On Immigration, Bernie Sanders is Correct

I was caught off guard by all of the recent attention and coverage given to Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ positions on immigration. Not because his views were widely discussed (he is running for president, after all), but because the criticisms he was subjected to were often mistaken or even intentionally misleading.

So what did Senator Sanders actually say about immigration? In an interview with Sanders, Vox.com editor Ezra Klein brought up the concept of an “open borders” immigration policy. Sanders rejected the notion—open borders and unlimited immigration, of course, being a position that no elected official supports. Sanders went on to point out—a point which he later reiterated to journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce—that in some cases the importation of new foreign workers can negatively impact the wages of workers in the United States. Note that Sanders didn’t say immigrants are taking jobs or lowering wages. He was specifically referring to non-immigrant, temporary foreign worker programs, also known as “guestworker” programs, which are full of flaws that employers take advantage of to exploit American and migrant workers alike, and to pit them against each other in the labor market.

The reality is that what Sanders supports on immigration is careful and nuanced, and it’s the correct path forward for American immigration policy. In a nutshell, Sanders is strongly in favor of legalization and citizenship for the current unauthorized immigrant population, which will raise wages and lift labor standards for all workers, and he’s against expanding U.S. temporary foreign worker programs, which allow employers to exploit and underpay so-called guestworkers. Limiting guestworker programs will reduce wage suppression and improve labor standards for U.S. and migrant workers alike.

When it comes to the number one priority for immigration reform—legalizing the unauthorized immigrant population in the United States—Sanders has said time and time again that they should be legalized immediately and put on a path to citizenship, and he’s highlighted their contributions to the American economy. Sanders could not be any clearer about this. He voted for the 2013 comprehensive reform bill that would have legalized most of the unauthorized population, despite his misgivings about the large expansion of high- and low-skilled guestworker programs in the bill, which shows the importance he ascribes to legalization. Sanders understands that having eight million people working in the U.S. labor market without labor and employment rights puts downward pressure on the wages and working conditions of all workers. He has not failed to point this out. There’s no question that Sanders’ desire for legalization of the unauthorized population is consistent with his broader agenda to see wages rise for workers in the United States.

Back in June, Politico’s Seung Min Kim wrote a brief history of Sanders’ (supposedly) “complicated” position on immigration, going back to 2007. A few more recent stories include one from Dara Lind at Vox, who wrote that Sanders position “doesn’t easily fit either side of the immigration debate,” and Elise Foley and Daniel Marans at The Huffington Post reported on how some “immigration activists” think Sanders is using GOP talking points on immigration, as well as what Foley and Marans call “a broader tension within the immigrant rights movement that long separated organized labor and allies like Sanders from other center-left and business community stakeholders.”

While some may see this as taking a complicated position or creating a “tension” among immigration reform advocates, I simply see it as Sanders rejecting corporate lobbyists who want to vastly expand and deregulate guestworker programs in order to hire foreign workers who are easily exploited, who can be legally underpaid, and who can rarely speak up about unfair working conditions or unpaid wages. Guestworkers are afraid to advocate for themselves because they often arrive indebted to the labor recruiters who helped them secure their temporary job, and because they know that if they complain on the job—or if they get fired for any reason—they become instantly deportable, which means losing the ability to earn enough to pay back their debts.

There are many recent examples which suggest that the abuses in guestworker programs are not just rare, one-off occurrences that can be explained away by a few bad employers. Low-skilled workers on H-2A and H-2B visas have been beaten and assaulted, raped, starved, kept as captives and subjected to forced labor, and have often been the victims of human trafficking at the hands of labor recruiters and employers. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called the H-2A and H-2B programs “Close to Slavery.” Teachers and high-tech guestworkers on H-1B visas have also been exploited and subjected to debt bondage, and L-1 visa guestworkers have been paid $2 an hour for work that normally pays $19 or $45 an hour. Many employers have used guestworker programs to avoid hiring U.S. workers, or have replaced their existing workforce with guestworkers after first forcing U.S. workers to train their guestworker replacements as a condition of their severance packages. Employers substitute guestworkers for Americans because guestworkers can be legally paid tens of thousands of dollars less than similarly skilled U.S. workers. Young foreign workers in the country on J-1 “cultural exchange” visas have been mistreated and forced to live in filthy basements while being paid $1 an hour, and even coerced into “sex slavery.”

The exploitation inherent in all of these guestworker programs is a feature of them, not a bug. In the case of H-2 visas, for example, the Labor Department said it “found violations in 82% of the H-2 visa employers it investigated in fiscal year 2014.”

Let’s be clear that the migrant workers seeking a better life were not to blame in any these examples; either the employer, a labor recruiter, or a trafficker was at fault. That’s why pointing out what’s wrong with guestworker programs, and demanding reforms to guestworker programs that will protect migrant workers by preventing employer exploitation—as Bernie Sanders does—is absolutely pro-immigrant.

