Columnist John Sheirer: Finding common ground on immigration

  • A migrant, who traveled with the annual caravan of Central American migrants, rests where the group set up camp to wait for access to request asylum in the United States, outside the El Chaparral port of entry building at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 30.  AP FILE PHOTO

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A video circulating in conservative social media shows former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton talking about immigration in their State of the Union speeches.

In 2013, Obama mentioned “strengthening border security.” In 1995, Clinton said that many Americans “are rightly disturbed” about illegal immigration.

The intended point seems to be that Democrats are hypocrites for criticizing Donald Trump on immigration. Of course, that perspective ignores huge differences. Obama also talked about “establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship … passing a background check and paying taxes and a meaningful penalty.” And Clinton said we should focus on criminal immigrants and “cracking down on illegal hiring.”

A true point is that both parties want to address problems with our immigration system. Democrats (and some sensible Republicans) have long supported practical policies. Both Clinton and Obama strengthened border security and focused on deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program provided a sensible and well-regulated path to citizenship for the most deserving young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

John McCain and even George W. Bush attempted comprehensive immigration reform a decade ago. Unfortunately, hard-line Republican politicians blocked real reform and claimed that Democrats want “illegals” flooding into our country. That’s simply a lie meant to stir anger and motivate anti-immigration sentiment.

Trump and his supporters now champion ineffective, expensive, xenophobic policies such as a border wall and mass deportation. And Trump’s rhetoric has been dishonest and disgusting. He began his campaign with infamous accusations about Mexican rapists and recently lied by blaming Democrats for his own cruel policies that separate families, harm children and fail to protect refugees fleeing violence.

Despite the current situation, there’s hope. I recently joined a Republican friend in a Facebook discussion (prompted by the video of Obama and Clinton) that revealed common ground on immigration.

My friend found Trump’s rhetoric as unsettling as I do, but he generally agreed with Trump’s policies because he claimed that undocumented workers were hurting him economically. As a construction subcontractor, he sees larger companies hire other subcontractors who use undocumented workers. He can’t underbid crews with off-book, substandard wages.

I empathize with how unethical hiring impacts my friend’s livelihood. That’s clearly not fair. But I can’t agree with his solutions. He claimed that the problem was caused by undocumented workers themselves, so they should all be arrested and deported.

My response was that far worse criminals reside much higher on the economic ladder: the companies that profit most from illegal jobs. General contractors have an ethical responsibility to ensure that subcontractors follow the law. The same ethics apply to any industry that uses illegal hiring practices. Lower costs and higher profits don’t excuse ignoring obvious legal violations.

Here’s a real-world example of how unethical companies profit from illegal hiring practices. In the early 1980s, a real estate mogul hired hundreds of undocumented construction workers at substandard wages. The mogul eventually settled a lawsuit over dangerous working conditions. Who reaped the profits from these hiring practices? That was a hypocrite named Donald Trump as his company cleared the site for Trump Tower. This is just one case that we know about. How many others have Trump’s fixers buried?

People in poverty will do everything they can to provide for their families — including taking a risky journey to a wealthier country for illegal jobs. These folks are worthy of our empathy as well. But I can’t relate to the Trumps of this world who hire undocumented workers so that they can afford to buy another golf course or live in gold-plated luxury.

These company officials made the choice to offer illegal jobs. Compared with undocumented immigrants desperate to work their way out of poverty, the CEOs are the real “illegals.”

To fight these criminals, we need comprehensive immigration reform that includes tougher laws and enforcement against companies that hire undocumented workers. Let’s cage some corrupt CEOs in detention camps and see how quickly things change.

My Republican friend wasn’t quite ready to scrap the wall and give up mass deportation just yet, but he was moving in that direction. He agreed that prosecuting employers who abuse the immigration system for lavish profit should be prosecuted.

Everyday Americans of every political affiliation agree that companies shouldn’t profit from illegal hiring practices. We all need our elected representatives to focus on that agreement as well.

We all want our laws to discourage illegal immigration. That means not allowing companies to have a business model that relies on illegally exploiting undocumented workers rather than hiring Americans.

If we prosecute the companies that hire illegally, then those illegal jobs will dry up. People won’t come illegally for nonexistent jobs. The government could then focus on arresting and deporting the small percentage of undocumented immigrants who are actual criminals since the workers won’t be drawn here any longer.

Moving forward, we should all work for a major shift in the immigration debate toward common ground. Both parties need to focus on what’s right for American workers. Democrats need better messaging about their pro-worker policies, and Republicans need to abandon nasty rhetoric and feckless policies.

If my Republican friend and I can find solid agreement about prosecuting illegal employers, then our nation should be able to bring that perspective to our public policy.

John Sheirer is an author and teacher who lives in Florence. His most recent book is the satire, “Donald Trump’s Top Secret Concession Speech.” Find him at JohnSheirer.com.