Author Spotlight: A Conversation with the Editors of Immigration Matters

Friday, April 16, 2021

Over the past decade, right-wing nativists have stoked popular hostility to the nation’s foreign-born population, forcing the immigrant rights movement into a defensive posture. During the Trump years, advocates had few opportunities to consider questions of long-term policy or future strategy. We now have a once in a generation opportunity to remake our nation's broken immigration system. Immigration Matters: Movements, Visions, and Strategies for a Progressive Future brings together leading immigration activists, scholars, and policy makers to provide a new, actionable vision for immigration policy.

In the interview below, editors Ruth Milkman, Deepak Bhargava, and Penny Lewis discuss Immigration Matters and the wide-ranging voices and perspectives the book includes.

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The contributors to this edited collection include academics, activists, and policy experts. Why did you decide to have a variety of voices, and how did you select the authors?

The academics, activists, and policy experts whose voices are included in Immigration Matters provide complementary contributions to the book’s central goal: to develop new visions and strategies for progressive immigration policies. Alongside the nativist tumult of the Trump era, key actors in the field were hard at work developing breakthrough solutions to address immigration. The goal of this book is to give their ideas greater exposure and to create a dialogue among them across disciplines. We are honored that the volume contains so many of the most innovative leaders in immigration scholarship, activism, and policy. The book is organized into four parts. Part I offers historical perspectives that explain how the nation’s current immigration crisis developed; Part II illustrates the powerful organizing that has helped in the past and in the present to effect change; Part III outlines transformative proposals for future immigration policies in the post-Trump United States; and finally Part IV offers strategies for winning those goals. At the same time, the volume demonstrates the richness of cross-fertilization among these four topics. The academic authors provide historical analysis, comparative assessments of policy, and innovative new approaches for movements and policy makers to consider. The activists share rich experiences building the modern immigrant rights movement, including strategies that have led to numerous victories in workplaces and unions, cities and communities, statehouses and federal law. The policy experts draw on the insights of the scholars and organizers while offering concrete paths forward that straddle practicality and aspiration. Taken together, these diverse voices produce a rich dialogue as well as each one’s unique analyses and views.

You write in the introduction about America’s long history of nativist political movements that culminated in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. What is the appeal of nativism, and why does it rise and fall over time?

This is addressed in detail in the book’s opening chapter, authored by historian Mae M. Ngai, who compares three eras of surging nativism in U.S. history – the anti-Chinese movement immediately after the Civil War, the opposition to immigration from southern and eastern Europe in the early twentieth century, and the demonizing of Latinx immigrants in the late twentieth century. In all three cases, she argues, nativism emerges not in periods of economic downturn but in periods of expansion, when structural shifts in the labor market provoke anxiety among the native-born. Immigrants did not “take jobs” from the U.S.-born in any of these periods, but rather flocked to the new and expanding sectors of the economy in each era. But economics is not the whole story: nativism also is culturally and politically driven by white nationalist and nativist ideas and narratives that are, in turn, weaponized by opportunistic demagogues (Trump is only the most recent example) to increase their political power. In our time, nativism is fueled by the growth of economic precarity among the U.S.-born along with a broader fear of demographic change that is moving the nation toward a “majority-minority” population. Thus today’s “immigrant threat narrative” blames immigrants—without any factual basis, as Ruth Milkman demonstrates in her groundbreaking sectoral analysis in the book’s second chapter—for the economic reversal of fortune that white U.S.-born workers have suffered since the 1970s.

What role does racism play in nativist appeals? To what extent is Trump’s political movement a reaction to what you describe as the “browning of America”?

Racism is the central axis around which Trump constructed his political strategy. Because immigrants today are largely of color, racism and nativism have become inextricably intertwined in right-wing discourse today. As the book’s introduction explains, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the Hart-Celler Act), mostly by accident, increased immigration to the United States dramatically in subsequent decades, with most recent immigrants coming from Asia and Latin America. As Deepak Bhargava argues in his concluding chapter, mobilizing racial resentment against immigrants was critical to Trump’s successful 2016 campaign and to his governing agenda. Trump deployed racist rhetoric when he characterized Mexicans as “rapists” and described the nations from which African immigrants come as “shithole countries.” Trump adviser Stephen Miller was exposed as a white supremacist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which published a cache of his emails. Indeed, Miller explicitly sought to counter the threat of “demographic replacement” of U.S.-born whites by people of color by reducing net migration from the global South. This underpinned notorious policies like the Muslim ban and separating children from their parents, but also less widely publicized moves such as lengthening waiting times for immigrants to naturalize, reducing refugee admissions, and even revoking the citizenship of already naturalized citizens. Taken together, these efforts were stunningly successful in reducing immigration in the Trump years.

