The year 2006 may go down in the history books as the year when immigrants came out of the shadows to demand a place of respect in American society. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, documented and undocumented, have marched in the streets of cities across the country. Thousands of students walked out of class to join them.

The direct focus of these demonstrations has been proposed legislation that would turn every man, woman, and child who is in the country without authorization into a criminal and turn people who give even humanitarian assistance to unauthorized foreigners into felons. Perhaps most extreme, it would authorize construction of a 700-mile wall along the U.S. southern border.

Whatever the outcome of this legislative battle, the protests have sparked a long-overdue debate on immigration issues. If we are to lay the foundation for more sensible policies, the debate must be broadened to recognize the links between U.S. policies and the conditions that drive migration in the first place.

Inviting Immigrants Out of the Shadows

Common sense immigration policies for a globalized world

  • Raise living standards in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. We should work with our neighbors south of the border to strengthen small- and medium-sized enterprises— the sector that employs the largest number of people in Latin America. We should also look for ways to make the money sent home by immigrants a transformative force for sustainable local development
  • Reopen the debate on the future of the Latin American countryside. We should stop promoting export-oriented agribusiness and instead support small-farmer organizations around the world in their call for food sovereignty. The right to regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives is the core principle of food sovereignty. We should also support fair trade, through which farmers receive fair compensation for their products.
  • Reduce the economic insecurities that are fueling the anti-immigrant backlash in the United States through raising the minimum wage, strengthening labor laws to protect unions, expanding public health care, and increasing training benefits—particularly for those displaced by economic globalization.
  • Cancel impoverished countries’ crippling debts, without imposing onerous conditions that deepen poverty or degrade the environment. We should press industrialized nations and multilateral financial institutions on this count. Organized groups of immigrants could play a strong role in demanding that their governments of origin apply savings from debt cancellation to much-needed investments in human resource development.
  • Devise a set of policies that bring immigrants out of the shadows and allow them to contribute fully to the well-being of our country. These policies should include provisions for family reunification. Every foreigner residing in the U.S. should have the opportunity to become a legal permanent resident, with provisions for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in the future. Anyone who decides to remain outside the law should be identified, investigated, and, if proved to be a threat, deported.

Why people migrate

The massive influx of migrants in the past several decades, particularly from Mexico and Central America, cannot be traced to a single cause. However, economic globalization policies supported by the U.S. government are significant factors. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) almost certainly contributed to the sharp increase in the number of Mexicans living in the U.S. without authorization, from 2 million in 1990 to an estimated 6.2 million in 2005.

With barriers to agricultural imports lifted, Mexican farmers have found themselves competing with an influx of cheap, heavily subsidized U.S. agricultural commodities. Facing dire poverty in the Mexican countryside, millions have made the wrenching decision to leave behind families and communities and head northward.

Despite NAFTA’s record, Congress approved a similar agreement with Central America last summer that is expected to have similarly devastating effects on small farmers in those countries. Throughout the developing world, farmers are particularly vulnerable to import competition because of World Bank- and IMF-promoted cuts to support for small-scale agriculture.

Migration has also been stimulated by natural disasters both acute—like hurricanes — and chronic — like soil erosion and aquifer depletion. Put bluntly, most people who die in hurricanes do so because poverty has forced them onto marginal lands, because they live in substandard housing, and because unfettered development has eroded the natural environmental defenses that protect vulnerable areas. Rather than addressing these problems, most developing-country governments are pressured by international financial institutions to slash spending for social and environmental protections, look the other way when foreign investors damage the environment, and devote scarce resources to pay interest on external debts.

If we fail to recognize the connections between migration and globalization, our policies will provide a temporary Band-Aid solution at best. And yet U.S. politicians have not only failed to recognize these global links, they have also scapegoated immigrants for domestic policy failures.

There is a growing segment of U.S. society that has not benefited from the country’s overall economic growth — the 45 million who lack health insurance, the hundreds of thousands who have had their retirement benefits cut, the tens of thousands who have lost wellpaying manufacturing or technology jobs in just the past few years. As in developing countries, workers in the United States have suffered from trade and globalization policies that encourage corporations to pit workers and communities against each other in a global race to the bottom in wages and benefits. The deep sense of insecurity caused by these changes leaves many people looking for someone to blame. Foreigners make an easy, albeit mistaken, target.

Building transnational alliances

Over the past several years, anti-immigrant extremists have succeeded in polarizing the public debate. What we need now is a real exercise in democratic accountability, one that acknowledges the transnational nature of the challenges we face. We need to listen to the wise and solution-oriented voices of the local elected officials, law enforcement officers, and the business, religious, and immigrant community leaders who truly care about these matters and who are often misrepresented by those who claim to speak for them.

There are common-sense alternatives to building a wall around our country (see Inviting Immigrants Out of the Shadows). The American people need to reject the fortress mentality and take back the issue of migration from those who want us to embrace fear and hate. This proud nation of immigrants needs its citizens to reclaim the best traditions of our nation and to build a better world for all.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.