People are going all over the place for jobs. People here commute to New York City or Albany, driving almost two hours, or a half hour to the train and two hours on it, in pursuit of higher wages and better jobs. Mexicans come to the US, for higher wages and better jobs. Of course within the US there is a lot of movement to sunnier climes, or to booming regions. In other parts of the world, Poles are working in London, while Ukrainians and Russians work in Poland, all in search of better money than they can earn at home. And the Chinese move everywhere, even though their own economy is booming: it's booming on the backs of low wages; they can earn more as cooks in Upstate New York.
This is the new global economy, in which labor is beginning to become almost as mobile as capital. There are many catches, of course. Much of the immigration is illegal and undocumented. A lot of it in almost every country feeds the underground economy because it is illegal. The threat of terrorists from most immigrants is negligible--except that their very illegality makes it easier for anyone, including real terrorists, to use the undocumented people's underground.
But that threat is very useful, politically, as we shall see below.
What would happen if people could freely move to any country and live and work there? They would be documented. There would be an initial surge of poor third world workers to developed countries. Wages for everyone might go down, but because of the economic surge provided by this relatively cheaper labor, wages could later go up. In fact, I think the latter part of this could happen in the US very soon. There has been a long period of increased productivity and low wages, in part caused both by immigration and globalization. But workers are beginning to realize how much power and wealth has been taken away from them in the conservative revolution. A progressive revival could lead to higher wages for workers, because they would get more union-friendly laws and enforcement and would sense their own power once again; they could get raises commensurate with their productivity.
Promoting distrust of immigrants, and inciting demands for tougher immigration enforcement, is a way for the corporate elite to divert workers from their common interests with immigrant workers: in higher wages and better working conditions. The Marxist term for this was "splitting the working class."
Splitting has been a successful tactic used by Republicans recently with the New York license and immigration imbroglio. It worked in my local county in this last election, where Republicans sent last minute warning flyers throughout neighborhoods, accusing local Democratic candidates of supporting Governor Spitzer's plan. Considering the Democratic tide of 2006, the number of local governments that turned or remained Republican was surprising--until you factor in this last minute smear: most of the local Democrats had taken no positions on Spitzer's plan: it was a state, not a local issue. And it actually made sense from a security standpoint, if not from a political one.
Fear of terrorists factors into the immigration political equation. It's why we can't liberalize immigration laws, and why we must have tough enforcement. Enforcement doesn't keep out terrorists; they could come as tourists, or as contract workers, just as easily as if there were open immigration laws. The 911 group came into this country through legal airport entries, not by climbing fences. But now we have to build fences higher--to make sure that "undocumented" labor doesn't get too uppity. ICE raids might create some disruption in particular industries, especially meatpacking, but they satisfy the racism of anti-immigrant groups, and force "undocumented" workers to keep their heads down.
That helps keep all wages down, which makes boardrooms happy.
If labor were truly almost as free to move globally as capital, there would probably be a leveling down in the world, but if workers could see their interests in common as opposed to those of corporate management and owners, everyone--except the latter--would benefit, and even management and owners wouldn't lose, because of the greater prosperity and productivity this more cooperative work system would create.
Even if immigration laws were only liberalized, not abolished, and if Americans and Europeans realized the benefits of immigration--the worst jobs going to immigrants, new energy and ambition coming into the economy, jobs filled that couldn’t be filled any other way--then people could organize, instead of hiding in the shadows; then everyone would begin to benefit, as unions raised wages, forcing wage hikes in other sectors of the economy and encouraging unions in other industries.
Sounds like the early '50's in the US, when, yes, unions were strong, and the highest rate in the personal income tax was not 36% as it is now, but 70-95% for the very wealthy--who became even wealthier despite the high taxes--and capital gains were taxed on top of income, i.e. at the highest rate, not at a flat 15% as it is now (at a lower rate than most wages).
Immigration is something that every country has to deal with: some sending workers out to send back money, others receiving workers who will work for less, and who add skills, or energy, or ambition. Everyone benefits from this exchange.
A completely free entry and work policy for immigration wouldn't be politically feasible, and would probably cause economic shocks comparable to market shocks felt by Eastern Europe and Russia when the managed economy of the USSR was abruptly replaced by "free enterprise." However, a more liberal immigration policy, in which current and likely workers gained legal entry and documentation would have a number of important benefits: the millions now unaccounted for would come out of the shadows: that they "broke laws" to come here is a false issue; what is a real issue is that they can be exploited when they are in the shadows, and security is compromised; the labor needed for meatpacking or produce harvesting would be adequate; and the workers could organize and join unions, thereby improving work conditions not only for themselves, but for everyone else, as did the first union drive back in the 1930's (the 40-hour work week, the weekend, overall higher wages, benefits).
Here is the point in a nutshell: immigration has been used as a political issue to scare ordinary people into supporting economic policies that work to their disadvantage. Opening up immigration would simply be recognizing a global reality (like the tide) and putting laws in place so that everyone can benefit from it.