After years of divided, muted response to cries for decisive immigration reform in either direction — with the labyrinthine issues of law, economics, human rights, and culture further complicated by the horrors of 9/11 — there appears to be momentum building for actual legislative action regarding the fate of the U.S.’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
Yesterday, in response to intense pressure building from large public demonstrations — Monday, 100,000 marchers converged on the Arizona state Capitol to demand that Congress not criminalize illegal immigrants as part of a nationwide immigrant “Day of Action,” 350,000 had marched in Dallas Sunday — and mixed messages from within their own party, the two top Republicans in Congress, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, said, “It remains our intent to produce a strong border security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony.”
A poll by the Washington Post and ABC News released yesterday found over 60 percent of respondents support the current leading Senate proposal addressing border security, a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for many in the country illegally, which calls for illegal immigrants to pay a fine and back taxes as part of a process of qualifying for eventual citizenship.
Only 20 percent of those polled favor legislation passed in the House late last year to build hundreds of miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, require that businesses verify the legality of all employees’ status, fortify border patrols, and, most contentiously, declare illegal immigrants and those who help them subject to felony prosecution.
As with other thorny issues — such as abortion rights and the War on Drugs, for example — it comes down for many to what is “right” vs. what is “possible” or at least practical. Social conservatives fear “rewarding” illegal or immoral behavior as a terrible societal precedent that is “wrong” and only encourages more of the same. They want to legislate what “should” be, rather than give in to what “is”; they want to prevent unwanted behavior through law and vigorous enforcement rather than to discourage (as opposed to prohibit) that behavior and mitigate the harm it causes: the prohibition vs. amelioration approach.
The bottom line with illegal immigration is that as long as economic, educational and social opportunity is notably better in the U.S. than in the immigrant’s home country (and/or is perceived to be better), especially when that country has a 2,000-mile border with the U.S. as does Mexico, they will come.
And as long as powerful forces in business — including the agriculture, hospitality, and domestic industries, among others — perceive that it is in their best interests to hire illegal immigrants, those immigrants will not be systematically prevented from coming nor ruthlessly rooted out once they are here.
A timely example of this manner of economic self-interest comes in the form of a speech delivered yesterday by chairman and chief executive officer of hotel chain Marriott International, J.W. “Bill” Marriott, Jr.
Speaking at a global tourism and travel conference in Washington, Marriott asked, “Do you industry executives think of yourselves as felons?” He continued, “We need to stand together to include everyone in our very diverse work force. It is the diversity of our workforce that makes us great, yet some in Congress want to criminalize the undocumented and their employers.”
Marriott said that the U.S. faces “long-term labor shortages, especially at the entry level,” and that hospitality industry employment was at “near-record highs.” Naturally, the industry needs workers from other nations to fill necessary jobs.
Marriott acknowledged that there might be some issues with unfettered immigration. “Every country will want to regulate immigration for the sake of its security and citizens,” he said, but then took to the moral high ground: “But we must pursue policies that allow people to seek the chance to build better lives for themselves and their families.”
“And allows us to keep our labor costs down,” he might have added but didn’t have to — it went without saying.
Add to this perspective the fact that a number of Americans have suddenly realized that illegal immigrants are, um, actual humans, and you have a situation that is on the verge of a fundamental shift. But I wouldn’t count on wage laws changing in favor of these shadow workers any time soon: “the chance to build better lives for themselves and their families” cannot be allowed to negatively impact Marriott’s bottom line, of course.