The leadership of the Ohio Legislature is proposing new legislation aimed at undocumented immigrants. This is legislation that will make immigrants' lives more miserable but, in all likelihood, probably will not drive them out. Moreover, it does not address the principal issue: Why do they keep coming?
Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted (R-Kettering) and Ohio Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland) have announced the Ohio Workforce Protection and Illegal Alien Enforcement Act. Expected to be taken up in September, the bill would crack down on immigrants without papers by increasing police powers, cutting off social services and going after employers.
The bill would have both immediate and long-term impact on immigrant communities. State and county officers would, for example, be allowed to arrest undocumented immigrants, solely for being in the United States illegally.
The law would drive immigrants away from emergency medical care by insisting that adults' identities be verified before being treated. It would deny undocumented immigrants in-state tuition rates, scholarships or financial aid. Making it difficult for those who might have contagious illnesses to get emergency care could harm the entire society, while impeding education for the children of immigrants will embitter them and deprive us of their talent.
The law, intended to drive undocumented workers out of Ohio and back to their countries of origin, will only succeed in making their lives unbearable. But it will not drive them out.
They are staying here because there are no jobs in their home countries. The real purpose of this bill then is simply to wave the flag and firm up the conservative, anti-immigrant base of the Republican Party in time for the November elections.
Ohio is not the only state to consider such legislation. Colorado, Georgia and Louisiana have adopted one or another law aimed at cracking down on undocumented workers. Most recently, Suffolk County, N.Y. and the city of Hazleton, Pa. have also created such laws. But local laws, always adopted for political reasons, cannot solve what is an enormous national problem.
The proliferation of city, county and state ordinances aimed at immigrants results from the failure of Congress to come up with a solution. Proposed legislation — all of it flawed and fundamentally unsound — ground to a halt in the last session of Congress.
Most such bills would have legalized only a portion of the undocumented immigrants in the United States today, leaving many without legal status. They would create heavy financial penalties, a burdensome process of legalization and long periods of residency before possible naturalization. Some versions of these bills do not offer a clear path to citizenship for those who do achieve legal status.
These bills also propose guest worker or bracero programs, temporary workers, eventually growing to hundreds of thousands of workers, rotating in and out of the United States. This program for legalized sweatshops in the fields and factories of America would create a new sub-proletariat without basic rights or the power to organize to improve their situation.
The existence of millions of workers without rights not only perpetuates their low-income jobs but threatens the rights and wages of all of us. Finally, they propose a border wall that will cost millions, won't work and will only harm the soul and the image of America.
At the national level, some organizations claiming to represent immigrants — We Are America, the Catholic Church and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — support a compromise bill which, while it does not contain the border wall, would permit a partial legalization and allow guest worker programs. These groups, which claim they want to "fix it now," argue better something than nothing.
Many Latino immigrants groups, however, do not share their view. A recent meeting in Chicago of some 400 representatives of organizations in 25 states, including the groups that organized the huge demonstrations earlier this year in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, rejected compromise on a partial and punitive reform that would exclude millions and permit sweatshop guest worker programs. They want to hold out, as immigrant groups did in the early 1980s, for a real reform such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), which legalized 2.7 million immigrants.
What is it that immigrants want? The Latino immigrant groups that I work with want legalization for all of those now here with a path to citizenship, an end to guest worker programs and oppose a border wall. They argue that immigrants work as janitors, hotel and restaurant workers, construction laborers and factory workers — work that keeps this country running. Their labor not only brings prosperity but also creates jobs for others.
They argue that they do pay taxes. Most work for employers who make payroll deductions, their landlords fold the property taxes into their rent and they pay sales taxes on every purchase they make. Immigrants point out that it is their payments into Social Security that helps keep the system afloat. They seek legalization as recognition that, through their labor and their presence, they have contributed to our prosperity and enriched our culture.
No proposal will work, though, if it does not tackle the foreign policy of the United States. The United States, throughout much of this history, backed military dictators such as those in Guatemala, who protected the rich and persecuted the poor. Unable to survive in their own country, Guatemalans fled north looking for safety and then for jobs.
Most recently, the United States has foisted "free trade" agreements on Latin America, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada. NAFTA enriched a few, impoverished many and turned millions into migrants. Imports of government-subsidized corn from the United States ruined the corn farmers of Mexico, who then headed north looking for work.
Until we alter these policies, the approach to immigration through simple police power is bound to fail.
Dan La Botz is a writer, teacher and activist. His column appears the fourth issue of each month.