They take our jobs

1. They Take Our Jobs! is one of the big hysterical issues of immigration, and one of the hardest myths to dispel. Why is that the case?

I think this myth is particularly hard to dispel because in fact many people in the United States are facing job loss, unemployment, and deteriorating conditions of employment. And they hear people like Lou Dobbs and Tom Tancredo repeating endlessly that the reason for these economic conditions is immigration. It also seems commonsensical, if you imagine that the number of jobs is a zero-sum game. If there are five apples on the table, and six people, then one is going to be left without an apple. But in real life, the economy doesn't work like that. The reasons for job loss, unemployment, and deteriorating conditions of employment are have very little to do with immigration.

2. Your book could be accused of raising the level of debate to adult standard, unlike the media coverage of the recent American immigration debate. Who stands to gain from demonizing immigrants?

There are several different social actors that benefit from demonizing immigrants. Politicians and pop journalists trying to attract followers through scandal-mongering and lowest-common-denominator appeals are one group that scapegoat immigrants in order to improve their ratings. Strangely, the sectors that benefit most from immigrant labor also stand to gain. Look at Mitt Romney, in Massachusetts. He led an anti-immigrant drive in the state, at the same time that he employed undocumented immigrant workers to maintain his yard. By fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment, and creating legal and social conditions that keep immigrants poor, fearful, and silent, employers seeking cheap labor create for themselves a caste of vulnerable workers who have no choice but to work for low pay under substandard conditions.

3. Isn't it rather strange that a country like the United States, which has for decades been operating an active encouragement like the Green Card and residency systems to foreigners to come and work there, is making a big deal about immigration?

The United States has since its inception maintained a double standard: on one hand, proclaiming lofty ideals like 'all men are created equal' and on the other, excluding significant portions of its population from equality and rights while taking advantage of their labor. Legal distinctions have maintained a caste-like system in which the portion of the population that's excluded from rights provides cheap labor to maintain the standard of living of the rest. Until the 1860s this system worked through slavery. Africans were not only allowed to immigrate, they were forced to immigrate--but excluded from legal rights once here. It was only after the Fourteenth Amendment established citizenship-by-birth that exclusions on immigration began, in order to prevent people who the law deemed as 'racially ineligible to citizenship' from immigrating. This concept of racial ineligibility was applied first to the Chinese, and then to all people defined as 'Asian'--that is, three quarters of the world's population. Scapegoating of immigrants has been common throughout the late nineteenth and the entire twentieth centuries. There were periods (in the 1950s) when Mexican contract workers were being brought into the United States at the same time that highly publicized deportations of Mexicans resident in the country were being carried out.

4. Do illegal immigrants really take the sort of jobs Americans do, or are they just coming to the US have their unskilled labor exploited more thoroughly?

Immigrants definitely come here to work, although I wouldn't say most of them want to be exploited. But most of them are relegated to jobs in what sociologists call the secondary sector of the economy: jobs with low pay, no security, no opportunity for advancement, dangerous working conditions, and little regulation. Most people who have any alternative at all choose not to do those jobs. But there is a huge demand for labor in this secondary sector, and that's why immigrants continue to come.

5. Given the Green card, resident and legal immigrants scenarios, is citizenship seen as a defining qualification for employment?

Immigration law is quite complex, and there are many different categories of visas that non-citizens can obtain to enter the United States. Some of these visas allow their holders to work, and some prohibit it. Some are temporary, and some are open-ended. Some people cross the border 'illegally'--without a visa; some enter the country legally but become 'illegal' if their visa expires. So there are many, many different statuses that non-citizens can hold. But no, citizenship is not a requirement for employment in this country.

6. The US population has roughly doubled since World War Two. Immigration has had a lot to do with the increase. The standard formula is that population increases creates employment at a rate of roughly 1 new job for every 20 people employed. Isn't it a bit dishonest to then claim that immigration is taking jobs, particularly when that's a very widely used benchmark for job growth in employment economics?

Immigrants, just like citizens, both work and create jobs by participating in the economy. Population growth indeed brings growth in economy and employment, whether the growth comes through immigration or through internal migration or rising birth-rates. The only difference between immigrants and citizens in terms of the impact of population growth on emplolyment is that because immigrants have fewer rights than citizens, they are more apt to be exploited.

7. Europe has been taking a tough line on unskilled immigration recently. It's arguable whether this is likely to be an effect block to the huge economic migrations we've been seeing, but the other perspective is that there is a growing protectionism in many national job markets. How do countries achieve a good, viable balance of immigration and jobs growth?

People have been moving around the face of the earth ever since they first stood upright in East Africa about 7 million years ago, and it never caused a problem in terms of jobs. The idea of restricting this movement began among different human societies about 150 years ago. The so-called problem of balancing immigration and job growth never existed when borders were open. It doesn't exist within the United States, even though the borders among the states are open.I think we need to shift the debate by putting human rights at its center. Most people do not want to leave their homes to work for low pay under poor conditions elsewhere. One of the main causes of immigration from Mexico in the past 15 years is that NAFTA flooded Mexican markets with cheap, heavily-subsidized US corn, undermining the livelihood of Mexican farmers. Fair trade agreements that prioritized human needs rather than corporate profits would go a long way towards allowing poor people to earn a livelihood in their own countries. But the goal should not be restricting people's movement--it should be creating a more just world in which people are not forced to leave their homes to survive.

8. Politically both sides of the bandwagons are as usual overloaded with sycophants, rather than problem solvers. How can the political circus be made rational enough to handle the issues, not just wave flags?

That question goes beyond just the immigration issue, of course. I'm a college professor--I think we're in a privileged position in terms of being able to have our students read books and consider and debate issues in the protected space of the classroom. I hope that my students will take their critical thinking skills beyond the classroom into the rest of their lives. I don't think there's a single, magical solution to your question--but overall, I guess I'd say the answer lies in education.

9. The immigration debate's standard prejudices and hostilities are becoming progressively less related to the real world, as the global economy and the New Economy gather momentum. Is there any hope that the problem may simply become obsolete, as generations that know better move into authority?

I'm not sure there's any evidence that the next generation 'knows better' than previous generations. Anti-immigrant scapegoating has risen and fallen in cycles over the years. There is always hope that we can move beyond it--we did move beyond slavery, after all--but I don't think it will happen without a lot of work by a lot of people.

10.Illegal immgration has been killing a lot of people, and supporting organized crime. People smuggling makes more money than the drug trade. Can legal immigration be effectively used to attack their source of revenue, or is there more to it than that?

The steps that the United States has taken since the 1990s--Operation Gatekeeper, the militarization of the border, the building of the wall on the US-Mexico border--have clearly increased the death rate among immigrants, and also the involvement and profits of crime syndicates involved in people smuggling. A humane immigration policy could begin by reversing these recent steps, which would reduce the suffering and crime caused by Operation Gatekeeper.