The book also explores efforts to counter these policies. The chapter by Mehrdad Azemun and Adam Kruggel, two longtime community organizers, explores how relational organizing in seemingly hostile rural areas can counter nativist appeals; the chapter by New York City organizers Javier H. Valdés, Deborah Axt, Daniel Altschuler, and Angeles Solis proposes taking on corporations profiting from nativist policies. Three other chapters present interviews with Eliseo Medina, Angelica Salas, and D. Taylor, all of whom make the case for leaning into demographic change to defeat nativist political strategies. They also expose the political transformation of California and Nevada into pro-immigrant states as a result of deliberate community and labor organizing to counter nativist backlash.

You and your contributors share a belief that merely undoing Trump’s immigration restrictions isn’t enough. Why is it so important for progressives to present a positive immigration agenda?

Trump launched a multi-faceted assault on every pillar of the country’s immigration policy, from the border, to refugee and asylee admissions, to persecution of undocumented immigrants, including the young “Dreamers.” Advocates have necessarily focused on remediating the harms of the Trump era, but as Justin Gest and Amaha Kassa point out in their chapters, this has come at the expense of articulating a proactive vision for future migration to the United States. They each propose new frameworks that would recalibrate the number of immigrants admitted and potentially shift the distribution across the key pathways of immigration—humanitarian, economic, family, and diversity—as well. Saket Soni’s chapter points out that in addition to the important issues facing today’s immigrants, we must confront the reality of a long, massive wave of new migration driven by climate change. He argues that the nation needs a new set of policies to promote economic resilience related to climate change, and that expanded immigration is crucial to that goal. And the chapter by longtime immigration advocate and former senior Obama administration official Cecilia Muñoz argues that the family separation crisis at the border has deep historical roots. She makes the case for a fundamental rethinking of border policies and for a new, more humane and workable system focused on a greater role for civil society in welcoming refugees and addressing root causes of migration in sending countries.

Comprehensive immigration reform has failed in Congress repeatedly over the past few decades. Is it better to abandon such efforts in favor of piecemeal actions like DACA?

The authors in this volume agree on the urgent need for legalization of all undocumented people in the United States, but they offer a variety of pathways to achieve that goal. Some, like Marielena Hincapié and Cristina Jiménez Moreta, argue that the older “comprehensive immigration reform” framework should be jettisoned and replaced with a more visionary policy that connects the interests of immigrants to other social justice movements. Peter L. Markowitz’s pathbreaking chapter, “Abolish ICE . . . and Then What?” argues for a fundamental reconsideration of the logic of immigration enforcement: do we really need the massive apparatus that has expanded so dramatically since 9/11 with such terrible consequences for immigrant families and communities? The chapter by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal makes the case for a comprehensive and sweeping immigration overhaul, but on much more progressive terms than previous omnibus bills. Jayapal also offers a bold and novel proposal to dismantle the sprawling Department of Homeland Security apparatus.

Populists on both the right and left have historically been skeptical about immigration because of its allegedly negative effect on the wages of the U.S.-born. Why are they wrong?

Ruth Milkman’s chapter offers a new paradigm for rethinking the role of immigrants in the U.S. labor market. The consensus among scholars who have studied this question is that the net effect of immigration on the economic well-being of the U.S.-born is positive. When immigrants spend their earnings to buy food, clothing, shelter, and other goods and services inside the United States, they contribute to economic demand, generating jobs that would not otherwise exist. In addition, insofar as low-wage immigrant labor lowers prices for things like restaurant food, child care, gardening, or home construction, that improves the buying power and living standards of the U.S.-born. These economic dividends are not evenly distributed, however, with the affluent benefiting more than the poor and working-class U.S.-born. A few studies find that high school dropouts, especially Black and Latinx males, do experience wage declines as a result of immigration, but they are very small—less than 2 percent for each 1 percent increase in the foreign-born labor supply. The reason the impact is so tiny is that immigrants and natives very rarely compete directly for the same jobs. Low-wage immigrants are highly concentrated in a relatively small cluster of occupations at the bottom of the labor market, especially agricultural and domestic work, home care, garment manufacturing, landscaping, and less-skilled construction and service jobs.

