A Review of ‘“A Progressive Argument to Reduce Immigration into the United States” a speech given by Professor Philip Cafaro – by Rebecca Smith. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
On February 9th, 2017, I attended the lecture “A Progressive Argument to Reduce Immigration into the United States” by Professor Philip Cafaro at The College of St. Scholastica, which was sponsored by the Alworth Center. As someone who knows little about immigration and its true impact, I felt compelled to attend this lecture and the lecture on March 7th – Justice and the U.S. Immigration Policy with Aviva Chomsky. When I first learned about the topic of the lecture, I bristled at the prospect. Most of my experience with hearing about immigration consisted of hopeful stories of people coming and making better lives for themselves and their families, so the prospect of reducing this opportunity for people didn’t seem like a good option. Philip Cafaro cited economic inequality and an unsustainable society as the two main concerns of immigration and noted the problems that it can create.
The first of the problems that was addressed was the economic inequality that the current immigration policy of the U.S. is to blame for. Cafaro interviewed many people in the hard labor or small business field, immigrant and non-immigrant, and used stories to show how immigration has an effect on the middle and lower classes. For example, one of the people he interviewed, Tom Kinney, owned his own business that is now failing. He attributed the failing to two reasons. First, bigger companies that did the same type of work exploit immigrants and pay them a non-living wage because they can get away with it, thus making the bigger companies rates lower. Secondly, not all immigrants pay taxes like he did for his business, so they could work for lower rates, but do the same work. Cafaro also pointed out the fallacy that U.S. citizens refuse to do hard labor, so immigrants are stepping up and doing those jobs. Kinney and Cafaro believe that it isn’t that U.S. citizens are refusing the work, they are refusing the pay that goes along with the work. In his interview, Kinney stated that because a lot of people don’t like those kinds of jobs, they used to pay well. At least, they used to pay a living wage. Now, because of big companies and the lower/no tax rate, these positions generally aren’t paying a living wage.
Cafaro also noted that immigration is often looked in oversimplified terms. There will be winners and losers in any immigration policy, but he argued that that shouldn’t stop the government from changing things. Cafaro argued that wealthy, better educated workers are less impacted than the working class. Legal fields have fewer immigrants (7%) in the job pools than farming/fishing fields (36%). While people who earn higher wages support immigration because goods and services are less expensive, the current immigration policy, or an open boarder, will not help working class citizens. This argument was surprising to me, as I had grown up in a middle class household and had parents whose positions and careers that were not impacted by immigration, but benefited off of the lower priced goods and services. In the question/answer section of the lecture, Cafaro did acknowledge that it is possible that technology has impacted farming/fishing fields, and others like it, but that the fact that technology has had an impact should show why job pools should not be flooded. He argued that tightening up the labor market created the Golden Age post WWII, and that the U.S. should be doing the same thing now. A tightened labor market isn’t the only reason Cafaro believes that the U.S. should create a lower immigration policy.
The environmental impact of overpopulation is vast, and Cafaro believes that we could consider the U.S. to be the most overpopulated country, based on consumption. It is no secret that our society is largely not being created in a sustainable way. If we want to have an ecological and sustainable society, which Cafaro believes we need to have, we need to reduce population. An obvious solution may be to suggest and promote having fewer children, but Cafaro argues that U.S. citizens are already doing that. Instead of larger families, like we have seen in the past, many parents are only having two children. However, at the same time, Congress is raising immigration limits. A question from the audience member brought up the point of making efforts to consume less, so there doesn’t have to be a reduction of immigration. Cafaro responded by saying that the resources that we save should not be making room for more people to come in and use them. If a city was to reduce its water usage by 20%, Cafaro argues that that remaining water should be left in rivers and for the environment. It should not be used for 20% more people to use it. Cafaro believes that it’s selfish to take land and water away from ecosystems and animals and in doing so we will see harmful repercussions to humans.
Sprawl is also detrimental to ecosystems and species. When sprawl occurs, there is an increase in water and land consumption, and a loss of habitat. Cafaro believes that we have a responsibility to save species from extinction, when their populations are rapidly decreasing because of humans. We do not have the right to take a species’ right to live. While he notes that sprawl can certainly happen without immigration, it happens much more rapidly when immigration is a factor. With Cafaro’s education and activism background, he doesn’t believe that we can create a sustainable society with the population we have now, let alone what the population would be in 2100. The chance for a sustainable society gets slimmer with a larger population.
So what is the U.S. to do about it? Cafaro proposed four ideas that would not only reduce immigration, but would also help other nations. Firstly, he proposed to cut immigration to 300,000/year. Currently, immigration limits are over 1 million per year. Cafaro broke down the different subsections of immigration, from families to refugees/asylum seekers. The largest cut would be to family immigration. Cafaro suggests that letting a nuclear family immigrate is not the problem, but when someone brings much of their extended family with. It is important to note that he only wants to make a sliver of a cut to refugees/asylum seekers immigration numbers. We have a moral responsibility to help and assist those in need. The second idea Cafaro proposed is to implement a national employee verification program, where there would be strict sanctions against employers who exploit immigrants. Next, he proposed to pass carefully targeted amnesties. A story of an immigrant who worked and paid taxes in the U.S. for 25 years was discussed, and Cafaro believes that people who have worked hard like that immigrant should be given amnesty and citizenship. Finally, Cafaro proposed reworking trade agreements and helping people live better lives in their own countries.
Before this lecture, I would not have considered a reduced immigration policy for the purpose of economics beneficial. The lecture opened my eyes to the fact that I might be viewing immigration policies in a position of privilege. However, if the government acts to reduce immigration, but the greed of many corporations and big businesses stay the same, it is possible that the prices of goods and services will go up, causing me, and people like me, to reconfigure budgets. On the other hand, people should be able to live on the wage that they are being paid and not struggle to pay for things like water, nutritious food, and heat. Cafaro recognizes that there will be choices that need to be made – should there be cheaper housing prices or good wages for construction workers? While having both might be an obvious choice, Cafaro believes that there will need to be a choice because of immigration.
The impression I got was that Cafaro was basing his lecture off of how the country is moving – not off of idealistic theories of how the country should be moving. However, if Cafaro really looked at how the government functioned, he would see that it has trouble making decisions and rarely does things to help people in other countries if there is no benefit for itself. He also didn’t take into consideration the culture of the U.S. and what we consider a good life, may create trouble in other countries. Just because the government considers certain things and values to be a good life does not mean that the citizens of the country where the program would be implemented feel the same. There would have to be communication between the U.S. government and other country’s government and citizens in order to determine what would be best for the country. While I would hope that the U.S. government would be able to do so, it does not have a history of successfully doing this. A question brought up by a student asked about the responsibility that we have to people in other countries because of bad U.S. policies that have caused them to immigrate to the U.S. Cafaro believes that we do have a responsibility to help people, especially because of U.S. action, but it should be helping them within their own countries. It was suggested that the students who come to the U.S. to study should then go back to their own countries to help improve them, which makes sense on the surface, but on a deeper and realistic level, is not always that simple or easy.
The general sense of Cafaro’s arguments was that while his lecture was a response to how the country was moving and based his argument off of that, he did not necessarily offer realistic ways to change it. His ideas in response were also idealistic. Cutting immigration to a third of what it is now is unlikely to happen soon. We have seen that big businesses often have their interests valued higher in the government due to their ability to “donate” to campaigns, so how do we change the government and big business culture? Change is going to have to happen on multiple levels and in multiple ways if we want to a) create an ecological and sustainable society and b) seriously make efforts to create economic equality within the U.S.
Rebecca serves as an editor for The North Star Reports.
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