Think again

Uniting hearts and minds for immigration reform


“Winning hearts and minds” can sound like a noble goal in politics. But splitting hearts and minds is a more common tactic, as we’re seeing now in the struggle over immigration reform.

How can we reconcile the tough-minded arguments for policing our borders and controlling access to our jobs with the heartfelt appeals to compassion and acceptance for immigrant working families? It won’t be easy. But we have to find a way to do so, because the outcome of this debate will shape how we deal with the dynamics of the global economy for decades to come.

Let me start by agreeing with some of the tough-minded arguments. We have laws which determine how citizens of other countries can join our workforce and become U.S. citizens. There are millions of immigrants who have complied with these laws to do just that. And there are four million more patiently waiting their turn for legal entry. It would be unfair to allow the 11 million immigrants who got here surreptitiously to stay here permanently — unfair to their compatriots still on the waiting lists (that’s clear) and unfair to U.S. citizens (that’s not so clear, when you review all the data on the economic effects of recent immigration).

Still, these arguments over fairness cut both ways. We value work, respect working people and take pride in the immigrant roots of our own families. We understand that immigrants don’t come here to degrade our jobs; they come here to work and to make a better life for themselves and their families. We know many of these workers personally. They are productive members of our communities.

Are we prepared to deport these workers and break up their families? That’s a punishment which our hearts tell us would be inhumane, and our minds warn us could be draconian. Economists at the Center for American Progress estimate that such an effort would cost more than $200 billion, and the roundup of men, women and children from our communities would requite an exercise of state power that should make us shudder. If such a thing were to happen, wouldn’t we all have our Schindler’s lists?

Not surprisingly, most Americans are looking for a compromise to the heart-and-mind conflict over this issue. We’ve tested the extremes on both sides and found them wanting. We’re willing to offer a kind of tough-love amnesty, if we don’t call it amnesty — a path to legalization that involves paying a fine, proving that you have been law-abiding and taking your place behind those waiting in line for legal entry, while remaining here in the U.S.

But this solution is proving more difficult to achieve than it was two decades ago, when Congress enacted a similar compromise, because more employers have become dependent on immigrant labor and more workers have been displaced by the rapid pace of globalization.

We have more fear in our hearts and doubt in our minds about immigration now, because globalization is threatening living standards for so many workers in the U.S. and around the world. Corporations want to be able to import workers as easily at they export jobs, all for the same purpose of finding and using cheaper labor.

The world may be flattening, but we still have national labor markets, defined by laws that set minimum wages, maximum hours and health and safety standards. So is it any wonder that U.S. workers feel that the last line of defense for their jobs is our border?

For more than a decade, we in the union movement have been working to redefine a “fair trade” approach to globalization that can boost standards for workers on both sides of our borders. It should be obvious now that we need to extend this effort to include a fair-minded approach to immigration.

Better trade deals are one part of the solution, especially when pacts like NAFTA end up driving Mexican farmers off their land and across our border. But, just as we want each country to control its own fate and negotiate a fair deal in the global economy, we should accept each country’s right to control immigration.

So, yes, we need controls on immigration, including reasonable quotas, tighter borders, even-handed enforcement and penalties for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. But I would also argue that we should reject “guest worker” programs and offer the immigrants we accept in our workplaces a clear path to citizenship for practical, tough-minded reasons.

There is a direct relationship between the power of citizens and the rewards they secure for their work, as you may have noticed when we voted to increase Oregon’s minimum wage. If we divorce citizenship from work, we will exacerbate the threats to our jobs from a corporate trade regime that treats workers as powerless pawns in the global economy.

I’m not sure if these ideas can form the basis for re-uniting hearts and minds on this issue, or if they offer anything more than a temporary solution to a dynamic problem. But I feel strongly that we will be a harsher country in which to live and work if we deny future generations of immigrants equal rights in our workplaces, full participation in our society and, most important of all, the right to vote.

Tim Nesbitt is former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at