The Corporate Voice in the U.S. Migration Debate

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For too long, the U.S. migration policy debate has been portrayed as a fight between the dueling positions of "amnesty" and "enforcement-only."  The media has parroted this facade of a debate, and it has prevented a discussion of the real issues at stake.  In reality, there are three main voices in the U.S. migration policy debate: the nativist voice, the corporate voice, and the migrant voice.  Too often, the broader U.S. public is hearing a debate between the nativist voice and the corporate voice in the media. 

The nativist voice is usually represented in the media by John Tanton's Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and all of it's offshoots like the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), NumbersUSA, the Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee (ALIPAC), and the "80-year-old internet fighter pilots" that leave nativist comments in online forums everywhere. 

What I call the corporate voice is represented not only by corporations themselves and publications like the Wall Street Journal, but by the many mainstream migrant advocacy organizations and the Democrat party, both of which are funded almost entirely by corporations.
Certainly, good pro-migrant work comes out of some of these organizations and some elements of the Democrat party.  I find they do especially good work in the fight against nativism.  I have also personally collaborated with the corporate voice in the U.S. migration policy debate.

Still, I can't help but feel that for the most part, the pro-migrant advocates we generally see quoted in the papers are bought and paid for.  That's a big part of why you hear about "legalization" so often, but you rarely hear mainstream migrant advocacy organizations making in roads on the raids, detentions, and deportations that are terrorizing so many migrant families across the U.S. 

Small local advocacy organizations are usually left holding the bag when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declares ware on their communities.  Furthermore, the "legalization" mainstream groups advocate for is generally the legalization of an easily exploitable workforce, through something like a guest worker program, that businesses are happy to profit from. 

Even the McCain-Kennedy bill, which Democrats and mainstream migrant advocacy organization hold up as the ideal, was primarily a bill about further enforcement.  Roberto Lovato describes it as a bill which "combined policies legalizing the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States with policies increasing the number of ways to persecute, prosecute, jail and deport future undocumented immigrants". 

These mainstream advocacy organizations have even enabled the Democrat party to take a tougher line against migrants.  You'll notice way back on February 29, 2008, that Sam Stein of Huffington Post picked up a confidential study by the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) which advised Democrats to use tougher words like the enforcement-laden rhetoric of "requiring illegal immigrants to become legal." 

That enforcement-heavy language is found in almost every public declaration that Democrats make now.  CCIR is supposed to be a pro-migrant organization.  It's now defunct, but you'll recognize many of the people involved with it are now active at other mainstream advocacy organizations. 

These advocacy organizations will argue that it's just rhetoric, but it has had real world implications.  Democrats are outbidding Republicans on U.S. immigration enforcement, which few in the 'progressive' blogosphere have commented on.  An article by David Rogers in Politico details this arms race in the war on migrants.  This is what happens when the corporate voice advocates on behalf of migrants.

Lastly, we arrive at the migrant voice.  You don't usually get the migrant voice through traditional media.  The migrant voice isn't funded by multi-million dollar grants.  There are certainly elements of the migrant voice in the corporate-funded migrant advocacy organizations.  The general rule is that the closer an advocacy organization works with migrants the closer it is to the migrant voice.  Unfortunately, a lot of organization in Washington D.C. don't have much day to day contact with migrants.  The migrant voice is what we try to represent through Citizen Orange, even though the vast majority of us that write here are much more privileged than most migrants.

It's important to state that I've left out certain major interests in describing these three voices.  Immigration lawers and labor unions have major roles to play, for instance, and they fit into all three of these voices.  Some labor unions are nativist while others, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are very good at representing the migrant voice.  Some immigration lawyers are completely corporate while others have dealt very closely with some of the worst aspects of the U.S. immigration system.

In general though, the media does the world a great disservice by making it seem like there are only two voices in this fight.  The corporate voice and the migrant voice are often both combating the nativist voice.  Some of the most important battles in the U.S. migration debate, though, are the battles between the corporate voice and the migrant voice. 

For instance, while the final attempt to jam comprehensive immigration reform through the senate was often described as a victory for nativists, I didn't support that bill.  There were many other pro-migrant organizations that opposed it too.  Where was the story about the pro-migrant opposition to that last comprehensive immigration reform bill?  If you had read the pro-migrant blogs you would have heard about it.

