From a melting pot in the 19th century to the proverbial salad bowl in the 20th century, America is again in the throes of debate over immigration. The prevailing narrative in terms of immigration has suddenly been shaken by the President’s simplistic executive actions.
Salad bowl is an abstract concept that alludes to the disparate parts that make up America’s whole. Interestingly, I live within striking distance of the salad bowl of America: Salinas, and I get to watch this concept work out right here.
A uniform set of laws and the market represent the “dressing” in a salad. This is where things are changing. The market is demanding cheap labor, highly skilled personnel and lower costs. This applies to both high skilled engineers (H-1B category) and manual farm labor. The law is struggling to create an acceptable framework which can enforce immigration laws without scaring away legal immigrants, or discouraging immigration altogether.
The proposed laws or the “dressing” by the administration is not going well with the “salad” served. While it is the right of American citizens to choose who they want to accept in their country, the proposed policies of the federal government seem to be the choice of only a few people, therefore, it is dividing this nation. More significantly, it has a strong potential to hurt us economically and impact the leadership position America enjoys in the world today.
H-1B immigration is powered by a clear process and a set of steps. So here, the process can be changed in such a way to first seek US citizens to fill the positions. The only long-term solution to solving immigration through the H-1B visa is this: Train America. It will take 10 to 15 years but it will lay a foundation that will serve America during the next high-tech revolution which is about to happen in aerospace technology.
India will also benefit in the long run by reducing the dependence of Indian IT service companies on H-1B visas for revenue. Last time when America denied India super computer and cryogenic engine technology, India developed both indigenously. It’s high-time Indian technology companies leverage their experience in developing world class IT products. They have a huge market outside their own doorsteps.
While H-1B visa is administered by an established process, there is no process to get farm workers from outside of the United States, the reason for which is obvious: there is no special skill set that is required. But, there was a time when the United States did not have enough workers to work on its farmlands and they did bring farm workers from Mexico.
It was under the Bracero Program. There were a series of agreements established on August 4, 1942, when the United States signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. It operated as a joint program under the State Department, the Department of Labor, and the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) in the Department of Justice. The first braceros were admitted on September 27, 1942 and from 1948 to 1964, the United States imported on average 200,000 braceros per year. The braceros could not be used as replacement workers for American workers on strike; at the same time, the braceros were not allowed to go on strike or renegotiate wages. Ironically, the origin of illegal farm workers can also be traced back to the same program. American farmers became dependent on braceros who were willing to work hard for low wages.
It’s no wonder that large-scale amnesty programs have been announced to allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the United States legally since the 1980s. There was a market force of clear demand working behind the change. Market forces and the legal apparatus worked hand in hand to create change.
In today’s climate, the law and market forces are working against each other. Both have to give in a bit to reach a workable solution. The United States is a land governed by law and due process. My attorney friend Yuli tells me that poorly written executive orders not only disrupt markets but they choke our courts too, because that is where they will be challenged and remedied.
There is another factoid I came across recently which directly connects to immigration and employment. According to a Brookings Institution analysis (reported by the Washington Post), the 487 counties that Hillary Clinton won nationwide combined to generate 64 percent of America’s economic activity in 2015. The more-than-2,600 counties that President Trump won combined to generate 36 percent of the country’s economic activity last year.
We are all aware of the counties that Clinton won. They have large segments of recent Asian and Mexican immigrants. These Clinton-counties are supporting the Trump-counties financially by providing cheaper goods and services. The Trump administration may want to consider a simple formula to make America great: It can be achieved by making Trump-counties produce more, and not by making Clinton-counties poorer.
The dispossessed have a right to seek remedy for their condition but it’s the leadership which should keep this perspective in mind before attempting correction by “reforming” regulations. What seems very logical at the ground level to an aggrieved person may not stand the test of time for the whole nation. Amen!
Vijay Rajvaidya is Managing Director of India Currents.