay. The same question would apply to a meat-packing plant or any other enterprise.

A different example, however, might involve computer engineers. If a company is employing U.S. engineers at $100,000 per year but can attract qualified immigrants to work at $80,000, it might reduce the pay of its U.S. workers to $80,000. In this example, the immigrants are adversely affecting the wages of U.S. workers.

Again, it is a complex question that cannot be resolved in the same way in all cases — or in this relatively short blog. But what can be said is that if immigration is managed a) so as to fill jobs that cannot otherwise be filled or b) to pay immigrants no less than the existing wage paid to U.S. workers, then the adverse effects could be mitigated. It would be a mistake to miss out on all the productive benefits immigrants could provide because of a politically-charged argument that might be largely resolved through more careful management of the immigration process.

In fact, I believe there are significant worker shortages in specific sectors that could appropriately be filled by more immigrants without harming U.S. workers. Adding those immigrant workers would further boost our economy, beyond the 2 percent GDP growth projected by the CBO.

For those readers who want more information, I would encourage you to read a longer article I co-wrote for MinnPost Immigrants are essential for U.S. economic growth — and we need more of them. You might also be interested in the following article Does Immigration Create Jobs?

Steve Carlson is a member of the Board of Directors of The Advocates for Human Rights.