September 14, 2006

Profs Question Theory Behind U.S. Immigration Policy

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“Public opinion in this country is very strong for a crackdown on illegal immigrants,” said Prof. Vernon Briggs, industrial and labor relations, as part of a panel discussion titled “U.S. Immigration: Refurbishing the American Dream Through Policy.”
In addition to Briggs, the Multicultural Living Learning Unit also invited Prof. Derek Chang, history, Prof. Raymond Craib, history, and Prof. Margo Ramlal-Nankoe of Ithaca College to discuss immigration and its impact on U.S. policy. Benjamin Ortiz, student services associate at the Office of Minority Educational Affairs, moderated the discussion.
Briggs opened the discussion with the assertion that immigration policy is fundamentally a labor issue that is most detrimental to low-wage workers and the black community. He argued that the massive abuse of the current immigration policy has led to the current controversy.
When an audience member asked whether a policy should serve U.S. citizens or all of its people, Briggs was very clear: “People expect their government to serve the national interest of the country.” Briggs felt strongly that the status quo could not be maintained.
“Don’t try to build an economy using illegal immigrants,” he warned.
Ramlal-Nankoe questioned some of the premises that the panel assumed.
“Who are immigrants?” she challenged, “What is the ‘American Dream’?” She argued that illegal immigrants are not a burden on the American economy — “That is absolutely not true,” Briggs interjected — and suggested that for the future students need to be educated about the realities of the world, especially the exploitation in developing countries.
“You can’t stop it on one end only,” she said.
Chang also questioned whether the “American Dream” was as much marketing as it was fact.
“We can only maintain an American Dream if one existed before,” he said. Chang felt that only those who hire illegal immigrants benefit from the problem and that any policy discussions must also address the effects of the World Bank, the loss of high paying jobs and the attack on labor unions. However, Chang repeatedly sought a consensus, which given the format and the time constraints of the discussion, was limited to an agreement that the current policy must be changed.
Craib warned the audience that he didn’t know much about immigration, but was quickly able to explain some historical concepts that he saw as related. He suggested that the current American Dream is built on a global system of inequality, just as it was built on enslaved labor in the past. Pointing to a growing cadre of Mexican billionaires, he said that the United States was not the only villain in this issue, but did not see that as an excuse for the United States not to act.
“Mexican corruption is too easy of an answer,” Craib said.
International economic policy was also an important piece of the puzzle to Craib.
“Why is it that that capital can move so freely and people can’t?” he asked. He saw a close connection between the implementation of austerity measures by the International Monetary Fund in the 1970’s and an increase in illegal immigration.
In responding to a question on whether the current policy and discussion around it was an attack on multi-culturalism, many present, including the moderator, were surprised by the responses. Briggs said that while we could be multi-racial and multi-ethnic, we could not be multi-cultural. He saw it as problematic towards moving towards another American Dream, that of Martin Luther King Jr., where character is what’s important. Chang agreed, pointing out that “multi-cultural” was a term born in Scotland as a way to avoid the issues of class and the plight of low-wage workers.
Marc Asch, an employee at the Cornell apple orchards, told the panel that he doubts all the apples would get picked if the illegal immigrants left. After the panel, Asch thought that while the event was a start, there remained more to be discussed. He added that he would have especially liked to here more in terms of actual policy options, which were never really fleshed out.
Ernie Jolly ’09, resident advisor of McLLU helped plan the event and was pleased with the outcome.
“The panel and the audience were respectful, and that’s what it’s about,” Jolly said. He felt that the discussion got a bit tense, but was not very surprised by it. “Immigration tends to be a sensitive topic for all of us.”