One of my readers pointed me to a recent column by Ruben Navarrette. My reader, whom I’ll refer to as M, was irritated by a particular passage in the column, but to me the entire piece requires comment.
Navarrette’s theme here is that those who would like to tighten immigration policy, known to both sides as restrictionists, have changed their tactics, from race baiting to class warfare. M, as an immigrant and person of color himself, must have found that “race baiting” characterization of restrictionists quite offensive. Polls have shown over the years that many immigrants tend to agree that immigration policy needs some tightening, and native African-Americans have been particularly concerned.
The passage cited by M was this one:
[Center for Immigration Studies analyst] Vaughan made a pitch for fairness and told the story of U.S. hotel workers who had been fired after many years on the job and replaced with immigrants who were willing to work for lower wages.
Steam came out of my ears. I countered that jobs in the U.S. are not reserved for Americans but rather are open to anyone who comes here legally and competes for them. I said no one promised the American workers that they were entitled to a life free of competition and suggested those threatened by undocumented workers with limited skills need to go back to school and get more skills.
There is a lot in that passage.
First, the restrictionists have been pointing out for years that the American underclass is victimized by low-skilled immigration. The case of LA hotel owners breaking up the mainly-black janitors union and hiring cheaper Latino immigrants in their place has been cited by the restrictionists for a good 20 years. (This may or may not be what Vaughn is referring to.) A 1992 article in the Atlantic Monthly, “Black and Brown in LA,” was also prominently mentioned by the restrictionist side at the time. Navarrette’s claim that the restrictionists have suddenly discovered the impact on America’s poor as a reason for reducing the size of the yearly immigration flow is clearly false, and I suspect that Navarrette knows that.
After Hurricane Katrina, a number of locals, mainly African-American, were hired for the cleanup and rebuilding. But after a few days, they were told, “We don’t need you anymore. The Mexicans have arrived,” a statement that speaks volumes. Ironically, the “LA” in black and brown in LA was now Louisiana. Keep this in mind in reading Navarrette’s statement, “those threatened by undocumented workers with limited skills need to go back to school and get more skills” — he seems to be addressing his comments to African-Americans!
Though arguably Navarrette has a point, the really salient point is that HE is the one doing the race-baiting.
As to his complaint that restrictionists are couching the immigration debate in terms of misdeeds by Big Business, that’s not new either, and I suspect that privately Navarrette does not disagree. It’s true for high-skilled immigration too, of course, even more so. Former Senator Alan Simpson, praised here by Navarrette, used to complain about the tech industry’s total intransigence in making the H-1B program more fair to American workers. One remark of his, made in 1996 to the San Jose Mercury News, describes the situation most succinctly: “`I was working with the business community…to address their concerns, [but] each time we resolved one, they became more creative, more novel.” In the end, the industry blocked reform of H-1B altogether.
So why, then, have I titled this blog post as indicating that Navarrette actually got to the core of the immigration issue? The fact is that I strongly agree with his statement, “…jobs in the U.S. are not reserved for Americans but rather are open to anyone who comes here legally and competes for them.” Some of you have noticed that in writing about the impact of H-1B on Americans, I always define that latter group to consist of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. An immigrant with a newly-minted green card has just as much right to a job opening as naturalized citizens and natives.
But that is the crux of the matter. Our immigration policy should be designed so that a given occupation, whether blue or white collar, is not overwhelmed by the external influx. Immigration keeps us from getting stagnant and complacent, but at a certain point it becomes harmful, both to the Americans and the newcomers alike. H-1B, as I’ve said, is more than anything a tool to avoid hiring over-35 workers, and there are many older immigrant engineers in Silicon Valley who have trouble finding engineering work, just like the natives.
I used to be a fan of Navarrette’s, since before he started writing newspaper columns. I bought and enjoyed his memoir of his journey from a poor Central Valley family to the rarified atmosphere of Harvard, published just after he graduated. But then he turned into a hateful ideologue, a shameful waste of talent.