The dramatic events in Congress and on the streets have intensified the national debate about immigration. Some polls show the public agreeing that immigration is “out of control” and that “something must be done.” But there are clear indications that the public is not averse to giving the undocumented a break.

Anti-immigrant forces such as the Minutemen and FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) have laid down a barrage of misinformation, repeated ad nauseam on talk radio, CNN’s Lou Dobbs show and Fox Cable TV, and in the pages of the Washington Times. This misinformation seeps out into the mainstream media. “Findings” from the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies are retailed as if they were objective science.

We are told that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, take jobs from Americans, drag down our wages, cause unemployment and poverty among African Americans, use up social services, increase crime and the risk of terrorism, threaten public health, cause the current health insurance crisis and destroy the environment.

From the wilder elements: Mexicans contaminate our culture and undermine the English language, breed like flies, and are a secret army sent by President Fox to “reconquer” the southwestern states that the USA grabbed between 1836 and 1853.

These false accusations range from the superficially plausible to the absurd, but all serve to get powerful interests off the hook for societal problems by using immigrants as scapegoats. Here’s how:

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, private contractors brought in large numbers of immigrant day laborers for the cleanup. The complaint was that these immigrants displaced locals, including many African Americans, who had just seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed and could surely have used the money.

Indeed, in some cases contractors imported immigrants rather than hiring local people, or they even fired better-paid U.S. workers to hire immigrants at lower pay. But how could that happen?

Immediately after Katrina, the Bush administration suspended all kinds of regulations, including the Davis-Bacon Act and affirmative action rules in contracting and hiring. This took away the only mechanisms for ensuring that African Americans were hired and adequately paid and protected. This is the fault of the government and greedy contractors, not of the immigrant workers, many of whom ended up being put in danger of their lives and then stiffed of their wages.

Beyond Katrina, unemployment and poverty among African Americans stem from:

• long-term and present-day racist discrimination,

• the impact of corporate globalization, imperialism and technology on manufacturing jobs,

• welfare “reform” which made things so much worse for poor people,

• the across-the-board assault on affirmative action,

• what Jonathan Kozol calls “savage inequality” between elite, mostly white, and minority schools,

• the drastic decline, in real dollars, of the minimum wage,

• the destruction of college financial aid,

• the moves to dismantle voting rights,

• the decades-long weakening of U.S. labor law, and

• the belittling and marginalization of the righteous movement for reparations for slavery.

Why is nothing ever done about the inner city schools? Why is the minimum wage not raised? Why are employers who discriminate not sanctioned? Why isn’t the health insurance crisis resolved?

And why, given all this, are corporations (including those who gain extra profits from exploiting undocumented workers) and the rich given obscene tax cuts, while billions are wasted on illegal wars?

Not immigrant workers, but profit-hungry corporations and reactionary politicians are responsible for these outrages.

Attacks on immigrants phrased in terms of hypocritical solicitude for the well being of U.S. workers and minorities come from the most improbable sources. Congressman Tancredo (R-Colo.) wants to throw immigrants out, but supports a temporary worker program in which the workers would have no rights. Congressman Rohrbacher (R-Calif.) proposes to replace undocumented farm workers with prison inmates, a move from serf labor to slave labor. This tells us something about the real goals of the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Since it is physically impossible to deport all the 12 million undocumented, anti-immigrant campaigns and repressive laws serve only to make immigrants more vulnerable and more willing to accept wages and working conditions that citizens and legal residents would not. This undercuts all workers.

The solution to the problem of undocumented immigration is to get rid of the “undocumentedness” rather than to get rid of the immigrants. By making sure that all workers have full rights, we all advance. The immigrant rights street demonstrations themselves show that legalized immigrant workers would stand up and fight for better conditions in the workplace and community.

So it is in all of our interests to support the complete legalization, with a clear path to citizenship, of the undocumented immigrants.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.

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