Editors' Note: With Peter Freyne on vacation this week, we decided to check in with one of our favorite commentators on national politics, David Sirota. The syndicated columnist is the author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government - and How We Take It Back (Crown, 2006). A former press secretary for then Congressman (now Senator) Bernie Sanders, Sirota is a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Networks. His blog can be found at http://www.credoaction.com/sirota.
I once got suckered by con artists. As I was walking by, they baited me into betting that I could guess which shell a little ball was under. Moving the shells at lightning speed, they diverted my attention and tricked me into taking my eye off the ball. When I lost the bet, I felt bamboozled, just like we all should feel today watching the illegal immigration debate. After all, we're witnessing the same kind of con.
As our paychecks stagnate, our personal debt climbs and our health-care premiums skyrocket, We the People are ticked off. Unfortunately for those in Congress, polls show that America is specifically angry at the big-business interests that write big campaign checks.
So now comes the con - the dishonest argument over illegal immigration trying to divert our ire away from the corporate profiteers, outsourcers, wage cutters and foreclosers that buy influence, and protection, in Washington.
Republicans like Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) are demanding the government cut off public services for undocumented workers, build a barrier at the Mexican border, and force employers to verify employees' immigration status. Democrats like Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) are urging their allies to either embrace a punitive message aimed at illegal immigrants, or avoid the immigration issue altogether.
And nobody asks the taboo question: What is illegal immigration actually about?
The answer is exploitation. Employers looking to maximize profits want an economically desperate, politically disenfranchised population that will accept ever worse pay and working conditions. Illegal immigrants perfectly fit the bill.
Politicians know exploitation fuels illegal immigration. But they refuse to confront it, because doing so would mean challenging their financiers.
Instead, we get lawmakers chest-thumping about immigration enforcement while avoiding a discussion about strengthening wage and workplace safety enforcement - proposals that address the real problem.
Equally deplorable, these same lawmakers keep supporting trade policies that make things worse. Just last week, both Emanuel and Tancredo voted to expand NAFTA into the Southern Hemisphere. This is the same trade model that not only decimated American jobs and wages, but also increased illegal immigration by driving millions of Mexican farmers off their land, into poverty and ultimately over our southern border in search of subsistence work.
The con artists' behavior is stunning for its depravity.
First they gut domestic wage and workplace safety enforcement. Then they pass lobbyist-crafted trade pacts that push millions of foreigners into poverty. And - presto! - when these policies result in a flood of desperate undocumented workers employed at companies skirting domestic labor laws, the con artists follow a deceptive three-step program: 1) propose building walls that would do nothing but create a market for Mexican ladders; 2) make factually questionable claims about immigrants unduly burdening taxpayers; and 3) scapegoat undocumented workers while sustaining an immoral situation that keeps these workers hiding in the shadows.
The formula allows opportunists in Congress to both deflect heat away from the corporations underwriting their campaigns and preserve an exploitable pool of cheap labor for those same corporations. Additionally, these opportunists get to divide working-class constituencies along racial lines and vilify destitute illegal immigrant populations that don't make campaign donations, and therefore have no political voice whatsoever.
Of course, diversionary scapegoating is nothing new. As Ronald Reagan pushed his reverse-Robin Hood agenda, he attributed America's economic stagnation to "welfare queens." Similarly, Bill Clinton championed NAFTA while telling displaced workers their enemy was "the era of Big Government." This bogeyman, Clinton said, would be vanquished by ending "welfare as we know it."
Undoubtedly, the media will keep claiming illegal immigration is complicated for both parties. But Republicans or Democrats could begin solving the issue if they simply stopped letting corporate lawyers write trade pacts and started punishing employers who violate wage and workplace laws.
Sadly, even those modest steps probably won't be taken. In a political system that makes it difficult to tell the difference between a lobbyist and a lawmaker, both parties employ the art of distraction to perpetuate the crises that enrich their campaign contributors.
