Book Review: The Politics of Immigration


11-24-08, 10:12 am

The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers By Jane Guskin and David L. Wilson Published by Monthly Review Press, 2007.

Jane Guskin and David L. Wilson have written an important book on immigrants and immigration policy. Though short, The Politics of Immigration packs quit a punch. It's clear, concise language and easy-to-read format makes it a must have for activists, academics and ordinary working class people interested in immigration.

In fact, part of what makes The Politics of Immigration so good is its accessibility. Each section is broken down into over-arching questions, and then sub-divided into a set of other questions that fall into that category – and most answers are only one page long.

While some may argue that more attention should be paid to detail (with longer, more exhaustive arguments or answers), for the non-specialist trying to get a grasp on a very complex issue, Guskin and Wilson's short book is informative without being intimidating. It is truly an inviting read.

While short, The Politics of Immigration addresses most of the questions being debated today. For example, how many of us have heard someone ask, 'Do immigrants pay taxes?' Guskin and Wilson answer: 'Some 71 percent of immigrants are naturalized citizens or legal residents, and pay all the same taxes as US born citizens. The other 29 percent of immigrants – those who lack legal status – mostly pay the same taxes too. Everyone pays local sales taxes, and contributes to property taxes.'

Additionally, most illegal or out-of-status immigrants contribute to Social Security and other government programs without the expectation of receiving any benefits. For example, 'Out-of-status workers and their employers also pay an estimated $6 billion to $7 billion in Social Security taxes each year,' which amounts to about 10 percent of Social Security's annual surplus, 'and about $1.5 billion in Medicaid taxes. Very few of these workers are able to get back what they paid in,' Guskin and Wilson conclude.

Guskin and Wilson also place the questions and answers within political context. For example, they address the role that employers play in using out-of-status or illegal immigrant labor as a wedge to drive down wages in certain industries, especially unionized industries.

Unfortunately, I know many union brothers and sisters who claim that 'Immigrants drive down wages.' Guskin and Wilson address this. They write, 'With no access to a social safety net [like unemployment benefits] when they are out of work, undocumented immigrants can't be too selective about the jobs they take. If they complain about low wages or unacceptable working conditions, employers may threaten to turn them in to immigration authorities. Fear of deportation keeps these workers from reporting safety violations to government agencies, even when they are injured on the job.'

Most importantly, the authors write, 'Their lack of status makes them a vulnerable underclass of workers that employers can exploit with near impunity,' which drives down wages for all workers.

Unfortunately, most work-place enforcement laws currently punish workers, not employers. According to Guskin and Wilson, 'Employers rarely face any consequences, while workers are generally deported.'

In fact, the best way to insure union wage, safety and health care standards are consistent is for union, community and religious leaders to advocate for immigrant workers. Through amnesty programs and stricter punishments for employers who violate health, safety and prevailing wage laws, we can stop the 'race to the bottom.'

While The Politics of Immigration doesn't answer every question, it does provide a framework by-which we can begin to understand a complex issue. It provides humanity and warmth, while reminding us that though we may come from different countries and cultures, though we may speak different languages, we have a lot in common.

--Tony Pecinovsky lives is St. Louis, Missouri.