By Roger Knight
As 2006 comes to an end and we start to review the events of this past year, one of the things that remains present in the minds of politicians, social commentators, public policy advocates and the general population alike is the heated immigration debate.
In fact, the earlier half of this year was marked by large-scale political mobilizations led by the Hispanic community like the American public has never seen before. Those street protests started in Chicago on March 10, 2006, and culminated on a national demonstration on May 1, dubbed “The Great American Boycott 2006: A Day Without Immigrants,” when participants were encouraged to skip going to work or school and avoid making purchases to demonstrate the economic importance of all immigrants.
In addition, some political analysts have recently argued that the effects of the 2006 protests were felt at the polls in November. A 2006 NSHP online poll reveals that more than half of respondents participated in the Day Without Immigrants (55%), while the rest either disagreed with it (32%) or were not interested (13%)
The above results echo U.S. public opinion at large which seems to be evenly divided on whether immigration overall is good for the country or not, according to various sources. Since the 2000s, around 1.2 million immigrants per year have come to work in the United States, and only about half a million enter the country legally. However, many of those on both sides of the immigration debate fail to realize what causes this large movement of people. William Robinson, author of A Theory of Global Capitalism, argues that the “pull factor,” inducing Latino immigration to the U.S., is capital’s need for cheap, malleable and deportable labor, while the “push factor” consists of the devastation left by two decades of neoliberalism in Latin America. In fact, the United States constitutes the prime example of a situation when market forces drive an economically advanced area with a labor shortage to import foreign labor.
According to Tamar Jacoby, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a shortfall of unskilled labor is showing up in many sectors, especially the restaurant and construction industries. He explains, the restaurant sector’s "demand for labor is expected to grow by 15 percent between 2005 and 2015. But the native-born work force will grow by only ten percent in that period, and the number of 16- to 24-year-old job seekers—the key demographic for the restaurant trade—will not expand at all." Therefore, it seems that without immigrant workers, the growth of the restaurant sector is bleak for the next decade.
In fact, labor unions have shifted to organizing the low-wage immigrant workforce because without embracing immigrants, the future of the labor movement in low-wage, service industries was destined to failure according to Monica Varsanyi, Professor at the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University. Varsanyi claims that immigrant political mobilizations represent the desire to be legitimate, valid members of their communities, and also dissatisfaction with remaining on the margin of formal politics, while at the same time active and long-term participants in the economic, social, and cultural life of their communities.
Nonetheless, serious immigration analysts should recognize that the current immigration “problem” in the U.S. is largely the result of global market forces working against the responsibility that governments have for their citizens or that employers have towards their employees. Jacoby states that the goal of comprehensive immigration reform should be merely to replace the current illegal flow with a comparable lawful influx—the influx generated by supply and demand.
Therefore, that almost half of mainly Hispanic/Latino respondents to our online poll did not participate in the Day Without Immigrants (45%), who presumably have a vested interest in the issue, tells us that there is a need for deeper understanding of the mechanisms that basically force people to seek labor outside their countries of origin. Regardless of the impact the 2006 immigration debate had in the November elections, it is still too early to determine the long-term consequences of this revamped immigrant rights movement. What is clear, however, is that the political incorporation of immigrants is essential for the future of democracy in America.