A major aspect of the immigration system is badly broken and needs an overhaul to protect both American and immigrant workers, but some immigration reform advocates nevertheless appear to be in denial about the flaws in these guestworker programs. For example, representatives from United We Dream and the Center for American Progress (and its blog, ThinkProgress), two groups doing great work and tirelessly advocating on behalf of the undocumented population, both harshly criticized Senator Sanders’ recent remarks on guestworker programs.

Their comments are based on the mistaken belief that immigration (or in this case, the importation of non-immigrant workers) can never cause any harm to U.S. wages and working conditions. As the examples of abuse above clearly show, that’s simply not true. In order to fix these well-documented problems, however, we have to be honest about the failings of our immigration laws. If employers are not constrained by laws that require them to adequately pay guestworkers or to treat them fairly and with dignity, guestworkers will continue to end up earning wages that are no better than those of undocumented workers, who are not “legal” immigrants and have no rights in the workplace. And if employers are allowed to replace U.S. tech workers with partly indentured non-immigrant workers hired precisely because they have fewer rights and can be paid $40,000 less, then U.S. workers will suffer.

Two of the best responses to criticisms of Sanders have come from Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post, who explains how Sanders’ position on immigration is consistent with social democratic, progressive values, and from Zaid Jilani at AlterNet who correctly notes that Sanders’ comments on immigration have been “completely twisted,” and that they are certainly not consistent with his actual record on immigration:

Sanders is a son of a Polish Jewish migrant, and has spoken in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and ending detention quotas for undocumented immigrants. He vocally supported President Obama’s immigration executive order and has called for going even further, such as including the parents of dreamers, putting him to the left of President Obama. Sanders voted in favor of 2013’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, the primary piece of legislation immigrant advocates support. In 2003, he had a zero percent rating from the main anti-immigrant advocacy group, FAIR.

Everyone operating in this space should be honest about what immigration is and is not. Immigration is not a magical unemployment cure as some corporate lobbying groups like FWD.us suggest. Future labor migration flows have great potential to invigorate and add value to the American economy, but only if managed smartly. At a minimum, new workers arriving in the United States must: 1) have adequate worker protections that empower them to stand up for themselves when things go wrong, 2) not be underpaid according to U.S. wage standards, and 3) either arrive in the United States with a permanent immigrant visa (a “green card”) or have the ability to self-petition for a green card after a short provisional period on a temporary visa.

Ignoring the realities that guestworkers face is tantamount to selling out to the corporations that spend millions lobbying for the ability to exploit migrant workers through bigger and bigger guestworker programs with fewer and fewer rules that protect workers and labor standards. Obviously, the Chamber of Commerce, FWD.us, agribusiness, and much of corporate America would like all reform advocates to ignore guestworker exploitation so that they can achieve their top immigration reform objective: a steady supply of disposable indentured labor. Reform advocates on the left, right, and center should work together to thwart them by insisting on robust protections and enforceable rights for all future immigrants and guestworkers.


  • VtMike

    Well explained. I do not think it is out of line to suggest that this is another example of the powers that be distorting what Sanders said in order to undermine his campaign. Between that and the mainstream media ignoring or dismissing the appeal of the large mass meetings he is able to organize around his candidacy is clearly intended to protect Clinton. Thank you for clarifying.

  • mattsah

    Thank you for this article and making it clear to workers (both foreign and domestic) what the stakes are. The working class united is the only way to solve the economic conditions that the international working class finds itself in.

  • ozzimoto

    Thanks for this article, very informative.

  • Jon Latta

    Mandate e-Verify for EVERY job in the U.S. no loopholes, no workarounds, no exceptions for anyone! Then we secure the border 99.9% and everything else takes care of itself. No need to legalize illegal, provide them with welfare payments, etc. because if they can NOT work they will self-deport. Problem solved!

    • JustData

      Actually, e-Verify plus cutting off all access to any public resources and social services. And require all law enforcement to detain foreign nationals who don’t provide proof of legal status. We need to speed up deportations and stop the stupid catch and release programs too. Detain until deportation hearings (require 24 hour turnaround) and deport within 48 hours if the foreign national does not have full legal status here.
      No food stamps, no registering a vehicle, no driver’s license or state ID, no admission to any higher ed, no registering children for school, no free school lunches or tutoring, no turning on utilities at a home or apartment, no use of public resources, no welfare/TANF/SNAP/Section 8 housing/EITC. No jobs, no income, no welfare, no housing, no nothing. Let’s cut off all access to everything they need to steal to survive here. They’re here for selfish reasons so they won’t stay and starve.
      After that, it’ll be easy to “secure the border” because there won’t be any reason to come illegally.

