How to get immigration reform? Globalise it!

Improving workers’ rights in source countries is key to resolving immigration issues in the US.

Would-be immigrants might decide not to make the dangerous journey to the US if conditions in their countries improve [AFP/Getty Images]

As yet another year begins without an agreement on US immigration reform, once again we are forced to ask: How can this stalemate be broken? How can we move forward when positions for and against seem so entrenched? 

Some politicians are calling for more “limited” reforms as one way forward, but that kind of short-sighted thinking only perpetuates the problem and entrenches the opposing factions. In fact, the best way to address the concerns of both liberals and conservatives is to expand the reform and address the global “push” and domestic “pull” factors that drive undocumented immigration.

Social scientific research has long shown that border control policies do not stop determined immigrants from coming to the United States, but they do provide a powerful incentive for those immigrants to stay once they’ve made the arduous journey.

Time for US immigration reform?

Consistently enforced penalties against employers of undocumented immigrants would probably be more effective, but given the potential for civil rights violations (not to mention the dependency of so many businesses on cheap labour), there has been ambivalence, if not outright opposition, to this approach across the political spectrum.  

Globalising immigration policy, on the other hand, would be humane, effective, and potentially more popular than any of the proposals currently on the table.

By “globalising,” I simply mean policies that attempt to counteract the economic and political pressures that often force individuals who would rather stay home to leave their countries and migrate to the US.

A path to citizenship is a just and fair response to those immigrants who are already here and who have invested their lives and livelihoods in this country, with the explicit or implicit support of their US employers. But instead of just protecting immigrants’ right to stay in the US – which often effectively means the “right” to work at sub-minimum wage jobs with no security or benefits – a comprehensive global approach would also focus on improving wages and working conditions in migrant-sending countries.  

Instead of wasting billions more on ever-tighter security that only increases the death toll of those who try to circumvent it, a modest investment in education, economic development, and workers’ rights in the sending countries could decrease migration flows at far less economic and human cost.

Surveys by the Center for American Progress have shown that Americans believe that the US is morally obligated to improve workers’ rights in other countries. If attached to a campaign to defend and extend basic rights and benefits for US workers as well, a global “workers’ rights” approach to immigration could achieve broad popular support.

The alternative, as Cornell sociologist Mabel Berezin shows in her careful study of the rise of the National Front party in France (Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times), is that an economically insecure populace will only increase its support for extremist anti-immigrant politicians and policies.

Unfortunately, this global perspective on immigration is almost completely missing from the US political discourse and from the forums best positioned to elevate and expand the public debate: the mainstream media.

In an era of intensified economic globalisation, my research shows that the proportion of US national newspaper coverage of immigration simply mentioning global economic push factors actually declined from the 1970s to the 2000s – from almost one-third of news packages to scarcely one-tenth.

To be fair, despite the bad rap they often get, media tend to follow rather than lead elite political debate. The causes of increasing US insularity in its immigration debate go well beyond the media.

But that doesn’t mean that US journalists shouldn’t try to expose the inconvenient truths that politicians prefer to ignore; after all, they have historically embraced this role when it comes to other policy matters.  

Journalists may contend that a global focus is too complex for its readers. In fact, as my research shows, it is difficult to explain in the typical narrative news format.

But as former Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario demonstrated in the book adaptation of her Pulitzer Prize-winning series Enrique’s Journey, it is possible.

Enrique’s Journey chronicles the path of a young teenager from his native Honduras to the US to find his mother. In the afterword to her book, Nazario goes beyond the powerful human interest narrative to make a direct connection to the economic “push” factors that led Enrique and his mother to leave their country.

She specifies trade policies, micro-loans, and education support – all ideas mostly absent from the contemporary debate – that would help would-be migrants to stay home. (To her credit, Nazario developed further these ideas in an October 2013 New York Times op-ed, “The Heartache of an Immigrant Family,” but this kind of analysis is mostly missing in straight “news” and “feature” stories in the New York Times or anywhere else.)

This kind of explanatory and policy-relevant journalism need not be so rare. There is ample material, in the form of rigorous historical and social scientific research by respected immigration scholars such as Peter Kwong, Saskia Sassen, Aristide Zolberg and others, to support this kind of globally-informed economic analysis.

It is this failure, both among journalists and lawmakers, to consistently and prominently tell this structural story of “immigration” behind the tales of individual “immigrants” that underlies the ongoing stalemate in immigration politics.

Citizens want to connect the dots of immigration’s causes and consequences with long-term solutions that address concerns for economic security. US politicians – and media – ought to help them.

Rodney Benson, an associate professor of media studies and sociology at New York University, is the author of Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison. His articles have appeared in the American Sociological Review, Journal of Communication, Le Monde Diplomatique, the Christian Science Monitor, and many other publications. He holds a PhD in sociology from the University of California-Berkeley.