Around the world, May 1 is celebrated as International Workers' Day. For the last two years, Americans have marked the holiday with marches demanding reforms to improve the lot of working people and immigrants, both legal and illegal.
It's an instructive transformation because, political posturing and media demagoguery notwithstanding, America's immigrants belong to the world of work, and their interests and those of the U.S. economy are inextricably linked. The number of marchers was down this year -- partly, analysts believe, because there's no prospect of winning comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, partly because activists are busily turning legal immigrants into citizen voters (2.7 million immigrants are still eligible to register in L.A. County alone) and partly because a wave of federal raids has thrown a chill on immigrant communities.
One of the singular features of this year's rallies in L.A. was the vocal support marchers received from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and an array of business leaders who have asked that federal authorities confine their raids to abusive workplaces. As economist Jack Kyser pointed out, local industries that employ high numbers of immigrants -- fashion, food processing and furniture manufacturing -- created 500,000 jobs and paid $18.3 billion in wages in 2006.
Immigration is one of those campaign issues in which rhetoric and reality continue to move further apart. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony -- like Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton (who recently affirmed his support for Special Order 40) -- knows this issue from the street up. That's why he wrote to the presidential candidates in December, decrying an electoral debate "characterized by verbal assaults on undocumented immigrants, assaults which have had the effect of alienating immigrants to our country -- not only the undocumented but also legal immigrants and newly naturalized citizens."
That alienation is no doubt part of what chilled this year's May Day turnout in Los Angeles. As Mahony went on to point out, "Immigrants are needed to work in industries important to our economy, yet there are insufficient visas to allow them to enter and work legally. ...
"It's easy to proclaim support for legal immigration. ... It is more difficult to explain that the current system does not encourage legal immigration of low-skilled workers and that the best interest of the nation requires that the rules be changed."
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain understand this, which is why all three voted for comprehensive immigration reform, including a so-called pathway to citizenship, before election-year partisanship swept through Congress and washed common sense out the door. There's no hope of reviving a sensible immigration discussion, particularly one that includes regularizing the status of 12 million illegals, until after the next inauguration.
As the economy worsens, moreover, the temptation to scapegoat immigrants grows exponentially. Pollsters are picking up indications that the xenophobia stirred up by anti-immigrant propagandists has begun to leak into public attitudes toward free trade. (Nativism lurks like a latent infection in the U.S. body politic.)
This week, a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that, for the first time, a plurality of Americans -- 48% -- think free-trade agreements such as NAFTA have been bad for the country. Fully 61% of Americans believe that free trade leads to job losses, 56% believe it lowers wages, and half think it's a cause of the economic slowdown. All those figures are up sharply since the start of the presidential campaign.
Free trade has been a boon for the Americas, though it's true that the U.S. has done too little for those workers and industries that have suffered while so many others have benefited. A debate over how to right that wrong would elevate this campaign.
Mexico in particular has benefited from NAFTA and from its citizens' participation in the American economy. Remittances from Mexicans north of the border are that country's second-largest source of foreign exchange, although they are falling as the U.S. flirts with recession and the federal raids intensify.
If this election produces a more far-reaching crackdown on immigrants and undermines public support for free trade, the result would be a hemispheric disaster.