A daughter of migrant farm workers who rose to become deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton said Thursday (April 20) that the current dispute over immigration reform is just the latest chapter in a debate as old as the country over “who becomes an American.”
Maria Echaveste, a lecturer in residence at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School who served as deputy White House chief of staff from 1998 through 2001, said the debate has been fueled by the tension between the need for cheap labor and concern about new immigrants changing the face of the nation.
Though security concerns in the post-9/11 world have been added to the mix, Echaveste said that the debate has been repeated over imported Chinese laborers who helped build the railroads, the influx of Irish and Italian immigrants in the last century, and the major reform in the 1960s that did away with national origin quotas in favor of a system focused on families.
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“This is a question we’ve been asking and answering for the last 200 years: Who gets to be an American?” Echaveste said.
Echaveste spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her talk, “The Battle for Immigration Reform: Values, Economics, and Politics,” was part of the 2006 Latino Law and Public Policy Conference, which began Thursday and ran through Saturday.
Echaveste was introduced by Celina Moreno, a Kennedy School student and conference organizer, who said that Echaveste had dedicated her life to the betterment of the Latino community. Echaveste was also introduced by Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood, the Scott Black Professor of Political Economy. Ellwood said that Echaveste embodies the conference theme of “Latino leadership at the forefront.”
Immigration and immigration reform have always been influenced by both economics and American values, Echaveste said.
Cheap labor has always been important to the nation and has often been provided by immigrants. Slaves were unwilling immigrants before the Civil War, followed by Chinese laborers brought in to build railroads. They were followed by other ethnic groups leading to today’s agricultural workers doing jobs rejected by most Americans.
Though America has a thirst for cheap labor, we’re ambivalent about whether we want the workers to live here permanently. And in finding the answer to that question, we’ll decide something about what kind of country we want America to be, she said.
“We need to consider our economic needs, but we also have to consider our values, in the present and … in the future,” Echaveste said.
In the course of that debate, Echaveste said, we should consider why Americans don’t want the farm jobs that the immigrants are filling. We should ask ourselves whether we should allow jobs to exist that are so low paying and with such poor working conditions that Americans won’t take them. We should ask ourselves whether the minimum wage should be set so low that someone can work 40 hours a week and still be in poverty, she said.
Much of the debate nationally has focused on a guest worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to work in the United States for six years and then require them to return to their home countries. While that program would recognize the economic imperative of cheap labor, Echaveste said it ignores the fact that “life happens” to workers while here, that they put down roots, and, while some do want to go home, some want to stay.
Any guest worker program, Echaveste said, should have provisions that would allow workers to seek permanent residence in the United States.
Reforms should also increase enforcement against employers who hire illegal immigrants and include labor market tests that would take into consideration local unemployment rates before permitting employers to bring in guest workers.
She also suggested using our international clout to promote reforms in the workers’ home countries, particularly Mexico, to improve economic conditions and create more jobs.
“We have always been about, even in our worst moments, having people come and be part of our society,” Echaveste said. “We are having a real battle, not just about economics, but about our values.”