Rethinking Immigration Policy and Citizenship in the Americas: A Regional Framework

By Jonas, Susanne | Social Justice, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Immigration Policy and Citizenship in the Americas: A Regional Framework


Jonas, Susanne, Social Justice


The current debates over immigration policy, taking place from the halls of Congress to inner-city communities nationwide, raise some of the most profound issues of race, class, and politics facing the United States today. No less than the civil rights issues of the 1960s, these debates are ultimately about the nation's soul: What kind of country will we be in the 21st century? Yet today it makes sense to take the question beyond our national boundaries, locating the U.S. within an increasingly integrated Western Hemisphere. This article addresses the multiple cross-border realities affecting U.S. immigration policies, as well as their political consequences throughout the Americas. To put it another way, there are regional dimensions of the domestic debate; at stake is what kind of region the Americas will be in the 21st century.

From this perspective, I shall offer a critique of existing U.S. policies and an alternative framework, based on the following arguments: Current U.S. policies deal with Latin American immigrants as if they constituted a major threat to U.S. "national security." This strictly (and narrowly) "U.S. interest"-driven approach retains some aspects of Cold War thinking even in this post-Cold War era. Quite apart from its questionable effectiveness in a transnational environment, it has multiple negative (antidemocratic and destabilizing) political repercussions throughout the region, as well as for the immigrants affected. Critics of this approach have yet to develop a comprehensive alternative, but have begun rethinking the bases for policy. The alternative framework suggested here is rooted in very different conceptions of citizenship and democracy; additionally, it views immigration within the context of enhancing integral socioeconomic development throughout the region, and it proposes to build upon the transnational practices and networks being developed by the immigrants themselves. Aside from being more humane, I shall argue, a policy starting from these premises would also be more rational for the U.S. over the medium and long range, and far more appropriate in this era of hemispheric integration.

The Need for a Regional Framework

Underlying these observations is a broadly structural view that the Western Hemisphere is becoming increasingly integrated. There is already an extensive literature within a general world-systems framework (e.g., Wallerstein, Portes, Fernandez Kelly, Bach, Sassen, Ong, Bonacich) on the complementarity of capital and labor flows, particularly within economic systems characterized by relations of unequal exchange. This has received wide discussion, most recently in relation to NAFTA - the linkages it creates and the disruptive and displacing effects of economic integration for some sectors of the population on each side of the border. In this process, cross-border flows of capital and goods are being actively promoted by state policies and interstate agreements (e.g., NAFTA and its projected extension to other Latin American countries).

Coming on the heels of the devastating economic crises of the 1980s throughout Latin America, the economic integration of the 1990s has stimulated new cross-border flows of people - not only because integration on a neoliberal basis leaves many families and communities without adequate economic prospects in their home countries, but also more importantly, because even at a time of economic recession and restructuring in the U.S. (accompanied by an anti-immigrant backlash), the demand for low-waged immigrant labor in the U.S. remains high. As Portes (1996) puts it, immigration is "not an optional process, but one driven by the structural requirements of advanced capitalist accumulation."

In some cases, the linkages are also political. Direct U.S. involvement in situations of political upheaval in Central America and the Caribbean since the 1960s, for example, has been a key factor in generating the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees from their home countries to the U. …

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