Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bill Richardson's Presidential test: immigration

God is a distant old white guy with a beard; the U.S. President is white guy in a suit. The archetype of a U.S. President is still a white man.

So folks who want to be President who don't fit the archetype have to pass a test: can they adopt unthreatening positions on the subjects which define their difference from the archetype, all the while trying not to alienate the considerable part of their support that comes from people who want them to be different?

Case in point: Hillary Clinton acts as if she had to cozy up to the Iraq war; she believes she has to go out of her way to convince us that a woman would kill as many towel-heads as would a candidate with male plumbing.

In the netroots and among those who attended the recent MoveOn Iraq forums, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is climbing rapidly toward the first tier of Presidential hopefuls. His "start withdrawing now" and "no residual forces" positions on Iraq clearly moved him up a notch. But part of Richardson's claim to consideration is that he is the nation's first viable Latino candidate -- so his test of his presidential fitness becomes: how he would deal with immigration issues, especially with Mexican immigrants?

There is no question that Richardson has said some sensible things about migration policy.

I'm vehemently against this wall, which is idiotic. It makes no sense. ...

Q: Do you support the touch-back notion, where undocumented immigrants would have to return to their country to be eligible to return to the U.S.?

A: Terrible idea. It's going to split up families. Let's just have an orderly process. (With) the touch-back (plan), you're going to split up families. Why do that? It's sort of a typical Congressional compromise that's not going to work.

The Arizona Republic
April 14, 2007

Or, in a more analytical vein:

Think for a moment about the quality of life for an undocumented worker. No protection from unscrupulous employers. No job benefits. No health care, no pension, no Social Security, no workers compensation, no Medicare or disability insurance.

Yet -- despite what some people would have you think -- almost all of these workers pay taxes, including Social Security and Medicare taxes. Because in order to find work they must either use someone else's Social Security number or make one up. Since they will never collect benefits, these illegal workers are subsidizing our Social Security and Medicare trust funds with their payroll taxes.

And those who are not paying into Social Security and Medicare are working under the table, and are at even greater risk of being exploited. No minimum wage, no safety standards, no over-time, no protection against sexual harassment or even sexual abuse. Many workers change jobs every few months because their employer finds out that their Social Security number is invalid or belongs to someone else.

Most undocumented immigrants come to the United States to work low-wage jobs which few Americans want, such as picking crops or cleaning toilets. Our economy creates demand for at least 400,000 new low-skill illegal immigrants per year, but only about 140,000 are allowed to enter legally. When demand and legal supply are so out of line, the pressures for illegal immigration are enormous.

Speech at Georgetown University,
December 7, 2006

Richardson obviously understands immigration realities, something we can't be quite so sure most of the others do.

But then we get to his prescriptions for improvement: short form -- he supports the Kennedy-McCain bill offered last year. Or, in the Georgetown speech just cited:

I am calling on the Democratic Congress to act swiftly to work with the President and solve this problem. And it can be solved by taking four realistic steps -- securing the border, increasing legal immigration, preventing employers from hiring illegal workers, and providing a path to legalization for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants already here.

Let's go into that a little.
  • Securing the border. Despite his clear exposition of the economic causes of migration, he very emphatically endorses the frame that "illegal" border crossing are a "security threat." He even panders to the xenophobic fantasies of U.S. rightwingers by raising the specter of Al Qaeda in reference to the border. He wants to "immediately put enough National Guard troops at the border to keep it covered until we can secure it with Border Patrol officers." And he wants to give this pseudo-army "the best surveillance equipment available to our military." As Governor of New Mexico, he did place the National Guard on the border.
  • Increasing legal immigration. Richardson knows that increasing and streamlining legal immigration would help reduce the flow of undocumented workers. And he's for it. "If the US economy needs these workers, it is in our national interest to let more of them come legally, by increasing combined legal quotas for temporary and permanent taxpaying immigrants to 400,000 workers per year. To keep families together, we also should double the number of family member visas, from 480,000 to 960,000." But in addition to more legal immigration, he also endorses the complicated "guest worker" program in Kennedy-McCain that would provide U.S. employers with a compliant workforce with few rights since terminating their employment would mean their expulsion. Great -- in a guest worker program the U.S. government serves as the labor contractor for big, tightwad corporations. That's quite a triumph of privatization.
  • Preventing employers from hiring illegal workers. In order to do this, he essentially endorses creation of "a national system to reliably and instantaneously verify the legal status of every job applicant and worker." Though he talks about privacy protections and anti-discrimination curbs, it is hard to imagine that this system would not evolve into a national ID card. Do we choose to adopt such a system because we are afraid of immigrants?
  • Providing a path to legalization. Richardson knows he can't just make these people felons as the Republican congress tried to last year.

    The number of illegal immigrants is five times the number of inmates in all American prisons combined. Our economy could not stand the shock of losing all these workers, and our national conscience would not countenance arresting millions of men, women and children. We did this to Japanese Americans in 1942, and we rightfully regret that abandonment of basic American decency.

    He is not a proponent of criminalization. But he sure throws the xenophobes a lot of bones as he describes his picture of a "path to legalization." Undocumented persons seeking to regularize their status should pay back taxes (though they got no benefits), "pay a fine for breaking the law," and show a clean record. Then he is willing to put out the welcome mat, though in the Arizona Republic interview, he speaks of "a path to legalization, not citizenship." The interviewer didn't follow up by asking what that status might mean.
As Richardson's campaign progresses, he can expect to be hammered, at best, by insinuations, at worst by outright accusations, that he wants to give the country away to those Mexicans. He's a scrappy guy who has faced this kind of garbage his whole career, so he is probably ready for it. He's staked out an immigration position with a little something for everyone -- it is not clear whether this will help his campaign.

What do I think he'd do about immigration in office? Hard to tell when a guy covers all bases. The experience of Bill Clinton in office makes me distrustful: Clinton certainly understood the realities of poor women on welfare better than most of our politicians. Nonetheless, he was willing to enact the radical right's punitive "welfare reform" to get the issue out of the way. I fear Richardson would be similarly eager simply to get rid of the issue, willing to sign off on anything a Democratic Congress sent him, at whatever cost to the immigrant workers.

Update -- 5/24/2007: Richardson has stuck to his principles, becoming the first Democratic contender to oppose the so-called immigration "compromise." According to the New York Times, "
after reading it in detail, he had decided to oppose it, saying the measure placed too great a burden on immigrants — tearing apart families that wanted to settle in the United States, creating a permanent tier of second-class immigrant workers and financing a border fence that Mr. Richardson had long opposed."

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