Can Immigration Reform Succeed in an Age of Austerity? A Native American Perspective

By Roger Algase

Even though Native Americans were American before any of the rest of us, they are also impacted by some of the most important issues that affect immigrants today, including racism and inequality.

An article on immigration reform by a Native American writer, Mark Trahant, makes some useful observations about the immigration reform debate which are largely overlooked in other media comments about this issue.

Mark Trahant lives in Fort Hall, Idaho and is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. He describes himself as a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. His July 15 article, Failure of immigration reform in age of austerity, is available at:

Trahant begins:

"The debate over immigration reform in the House and Senate is an interesting lens to examine the future of austerity...

The Senate bill is a compromise that calls for an unprecedented buildup of border security, some 20,000 new agents, in exchange for that citizenship route...

Think about what that means: The United States can't afford to invest in education, health or infrastructure, but it can spend big bucks on border security."

Trahant continues:

The Senate compromise also limits eleven million people's right to participate in the health care system, while, at the same time, taxing them for services not rendered. This part of the bill is just mean."

With regard to the House, Trahant writes:

"So the [House] alternative is a push for legislation that 'secures' the border and puts off the citizenship question for another day."

He explains the reason for this stinginess toward immigrants in both Houses of Congress as follows:

"But the real link between austerity and immigration involves the national psyche because when the economy is strong, immigration is not an issue. But when money and jobs are tight, well, it's easy to blame immigrants."

Quoting from Benjamin Friedman's book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Trahant continues:

"Friedman writes: 'Resistance to immigration in America had traditionally combined economic motives with racial and religious prejudice.' "

Trahant then goes on to point out that the same forces that resist immigration from Latin America today were at work in the past with respect to other immigrant groups, such as Germans, Asians, Catholics and Jews.

He concludes:

"The generosity of spirit - or the contrary wave - impacts Indian Country too. It's no accident that the termination era came out of a poor economy. Or that members of Congress can find money to build walls, but come up short on other basic questions of infrastructure.

A super-secure border is one more way to shrink an economy. What's more, the very nature of the debate shows that austerity isn't ready to fade from public policy. Even though it's another example of why austerity fails."

One might add that the immigration debate not only involves economic austerity - assuming that throwing $46.3 billion away on payouts to big, well-connected defense contractors for "border security" while cutting off millions of immigrants in provisional legal status for health benefits can truly be called "austerity".

What is even more relevant to the battle over CIR is an austerity of spirit, austerity of generosity and austerity of tolerance toward immigrants, native Americans, African Americans, the less well off, and all other people who are not members of the affluent white male elite and their supporters in the right wing of the Republican party.

Immigration reform is not only about legalization, citizenship, the border, high tech visas, economics and a host of other technical issues, critically important though they are.

Ultimately, immigration reform is about transforming the soul of America from austerity of spirit to an abundance of tolerance and generosity. Without this transformation, the pessimists who expect immigration reform to fail may well turn out to be right.