During the past month, the American people have witnessed massive demonstrations of immigrants who have marched in more than 50 cities to protest the proposed immigration reform bill. The law under discussion would declare illegal immigrants to be criminals, and it would also punish those who provide them with work, shelter and assistance – even if it is humanitarian aid. A boycott by the immigrant community on a global scale would mean paralyzing the economic equivalent of the third-largest economy in the country ($2.1 trillion in value added).
When the U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 4437 in December 2005, it did not appear that the issue would heat up. However, the struggle to resolve this unusual situation has worsened since 2004 when President George W. Bush proposed a program of temporary work permits. Currently, it is the Senate that must decide that issue.
When it was time to find a rapid, decisive solution, some changes in the bill were proposed, such as an effort to soften the classification of undocumented workers as “criminals” in the eyes of the law. The country currently has 42.3 million Hispanic immigrants, making up 13% of the total U.S. population. If the law moves ahead and such a percentage of “undocumented” people is repatriated, the U.S. economy would be enormously affected, considering that the Hispanic community alone contributes $1.1 trillion to the U.S. GDP each year.
The heated debate over the proposed bill focuses on two different options. The first option would be to strengthen security along the frontier. If so, undocumented workers must be considered criminals, as the U.S. House of Representatives decided last December. The second option would be to focus on protecting the country’s territory through a process that enables around 12 million workers and their families who do not have passports to obtain their U.S. citizenship.
President Bush, along with many senators in both parties, as well as the U.S. business community are all in favor of the second strategy. Nevertheless, Democrats and Republicans have flung accusations at each other over this bill, and the Senate declared a two-week recess after being unable to reach an agreement.
Thanks to the mass movement by immigrants, a possible change is taking shape. The challenge is to find a solution that opens access to U.S. citizenship for those who don’t have their papers.
The boycott by those immigrants is gaining force in the country. Throughout the U.S., April 10 was celebrated as the National Action Day for Immigrants’ Rights. A series of marches throughout the country aimed to “demand a complete reform of immigration, and to reject measures that treat undocumented workers as criminals.” The movement was spearheaded by both legal and illegal immigrants, especially Latinos, carrying signs calling for the rejection of H.R. 4437.
Felipe Korzenny, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Hispanic Market Communication at Florida State University, believes that H.R. 4437 would be counterproductive for the United States. “There is a big difference between terrorists and people who want to work so that they can care for their families. It seems paradoxical that their presence in the U.S. would be a crime, since Americans depend a great deal on the work that these workers do. They are not criminals. They are people who want to work in order to satisfy the needs of the U.S., and to make money,” says Korzenny, who is also the co-founder of Cheskin, a marketing firm.
Perhaps there is not enough space in the U.S. for everyone who wants to live there, says Korzenny. But there is enough space for those immigrants who want to meet the country’s needs. “I believe that there is a lot of hypocrisy in wanting the work that these people do [on the one hand], and yet rejecting the very people who do that work.”
Economic Impact on the Country
For other people, viewing these proposals will only reinforce their negative stereotypes. “If illegal workers were to leave the country, the damage would be even greater than the damage that results from the rising price of oil,” speculates Korzenny. However, he believes that this won’t happen unless a great many mistakes are made in the effort to resolve this problem.
For Korzenny, rational tolerance and humanitarianism are the only means for successfully resolving this difficult situation. He sees no clear outcome in which there is an agreement between the U.S. and these immigrants. The massive demonstrations may bring this news to the public’s attention, yet “I don’t know if an agreement can be reached that really benefits anyone. The legislators will have to be very smart if they are to make any progress.” Korzenny believes that U.S. leaders need to be educated and made aware of the very important role that immigrants have played in the history of the U.S. and in the changing, turbulent times of a global, digital economy.
Wharton professor Mauro Guillén believes that HR 4437 is a law directed at calming critics [of illegal immigration]. He believes that the situation needs to be brought under control. “It is impossible for the United States to seal off its border with Mexico. There are 12 million undocumented people who work, pay taxes and have a normal life,” he explains. He believes that the best interests of the United States in the future depend on welcoming immigrants and integrating them into the society. Thanks to these mass demonstrations, Guillén adds, “there will soon be an agreement about a [new] U.S. immigration law”. Nevertheless, he emphatically denies that one day the United States could become a “nation of nations.” “I believe that the United States has a tendency to assimilate immigrants; to integrate them. Something I do consider possible is that the Spanish language will one day challenge English as the most-spoken tongue.”
Branded as Criminals
Luis de Sebastian, an economics professor at ESADE, is also confident that the U.S. House of Representatives will make changes in its legislative proposal. He calls the law “an unjust barbarity, and more evidence that they are attacking the human rights of immigrants who live in the United States.” De Sebastián agrees that the United Status has a right to protect its borders. However, he believes that the U.S. must negotiate with Latin American countries affected by the law. “The U.S. has a right to use recognized means, such as the police and barricades, to protect its borders. But it seems to me excessive that they brand those immigrants who have settled in their country as criminals.”
De Sebastián has a positive view of the massive waves of Hispanics who have arisen in many U.S. cities and protested the law. “They are working people who bring benefits to the U.S. GDP, but they are branded as criminals. What are they supposed to think? If I were there, I would have joined the protests,” he says. In reality, many U.S. citizens also joined the cause, and fought for “those who have no papers” in an effort to find the most appropriate solution.”
However, May 1 was a different sort of day in the U.S. this year, compared with other years. Undocumented workers, legal residents, citizens, union members, religious people, human rights activists and workers all marched peacefully through the streets of at least 40 U.S. cities to demand that the Congress approve a sweeping reform of its immigration policy.
In Phoenix, about 100,000 people demonstrated peacefully in the streets to demand immigration reform that legalizes the status of the nearly 12 million people in the U.S. who have no legal documents. The day of national protest closed with protests by about 10,000 people in Los Angeles.
In California, which has a population of 36 million, 32.4% of the people are Hispanics (according to the United States Census Bureau), and the protests were reflected in the various localities of the state. According to police estimates, there were 5,000 demonstrators in Fresno; 5,000 in Sacramento; 2,000 in Oakland, and 2,000 in Santa Ana despite the fact May 1 was a work day. In downtown Los Angeles, the day of protests closed with “more than 10,000 people, all of them working people,” according to the organizers.