Panel Discussion
“Perspectives on Immigration”

October 21, 2004


The discussion panel (from left): Lucas Guttentag, Maria Echaveste, Harley Shaiken,
Phillip Martin, and Gilbert Cedillo

Out of the Shadows?
By Jason Cato

In a speech on January 7, President Bush made strong overtures to the Latino community as he discussed the importance of bringing immigrants out of “the shadows of American life” where they are “often abused and exploited.” He outlined a temporary worker program that would allow migrants to enter the U.S. safely and legally for a period of up to six years but would not offer a path toward earned citizenship or address the problems faced by “temporary workers” who set down roots in the United States. However, even this limited proposal has stalled in the climate of an election year.

Historically, the U.S. has vacillated between desire for cheap immigrant labor and reverence for its heritage as a “melting pot” nation on the one hand and fear of immigrants as a threat to the national cultural fabric on the other. The historic dilemma regarding the place of immigrants in the culture and economy of the U.S. is currently being negotiated in a complex political climate, drastically redefined in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

This context framed the key questions discussed in the U.S.–Mexico Futures Forum panel “Perspectives on Immigration.” What type of immigration reform is likely in the near future? How will the diverse sectors of U.S. society negotiate issues such as regularization, guest worker programs and changing demographics in a period when the domestic policy agenda continues to be dominated by security issues?

Lucas Guttentag, Director of the ACLU National Immigrants’ Rights Project; Lecturer, Boalt Hall School of Law, UC Berkeley

Immigrants have become extremely vulnerable since Sept. 11, especially when politicians exploit the new security climate to undermine statutory rights, said Lucas Guttentag, Director of the ACLU National Immigrants’ Rights Project. A key issue of contention is access to courts. “Rights on paper are meaningful if they are enforceable via courts; but without court access, there are essentially no rights in practice,” Guttentag said. The attack on immigrants’ access to courts appeared in several newly proposed bills that would increase the state’s powers to detain and would give the Department of Homeland Security absolute power to revoke nonimmigrant visas and execute deportations without any meaningful right of appeal, essentially wiping out court access.

Maria Echaveste, Attorney and CEO Nueva Vista Group; Deputy Chief of Staff, Clinton Administration (1998-2000)

Yet, despite the political transformations in the wake of Sept. 11, immigrants — and Latinos in particular — are redrawing the political map as organizing efforts significantly increase voter registration and expected turnout, said Maria Echaveste, former Deputy Chief of Staff in the second Clinton Administration. This surge in mobilization began in the wake of anti-immigrant legislation in the mid-1990s. Amid a context of economic recession, immigrants were increasingly scapegoated for the travails of a beleaguered citizenry. Blamed for taking much-needed jobs and burdening U.S. taxpayers, immigrants became ensnared in a host of policy initiatives at local, state and national levels. California’s infamous Proposition 187, for example, sought to deny undocumented immigrants access to public resources. And in 1996 several pieces of legislation had dire consequences for immigrants: The Illegal Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act stripped away basic rights and facilitated deportation by eliminating the rights of appeal, while the Welfare Act denied rights and benefits to noncitizens, including long-term legal immigrants.

Now demographic trends could put significant immigration reform back on the national agenda. For example, in 2000, California became a majority-minority state, portending important yet uncertain consequences in the state’s electoral arena. That demographic reality is increasingly being mirrored across the U.S. as politicians from both of the main parties go out of their way to woo the Latino vote.

Philip Martin, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics; Chair of UC Comparative Immigration & Integration Program, UC Davis

What issues might immigration reform be likely to address? According to several panelists, a central issue is labor in the agricultural sector. “The farm workers of tomorrow are growing up outside the U.S.,” argued Philip Martin, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis. With an agricultural industry that employs an average 2.5 million workers per year, key questions are from where and under what conditions will new workers come to the U.S.?

Professor Martin outlined three main options. First, the guest worker program, already proposed by the Administration, enables workers to labor in the U.S. temporarily. In order to discourage settlement, this program would include various incentives for migrant workers to eventually return to their sending country. The second option is blanket legalization. In the past the U.S. has implemented two types of legalization based upon either length of residency or employment in farm work. Yet in the current climate the possibility of legalization is virtually nonexistent, said Martin, and would require many stringent provisions not seen in the policy of the 1980s.

“Earned” legalization is the alternative that has advanced the farthest in Congress, according to Martin. This proposal enables migrants to gain legal status according to the length of time they have worked in the U.S. The key problem immigration reform needs to address, argued Professor Martin, is “how to benefit documented and undocumented individuals already in the U.S. without getting into the same situation in several years.”

Whichever form future immigration policy assumes, panelists agreed that it would continue to be a vital question for the future of U.S. democracy. How the U.S. chooses to engage immigration will have profound implications for society and the economy in coming years.

Gilbert Cedillo, California State Senator (D-Los Angeles)

“Our commitment to immigrants is a measure of our commitment to democracy,” California Senator Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) declared. Yet serious, rational debate is stymied by the right-wing control of mainstream U.S. media. Substantive discussion requires leadership and organization to meet the sustained challenges of xenophobia and nativism. While the prosperity of both California and the nation is dependent upon the social and economic contributions of immigrants, for many Americans, immigrants are viewed as “the enemy.” Californians in particular display “schizophrenic” attitudes toward immigrants. On the one hand, the state economy is driven by immigrant labor, Cedillo said. Over 90 percent of California’s field workers are immigrants, more than half of whom are undocumented. On the other hand, immigrants in California, and in the U.S. more generally, face enormous economic and cultural obstacles ranging from economic exploitation to social marginalization.

“This is about a crisis of leadership,” argued Senator Cedillo. “Are we willing to accept this challenge? Do we have the leadership? We must seriously discuss the core issues.”

The fate of immigrants is key to the future of U.S. democracy. Once the government attacks the rights of the most vulnerable, the potential for a spill-over effect endangers the civil and human rights of all, including citizens. The present Administration has clearly demonstrated a willingness to erode civil liberties and target immigrants under the banner of anti-terrorism, said several panelists. Despite the many challenges that remain, Senator Cedillo urged people to get involved: “The capacity to influence the political process exists, and people should utilize the opportunity.”

The U.S.–Mexico Futures Forum panel discussion “Perspectives on Immigration” was held at Stephens Hall on October 21, 2004. Panelist were: Maria Echaveste, former Deputy Chief of Staff in the Clinton Administration (1998-2000) and current lecturer at Boalt Hall School of Law, UC Berkeley; Lucas Guttentag, Director of the ACLU National Immigrants’ Rights Project and Lecturer at Boalt; Philip Martin, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, and Chair of the UC Comparative Immigration and Integration Program, UC Davis; and Gilbert Cedillo, California State Senator (D-Los Angeles).

Jason Cato is a graduate student in the Department of Ethnic Studies.

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