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  • Published in Book Reviews

The Politics of Immigration gives supporters of migrants the ammunition to answer back any anti-immigration argument, finds Orlando Hill

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Jane Guskin and David L Wilson, The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press) 372pp.

“I’m not against immigrants. I’m against illegal ones. The idea of open boarders is a fantasy. Let’s face it. Our country is already too full. We must put a limit on how many can come in. We simply can’t afford it. They’ll put too much pressure on our already squeezed public finance. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. Wages will fall if you increase the supply of workers.”

Who hasn’t heard such statements in our workplace, pubs or family meals? You disagree with them, but you might not have the facts or arguments to back up your opinion, so you keep quiet to avoid a shouting match and to keep the peace.

That’s where this book comes in handy. As stated in the title of book, it is organised in questions and answers. The questions come from people’s legitimate fears about the effect immigration might have on jobs, wages, public services and changing communities. Although the fears might be legitimate, the arguments used by those who complain about immigration are based on myths, which are strengthened by anti-immigration organisations, politicians and governments. The idea of the book is ‘to encourage everyone to take a deeper and broader look at immigration and its root causes, and to suggest some possible courses of action’ (p.14).

Although it was written for the US public, native born and immigrants alike, British and other non-US readers will find the book useful in building arguments which debunk the myths on immigration. Some parts you will probably skim through. However, there are parts that deal with issues that concern any major western power.

The answer to why people immigrate lies heavily on the actions of western governments.  Immigrants come from places where the US, the UK and other western powers have intervened militarily or have followed economic policies backed by our governments. The best way to reduce the flow of immigration would be to stop wars and encourage governments to carry out anti-austerity economic policies.

The idea that immigration puts a downward pressure on wages is wide spread to the point of being considered common sense. There are even those on the left who even promote these ideas. There are even those on the left who even promote these ideas and call for tighter broader controls in the defence of workers’ wages.

Capitalists have always tried to control the flow of labour as a means of controlling wages. In the 1920s, the US government encouraged the immigration of Mexicans, but only as temporary manual labourers without the right of joining a trade union. A vulnerable ‘alien’ workforce served the interest of agribusiness. If immigrants could settle in stable communities, join trade unions and actively participate in communities the outcome would be higher wages and better education. The notion that wages are governed by the law of supply and demand idealises and depoliticises the market. Wages are kept high through organised intervention by workers in trade unions. Immigrants who are not afraid of deportation are more easily encouraged to join trade unions and strengthen the labour movement.

Downward pressure on wages is a result of undocumented workers, who are perforce willing to be employed at low wages. Even then studies have shown that the increase in the number of low-wage immigrants had an impact of a one to two percent pay cut in the overall workforce. However, the effect was felt more strongly among the ten percent of workers who had dropped out of high school. They saw their wages drop by about five percent.

One important factor that is often overlooked, but is stressed in the book is the legal status of immigrant workers. A third of immigrant workers in the US are undocumented, making them less likely to complain about low wages or poor working conditions. ‘Their lack of status makes them a vulnerable underclass of workers that employers can exploit with near impunity’ (p.115).

‘But immigrants take our jobs.’ That’s another myth spun by even people in the labour movement. Any A-Level Economics student can tell you that labour is derived demand. The demand for labour depends on the level of economic activity. Immigrants are not just workers, but also consumers. Immigrants are younger and might even have children. Most of their income is spent on labour-intensive goods such as food and clothes, consequently generating more jobs. Older and richer residents have a higher propensity to save rather than consume, therefore generating fewer jobs. There are economists who argue that by stimulating the economy, immigrants raise wages.

The rhetoric used when talking about immigration is a good cover for racism. Social movements across the planet have made it less acceptable for public figures to use prejudiced views against ethnic groups. People who hold racist views can say they aren’t against immigrants, but that they are against those who come here illegally or who refuse to integrate.

Should immigrants with a criminal record be deported? The authors debunk the myth that deporting those who have committed crimes makes our communities safer. From 2008 to 2014 under the ‘Secure Communities’ programme, thousands of Central Americans were deported as ‘criminal aliens’ including members of the Mara Salatrucha (MS-13), a Los Angeles-based gang. The deportation made it possible for the gang to take root in Central America, especially in El Salvador, and take advantage of its connections in the US to become a real force in smuggling drugs. What is needed is better intelligence, working along with the communities, not rounding up and deporting. The authors defend a policy of open borders and freedom of movement as a way of gaining the trust of communities who would as a result be less afraid of cooperating with the police when reporting serious crimes.

The book builds a brilliant defence of the freedom of movement, or the right to migrate, but also the right not to migrate. Most people would rather build a life in the place they call home and feel part of the community, instead of uprooting themselves. This can become much more dramatic if you are being pushed from your home due to war or external matters.

A true open border policy would ideally involve a global economic and social transformation that addresses the political, economic and environmental causes of migration. The freedom of movement, or to stay where you are, is a basic human right. If we are serious about building a borderless world in which we can all realise our full human potential, we must start by debunking the myths and lies that surround immigration. That is the aim of this book.

Tagged under: Economics Immigration Books
Orlando Hill

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches GCSE and A level Economics and Business Studies. He is a member of the NUT, Counterfire and Stop the War.

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