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janna said:

I like how you've laid all this out. I've often thought that the large scale employers of migrants, which are close to the migrants, could be a voice in their defense, but instead just seem to be looking to profit from their labor.
I think that whenever the migrant voice tries to make itself heard, the nativists de-legitimize that voice by claiming that they have no right to an opinion, no right to be heard because they're not "legal." They've been successful in squelching not only migrants themselves, but those of us who seek to give them voice, by convincing people that the illegality of their presence here equals the illegitimacy of their very existence.

symsess said:

This has always been a tough area for me. I see it as 1) nativists - those who don't want immigrants here at all and rally behind groups such as FAIR under the guise of "pro-immigrant" / "anti-illegal immigrant" 2) corporations - large companies that have something to gain by bringing in more immigrants (which is not necessarily bad, but certainly can be), 3) pro-migrants - people who just care about other people and then we have the most important, but often unheard voice of 4) migrants - people who risk their life or security to travel to the United States (and other rich nations) for work. Some risk the journey here and others simply stay 'too long'. Migrants are reminders of the great human spirit. Often born into misfortune they do not accept this lightly. Instead they forge off into the distance to create a better life even though the world is often setup against them.

This blog is about carrying for others through the support of the migrant voice. That voice cares both for the migrants coming here because they've no other choice, but also for making conditions in other countries better. The focus on the U.S. and 'Americans' is what's allowed us to create a system where only 'Americans' matter. That has to be changed. Everyone around the globe deserves to live in peace and prosperity.

I just finished watching Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden. In that movie Morgan travels to Afghanistan and asks one group what there biggest issue is to which they respond water. They go on to say that since the military base was setup all there water is no going to the troops. This isn't something we generally here about, but this kind of thing is happening all over.

The migrant voice and the pro-migrant voice certainly need more attention. On my own blog I've had people try and prove that I was a business owner who profited off of the labor of migrants. Of course, that's not true, but many believe that you must have something to gain. I guess I do - I'd gain the comfort of knowing we live in a better world.

Since I threw a movie in this comments I'll also add The Visitor. If you haven't seen it check it out. It's an amazing move which shows the reality forged when you actually get to know somebody.

Wonderful post. Thanks.

yave begnet said:

Symsess said:
On my own blog I've had people try and prove that I was a business owner who profited off of the labor of migrants.

I profit from the labor of migrants, and from their legal problems. I work as an immigration attorney for a nonprofit legal services organization that charges nominal fees to migrant clients to try to resolve their legal problems. Their fees help pay my salary. Granted, it's not as high as it would be at a firm, but the basic transaction is the same as in the private sector. (Though some of my cases are completely pro bono, and some of my coworkers are funded to do solely pro bono work.)

More generally, I profit from the labor of migrants when I eat produce, when I go to a restaurant staffed by migrant workers, when I enter a building that was built by migrant hands. Taking another step back, I benefit from the labor of non-migrants--workers in other countries whose underpaid labor goes to make products that I consume. The power differential between the U.S. and those producing countries helps sustain the favorable labor-to-benefit ratio that I enjoy as a U.S. consumer--for instance one hour of my labor might be equivalent to 15 or 20 hours of labor at a factory in Indonesia.

Everyone profits to some extent from the work they do ... we have profited as bloggers to varying degrees, whether through hopefully having some impact on discussion and policy, to the satisfaction of having people read and comment on your writing, to being paid to blog.

My point is that self-interest drives everything we do. That's why I'm agnostic on corporations to a greater extent than some in the left-blogosphere. I think the reward-to-work ratio is way out of whack, and we need to figure out more equitable ways to decide who does undesirable work. I believe the purportedly value-neutral explanatory tools that have been developed to describe work and exchanges of value are skewed towards existing wealth and power. But I also think we have to acknowledge the way self-interest drives much of what we do every day.

This, and I guess my training and work history, makes me open to working with business groups to pass CIR. But only on the condition that basic human rights be respected. That means an end to immigration raids, it means no more deaths in detention, it means a reasonable path to lawful status, it means no permanent guest worker underclass. Maybe this is a distinction without a difference from my blogmig@s here and at the Sanctuary. But in my vision of the future, corporations respect human rights and human rights activists work with business to make the world better.