Indeed, whether their target is undocumented workers or indigent recipients of public assistance, the political con artists attack the exploited to avoid cracking down on the exploiters. And with immigration, they are hoping America once again gets duped.
Was Ross Perot Right? - "Ross Perot was fiercely against NAFTA. Knowing what we know now, was Ross Perot right?"
That's what CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Hillary Clinton at last week's Democratic presidential debate. It was a straightforward query about a Clinton administration trade policy that polls show the public now hates, and it was appropriately directed to a candidate who has previously praised NAFTA.
In response, Clinton stumbled. First she laughed at Perot, then she joked, "All I can remember from that is a bunch of charts." Then she claimed the whole NAFTA debate "is a vague memory." The behavior showed how politically tone-deaf some Democratic leaders are.
To refresh Clinton's "vague memory," let's recall that Perot's anti-NAFTA presidential campaign in 1992 won 19 percent of the presidential vote - the highest total for any third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt. That included huge tallies in closely divided regions like the Rocky Mountain West, which Democrats say they need to win in the upcoming election.
A Democrat laughing at Perot on national television is a big mistake. Simply put, it risks alienating the roughly 20 million people who cast their votes for the Texas businessman.
But Clinton's flippant comments and feigned memory lapse about NAFTA were the bigger mistakes in that they insulted the millions of Americans - Perot voters or otherwise - who have been harmed by the trade pact. These are people who have seen their jobs outsourced and paychecks slashed thanks to a trade policy forcing them into a wage-cutting war with oppressed foreign workers.
Why is Clinton desperate to avoid discussing NAFTA? Because she and other congressional Democrats are currently pushing a Peru Free Trade Agreement at the behest of their corporate campaign contributors - an agreement expanding the unpopular NAFTA model. When pressed, Clinton claims she is for a "timeout" from such trade deals - but, as her husband might say, it depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is, since she simultaneously supports the NAFTA expansion.
Of course, this deviousness is precisely why it is worth asking about Perot's predictions: to make sure America has an informed and honest discussion about impending new trade policies before they are enacted.
And so, without further ado, let's answer the question Clinton ducked: Was Ross Perot right?
In 1993, the Clinton White House and an army of corporate lobbyists were selling NAFTA as a way to aid Mexican and American workers. Perot, on the other hand, was predicting that because the deal included no basic labor standards, it would preserve a huge "wage differential between the United States and Mexico" that would result in "the giant sucking sound" of American jobs heading south of the border. Corporations, he said, would "close the factories in the U.S. [and] move the factories to Mexico [to] take advantage of the cheap labor."
The historical record is clear. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reports, "Real wages for most Mexicans today are lower than when NAFTA took effect." Post-NAFTA, companies looking to exploit those low wages relocated factories to Mexico. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the net effect of NAFTA was the elimination of one million American jobs.
Score one for Perot.
What about immigration? In 1993, the Clinton administration pitched NAFTA as "the best hope for reducing illegal immigration." Perot, by contrast, said that after NAFTA depressed Mexican wages, many Mexicans "out of economic necessity" would "consider illegally immigrating into the U.S."
"In short," he wrote, "NAFTA has the potential to increase illegal immigration, not decrease it."
Again, the historical record tells the story. As NAFTA helped drive millions of Mexicans into poverty, The New York Times reports that "Mexican migration to the United States has risen to 500,000 a year from less than 400,000 in the early 1990s, before NAFTA," with a huge chunk of that increase coming from illegal immigration.
Score another one for Perot.
Clinton may continue to laugh at Perot and plead amnesia when asked about trade policy. And sure, she and her fellow Democrats in Washington can expand NAFTA and ignore the public's desire for reform. But these politicians shouldn't be surprised if that one other Perot prediction comes true again - the one accurately predicting that Democrats would lose the next national election if they sold out America and passed NAFTA.
Foreshadowing that historic Democratic loss in 1994, he warned, "We'll remember in November."
Yes, indeed, Ross. America probably will.