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Culture of cheap labor and fear are behind immigration situation

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

The Catholic Voice

A University of Nebraska at Omaha professor believes two types of cultures "“ a culture of fear and a culture of cheap labor "“ have combined to create the immigration situation that exists in the United States today.

Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a UNO political science professor, told The Catholic Voice the country's fear centers on terrorism, and that fear has shifted the focus of government and the people from issues such as immigration.

As for the cheap labor, he calls it the driving force behind the influx of immigrants, including an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States.

The U.S. economy needs cheap labor and 'we don't care where it comes from," Benjamin-Alvarado said. American consumers demand products and services at low prices and cheap labor is one way to provide those goods and services, he said.

Corporations often get the blame for the influx of undocumented immigrants because of hiring policies and lack of enforcement of current immigration laws, the UNO professor said. 'But corporations are responding to the demand of the consumer," he said. 'And those who don't respond fail."

In cases where the cheap labor isn't available "“ such as the textile industry, American companies are taking their plants or their business outside the U.S.

Benjamin-Alvarado said the demand for cheap labor changed some industries. Meatpacking, for instance, took on a different look as more plants were opened in rural areas with a limited labor supply.

Those jobs were seen as an opportunity for the immigrants. Word about the jobs reached Mexico and worker pipelines were created, not only from Mexico, but from major cities in the United States. Employers even went south to recruit workers, he said. And the immigrants continue to respond to that need, not only in meatpacking, but in other jobs Americans weren't filling, such as food/guest services and farm labor.

'We can't justify this cheap labor," Benjamin-Alvarado said, 'but we're addicted to cheap labor."

He calls it a push-pull situation. The local economy in Mexico and Central American countries is pushing the people out as they seek a good life for their families, he said, and the U.S. economy, with its need for cheap labor, is pulling them in.

In addition to diverting attention away from immigration and other issues, Benjamin-Alvarado said the culture of fear created by terrorism also is shaping some of the discussion of immigration. 'Immigration is perceived as another attack on the United States," he said.

That's reflected in the House immigration bill passed late last year, which Benjamin-Alvarado called the 'worst of the worst."

The bill, which focused on border security, played on 'every single fear you could conjure up," he said. 'We had to be tough on something."

While he opposes a provision of the bill that penalizes people who help illegal immigrants, he said it proved to be a rallying point for many, including the Catholic Church. Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles joined many others in protesting that portion of the bill, saying they would flaunt that provision.

'It's heartfelt to see the church at the forefront," he said.

Benjamin-Alvarado said the Senate bill, sponsored by Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, is more pragmatic and more responsible. That bill has provisions on border security and enforcement of employment laws, but also features a temporary worker program and an earned legalization program that includes a fine and requirements to learn English and study American civics.

Hagel's bill includes provisions similar to legislation President Bush promoted in a June visit to Omaha. Earlier this month, the president again said while border security is important, a legalization program should be a part of any immigration bill.

A House-Senate conference committee is to meet on the two measures, but many observers aren't optimistic. Benjamin-Alvarado said a belief that government shouldn't error often stalls progress. 'But we need to remember that a democracy is about correcting error," he said. 'We're not perfect."

The reform legislation addresses a variety of topics, but Benjamin-Alvarado said laws can't include one important element. When considering immigration, 'we need to get past tolerance and move to acceptance," he said.

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