Immigration, Human Rights, and Global Economic Renewal (Video)

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On Friday October 16, the Kalmanovitz Initiative hosted a distinguished panel of experts for an online forum, Immigration, Human Rights, and Global Economic Renewal. Hosted by Leon Fink, the editor of LABOR: Studies in Working-Class History, the panel offered a unique appraisal of the present crises facing migrant workers worldwide, how they have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how governments have chosen to respond.  Offering positive examples of effective state leadership and critical analyses of approaches that have been deleterious to the safety and security of migrants, the panel paid close attention to the road ahead, considering how national governments might reform immigration policies that provide for their internal economic needs while providing fairness and justice to workers themselves.

Felix Braunsdorf, Policy Officer on Migration and Development at Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, observed that several European governments have offered progressive approaches to meeting the needs of migrants during the pandemic.  While Portugal has granted the rights of citizens to asylum seekers so that they have access to healthcare services, Italy has launched a regularization program that allows 600,000 undocumented migrants to apply for residence permits, and Spain has released almost all migrants who were occupying detention centers.  Nonetheless, Braunsdorf expressed concern about the continued underfunding of UN humanitarian programs and the continued overcrowding in many European refugee camps where social distancing is impossible and COVID outbreaks have continued to spread.

Jennifer Gordon, Professor of Law at Fordham University, described the mass exoduses, both transnationally and within countries, that have resulted from the pandemic, either because opportunities have dried up or because they have been forcibly expelled.  Gordon drew a distinction between countries that have attributed blame for the pandemic upon migrant workers and those that have demonstrated a measure of humanitarian leadership.  Where the US has scaled back the rights conferred upon asylum seekers and reduced the number of student visas, South Africa has used the pandemic as political cover to build a twenty-five-mile security fence along its border with Zimbabwe.  By contrast, Peru created a legalization program for undocumented immigrants and more than twenty countries have extended the stay of temporary visa holders.

Rachel Micah-Jones, the Founder and Executive Director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, described the way in which the US government has fast-tracked many employers’ applications for guest visa programs for workers in essential sectors of the economy, yet has done so without offering any new health and safety standards to guard those workers, in spite of the fact that they often faced increased risks of COVID infections.  This has included a record number of H2A visas issued to farmworkers.  Looking ahead, Micah-Jones proposes an alternative model of migration that reflects the needs of migrant families and their communities.  Such a model would elevate protections for workers while still responding to labor market needs, protect family unity, provide access to justice, and offer migrants a pathway to citizenship.  This immigration model would be facilitated by a multi-lingual job matching database and be subject to meaningful government oversight and vigorous vetting of potential employers.

Muzaffar Chisti, argued that the pandemic has totally changed the debate and represents an extraordinary wake-up call for the US concerning the vital place of immigration within the labor market.  While immigrant workers disproportionately occupy front line positions and have been disproportionately effected by both layoffs and the virus, the cruel irony, Chisti observes, is that they have then been largely excluded from access to relief measures passed by Congress.  Chisti contends that we need to reimagine the US system to increase opportunities for employment-based migration beyond the narrow needs of the tech sector.  He proposes that we move beyond the debate about temporary versus non-temporary migration, suggesting that three-year renewable visas with the opportunity to apply for residency after six years would more effectively meet the needs of both migrants and employers, while affording workers a greater degree of flexibility and circularity in their pursuit of opportunities in the US and in their native lands.

Watch the event in its entirety on Facebook.