What lessons can progressives take from the success of immigrant labor unionizing efforts in recent decades?

Although many observers assume that immigrants, especially the undocumented, are poor candidates for unionization because of fear of deportation and other considerations, the opposite has been proven true in recent decades. In part because most low-wage immigrants come to the United States in the first place with the hope of earning a better livelihood for themselves and their families, they tend to be more receptive to opportunities to organize than U.S.-born workers. In an era when labor unions are on the defensive, this is one of the few bright spots for organized labor. The interview in the book with Eliseo Medina illustrates this, especially in regard to his work on the Justice for Janitors campaign, which has become the iconic success story of immigrant organizing. Union organizing also plays a role in empowering immigrants to become engaged in politics. As the interview with D. Taylor in this book explains, the union he heads, UNITE HERE, has had enormous success in Las Vegas in getting immigrants registered to vote and to the polls.

How can progressives avoid another backlash to immigration liberalization of the kind we saw with President Trump?

The book speaks to this question at several different levels. Ironically, the viciousness of the Trump era had the effect of increasing public support for immigration reforms, at least in the short run. Progressives can leverage this support in redressing the grievous abuses of the last four years and restoring fairness and decency to public policy. In the longer term, to the extent that immigration liberalization is associated (without any basis in fact, as noted above) in the public’s mind with job competition that limits opportunities for the U.S.-born, progressives should promote policies that increase economic and educational opportunities for working people regardless of immigration status, including expanding public funding for infrastructure and education. While austerity policies lead to fighting over scraps, such public investment expands the pie and can help to ease fears that some immigration skeptics hold about economic security; the union and community campaigns highlighted in our book demonstrate this. Several contributors demonstrate that immigrant rights can and should be part of a larger economic and racial justice program. They emphasize the ways in which mobilization by unions and community organizations can build enduring bridges among immigrants, U.S.-born white workers, and people of color. Additionally, as the chapter by Mehrdad Azemun and Adam Kruggel documents, groups like People’s Action have been using successfully canvassing techniques that specifically foster empathy and understanding among communities that have shown opposition to immigration liberalization in the past. It is impossible to fully avoid backlash, as anti-immigrant nativism and racism are endemic in the United States. Progressives should not accommodate such regressive views, but instead should name and shame those who advance bigotry, forcing business leaders, elected officials, and other institutional players to choose a side in the battle for America’s future.

The CARES Act excluded mixed-status households from receiving stimulus checks and other relief. What was the effect of that exclusion, and what role have immigrants played during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Immigrant communities have experienced the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of economic distress, illness, and death, while receiving the least support from the programs designed to help those affected. The CARES exclusion, repeated in the pandemic relief bill passed in December 2020, deprived millions of immigrant households, often with small children, of even the minimal safety net that was available to other populations. Foreign-born workers lost jobs in restaurants, construction, domestic work, hospitality, and nail salons, among other sectors. In many cases, their jobs were not covered by unemployment insurance, while fear and language barriers obstructed many others who might have received that support. Trump’s infamous “public charge” rule, although challenged in the courts, discouraged even legal immigrants from seeking help they desperately needed. At the same time, immigrants were prominent among the workers who kept the country running in agriculture, meatpacking, grocery stores, health care, warehousing, and delivery. Although often described as “unskilled,” as Saket Soni observes in his piece, these workers were now deemed “essential” and rightly celebrated. Yet they also were disproportionately exposed to the virus, bringing it home to their families and neighbors in overcrowded neighborhoods and homes. The virus has raced through immigrant communities from coast to coast, many of which have had the highest illness and death tolls in the country. They have sacrificed their own lives for the survival of others while deprived of support for their own needs. Beyond ensuring public support for those affected by the pandemic, the chapters in this book propose long-term social and policy solutions that will help prevent such human rights disasters from recurring in the United States.


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