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David Bacon: We Need a Better Alternative for Immigration Reform

Today's post is from David Bacon, author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. Bacon spent thirty years as a labor organizer and immigrant rights activist. His articles appear in The Nation, American Prospect, Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he hosts a weekly radio show on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California.

Borderwall Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham announced Thursday their plan for immigration reform. Unfortunately, it is a retread, recycling the same bad ideas that led to the defeat of reform efforts over the last five years. In some ways, their proposal is even worse.

Schumer and Graham dramatize the lack of new ideas among Washington powerbrokers. Real immigration reform requires a real alternative. We need a different framework that embodies the goals of immigrants and working people, not the political calculations of a reluctant Congress.

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What's wrong with the Schumer/Graham proposal?

1. It ignores trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, which produce profits for U.S. corporations, but increase poverty in Mexico and Central America. Since NAFTA went into effect, income in Mexico dropped, while millions of workers lost jobs and farmers their land. As a result, six million Mexicans had to leave home and migrate north, looking for work.

If we do not change U.S. trade policy, millions of displaced people will continue to come, no matter how many walls we build.

2. People working without papers will be fired and even imprisoned under their proposal, and raids will increase. Vulnerability makes it harder for people to defend their rights, organize unions and raise wages. That keeps the price of immigrant labor low. Every worker will have to show a national ID card, (an idea too extreme even for the Bush administration). A problematic ID would mean getting fired, and maybe jailed.

This will not stop people from coming to the U.S. But it will produce more immigration raids, firings, and a much larger detention system. Last year over 350,000 people went through privately-run prisons for undocumented immigrants. That number will go up.

3. Schumer and Graham treat the flow of people coming north as a labor supply for employers. They propose new guest worker programs, where workers would have few rights, and no leverage to organize for better conditions. Current programs are already called "Close to Slavery" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

4. Schumer and Graham's legalization scheme imposes barriers making ineligible many of the 12 million people who need legal status. Their idea for "going to the back of the line" would have people wait many years for it.

Getting in the back of the line is like having to sit in the back of the bus. In 1986, even President Reagan, hardly a liberal, signed a plan in which people gained legal status quickly and easily. Many are now citizens and vote, run for office, lead our unions, teach in our schools, and have made great contributions to our country.

Schumer and Graham treat legalization as a carrot, to force acceptance of a program in which the main beneficiaries are large corporations, not immigrants, nor other workers. Instead, we need reform that unites people and protects everyone's rights and jobs, immigrant and non-immigrant alike. We need to use our ideals of rights and equality to guide us.

For several years, immigrant rights groups, community organizations and unions have called for reform based on those ideals. It's time to put those ideas into a bill that can bring our country together, not divide it.

A human rights immigration bill would:

1. Stop trade agreements that create poverty and forced migration.

2. Give people a quick and easy path to legal status and citizenship.

3. End the visa backlogs, so there's no "get in the back" line.

4. Protect the right of all workers in their jobs-- against discrimination, or getting fired for demanding rights or for not having papers.

5. Bring civil rights and peace to border communities.

6. Dismantle the immigration prisons, end detention, and stop the raids.

7. Allow people to come to the U.S. with green cards-- visas that afford people rights, that are not tied to employment and recruitment by labor brokers.

8. Use reasonable legalization fees to finance job programs in communities with high unemployment.

9. End guest worker programs.

Those who say no alternative is possible might remember the "go slow" advice given to young students going to jail in the South in the early 60s. If they'd heeded it, we'd still be waiting for a Voting Rights Act.

Dr. King, Rosa Parks, the students in SNCC, and Chicano civil rights leaders like Cesar Chavez, Bert Corona, Dolores Huerta and Ernesto Galarza, asked the country a simple question: Do we believe in equality or not?

That's still the choice.

This post originally appeared at Truthout.