MdeG said:

Good essay, thanks. It inspires the following, which is a little tangential:

I get really sick of the way immigration is cast as a defense issue: The militarization of the border is just a dumb boondoggle & won't work; that's been demonstrated since the mid 90s, but try telling that to Halliburton. And the migrants get cast as an invading army.

What makes the latter point so preposterious is that inasmuch as there's any organization behind the large-scale northward migration, it's from here, in the US. Both our meddling in other governments, and the "free" trade agreements, have been major factors; ditto the business finagles that made IRCA's doc. requirements unenforceable.

Here's what I'm wondering about. David Bacon has written quite a lot about the tendency of big raids to just happen to happen in the midst of union organizing drives. The obvious interest behind such moves would be the companies, no? Yet in a few cases (AgriProcessors) the companies clearly suffer in consequence, or want us to believe that they do.

Leads me to wonder whether companies are overreaching & shooting themselves in the foot? Or maybe Homeland Security taking an active interest in anti-union activity? Perhaps I am being paranoid today.

symsess said:


I see how that comment is offensive to you and I hadn't even considered it. What I was referring to was a person who claimed I wanted to support migrants to exploit them. It was stated as if there's no other reason one would support migrants unless they wanted cheap labor.

I understand, from your position, that this was quite irresponsible of me. I was placing everyone here into the pro-migrant category which wasn't defined very well considering there are many people who are actually employed through helping others.

kyledeb Author Profile Page said:

Excellent discussion going on here,

I had an email exchange with a friend about this post who suggested I might have oversimplified things in pointing out three voices. In reality there are at least half a dozen major voices in this debate. Still I think pointing out the influence of the corporate voice is important.

MdeG: The reason business are getting hurt is because Chertoff and DHS is hurting business now is to try and get business behind CIR since they didn't do anything in the last. It just happened recently though. A ridiculously low amount of employers were prosecuted in 2007, something like 7 or 11 or 14 or something.

Yave and Symsess: Especially interesting discussion about the nature of self-interest and whether corporations are bad in themselves. The way I always try and describe whether an occupation is worthy or not, is not necessarily in what is done, but who you do it for. My father runs a business in Guatemala, but a big part of who he does it for is the rural community in Guatemala. This is contrasted by investment bankers who sole occupation is to make rich people richer.

I disagree with yave's suggestion that we are all self-interested. Sure there is an argument that there is self-interest in everything, but there is also an argument that everyone is altruistic as well. You have to be pretty messed up to enjoy another person suffering.

In general, though, to get back to the concept of corporations. Corporations should not have the same rights as people, as they do in the United States and many other places. That is just ridiculous.

MdeG said:

Kyle, I can kind of buy the idea that this is just another ramp-up in enforcement pre-CIR attempt. We saw this in the 80s and 90s as well -- make life so miserable for the undocumented and their employers that they'll jump on board of any lousy bill that comes along.

What doesn't fit, to my mind: The camps. Those feel ominous, part of something bigger.

Dave Bennion said:

Symsess, to set the record straight, I didn't take offense in the slightest at your comment. My response was in no way intended as a slam on your comment or anything it implied. I'm sorry if that was unclear from my tone or what I was saying. There was no offense taken and none intended to you.

Malby said:

I find it odd that one who opposes illegal immigration is automatically categorized by your analysis as "nativist." This is simply untrue. I have no problem with legal immigration. I do have a problem with illegal immigration and with employers whose business model depends upon it. In addition, I am angered by people who cut the line ahead of millions of people around the world who are waiting to follow the legal process. (And the fact that the process is a bureaucratic mess is no excuse; everyone here has to deal with government incompetence and delay.) Moreover, I am angered by illegal immigrant advocates who effectively say, "They're here, get over it." Finally, I have been and continue to be troubled by population numbers--here and everywhere--trouble me. I grew up in the Zero Population Growth, Small is Beautiful era. I am still concerned with the environment, and population growth has all but been ignored in the past two decades.

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This page contains a single entry by kyledeb published on October 24, 2008 6:43 PM.

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