Immigration, like many issues, is told through stories. First there is the story this is a nation founded by immigrants. Then there are countless stories of brave immigrants, risking harm and death to try to forge a better life for themselves and their families. We also have fear-fueled stories, telling tales of immigrants who come to the United States by breaking the law and have U.S. born children to secure footholds in this promised land. These stories are engaging but they get it wrong. Immigration is a story about economics more than it is a story of individual dedication and sacrifice.
Contemporary immigration is shaped more by economics than any other single force, with the overwhelming majority, 70 percent, of immigrants moving from lesser developed countries to more developed countries. Global capitalism has made it easy for corporations to span national borders. In fact, companies are incentivized to export human labor needs to countries where the standard of living is much lower and people earn less money. In terms of profit margins, they’d be crazy not to export labor to places where the hourly wage barely hits $1.50/hour. This then creates vulnerable populations who are pulled to places, like the United States, that offer something closer to a living wage, but still well below what it takes to survive. But once they arrive here, the economics are still hard. Those of us lucky enough to be born into a post-industrial country have enjoyed relative economic stability, in part, through paying low prices for everything from smart phones to clothing. There is not a moment in our days when we are not in physical contact with a good or service that is somehow made possible by people earning far far less than living wages both here and abroad. We pay less and pocket the savings )or perhaps more truthfully buy more stuff with it) while others bear the brunt of the discount, quite literally, on their backs.
As the nation’s elected officials discuss immigration reform and pathways to citizenship, they will do so largely by telling stories of immigrants who are meant to, in different ways, either make our hearts swell or inspire fear of foreigners, protectionism, and racism. Even while I am in favor of more humanistic reforms like the DREAM Act, which would provide undocumented youth who meet certain criteria of student performance and good citizenship, these are flawed because they play into the story that immigration is simply about being a good person and playing by the rules. By debating about what kinds of immigrants should be supported through immigration reform, we are skirting the core issue of an economic system predicated on risky, low-wage labor that only the most vulnerable populations will perform.
Let’s push our elected officials and ourselves to do better. Let’s push immigration reform to prioritize securing a living wage for all people. This will mean we will pay higher prices for our jeans, phones, and countless other goods and services, but at least we won’t be underwriting vulnerability.