  • Tony Radmilovich

    As I started my path to citizenship on H1-B visa program I only can say (after my personal experience) that entire program is a scam for indentured servitude and should be abolished in its present form.

  • James Line

    Good article. The Alternet article you cited was also very good.

  • idic5

    As one who lost his good middle class job to h_1b (along with another several hundred of my workmates) , I am glad he is taking this position. THe H-1b visa has been abused by corporations after they wrote the laws for the lawmakers, the bastard representatives of the people.

  • idic5

    As one who lost his job to H-1b (along with several hundred others) I am glad he is taking this position. THe H-1b visa has been abused by corporations after they wrote the laws for the lawmakers, the bastard representatives of the people. Not enough of this makes it to the MSM, and it contributes to the evisceration of the middle class.

  • Arizona Jim

    I fail to see whatever hidden distinction being made here in the difference between non-immigrant temporary foreign workers and 30+ million foreign workers already in the country.

  • Anita

    Bernie Sanders wants to tackle climate change, and yet more than half of phd students who graduate are foreign born. How exactly does he plan on driving research and innovation in a fairly new field of alternative energy by restricting the high skilled immigration program? Is forcing half of the most educated to leave a good thing?

    • JustData

      We should cut student visas by about 90%.
      We should be using our public ed resources to educate our own children to solve our problems.
      There’s no reason to use any resources to educate the competition in the global economy. It’s time for us to put Americans first instead of last.

      • Susan

        I agree 👍

    • I completely agree with you.

  • John Pound

    His views are not correct. Rewarding the millions of illegals that knew our laws, and willingly broke, them is something that should and will not happen.

    That will just show the rest of the world that they would be rewarded for breaking our laws and persuade more into coming here.

    AND what about the millions of people that are doing it legally? The ones that are paying tens of thousands of dollars for citizenship? They get a huge fist right up their hiney.

    • Nick Handrick

      Did you even read the article? Sanders supports getting current illegal immigrants on a clear track to citizenship. Not immediately granting them citizen status.

      • JustData

        The end of the immigration line starts in their own home nations.

        We have a path to citizenship and a process for legal status in place now. We also have literally millions of people waiting in line to come legally.

        Anyone who wants to get on a clear track to citizenship can do so by going home and getting in line.

        Giving the dishonest foreign nationals who came/stayed illegally instant legal status here puts them ahead of the front of the line and creates a separate special process for them as a reward for their criminal/illegal behavior and that’s wrong. Ignoring the massive costs of illegal immigration on American workers (specifically the low-wage workers who are disproportionately minority) is more than just wrong, it’s despicable.

  • FleeTheBubble

    Spot on!

  • JustData

    The number one priority of immigration reform, policy, laws, or proposals should NEVER be amnesty (no matter if you call it legal status or a path or any thing else that dishonestly misrepresents the outcome).
    The number one priority of all reforms, policies, laws, and proposals at any level of government in the United States should be to support the rule of law and to protect American workers and families.

    The reason so many Americans are struggling and our problems keep getting worse is because corrupt politicians from both parties aren’t trying to solve any of our problems; those corrupt politicians are pandering to special interests – against the public interest – to enrich themselves and their rich donors.

    The people who benefit directly from amnesty/legal status are the exploitative employers, the dishonest foreign nationals here illegally, and the Chamber of Commerce/Wall Streeters/banksters/super rich. The people who get clobbered with the costs are honest, hard-working Americans and our children, most often the working class and working poor Americans who are disproportionately minority.

    Bernie actually voted for a bill that drives down wages on Americans for at least a decade after passage and drives up unemployment for much of a decade after passage. Bernie did vote to make the rich even richer even faster and to directly increase the wage/income divide for the next 20 years. Nice work, Bernie – why do you hate honest American workers?

    The CBO reports that Dems’ S.744 amnesty drives down wages for at least a decade and drives up unemployment for much of a decade (from The Economic Impact of S.744… at cbo.gov/sites/default/files/113th-congress-2013-2014/reports/44346-Immigration.pdf). Democrats are making high unemployment and stagnant wages WORSE for American workers and American families. But those effects aren’t evenly distributed. Wages are driven down most on unskilled and low-skilled Americans -the working poor and working class- who are disproportionately minority. The report also notes that S.744 increases the return on capital for two decades, which means that those who have the capital to invest will make more on their money for the next 20 years. That means the rich get richer even faster.

    The US Commission on Civil Rights reports that illegal immigration has had disastrous effects on working class Americans and particularly on Black workers. Illegal immigration has, according to the USCCR, driven down wages and employment rates on Blacks while driving UP incarceration rates on Blacks (I guess Black Lives Matter but not to Dems).
    In fact, the USCCR report describes the effects of legal status plus family reunification as “economically devastating” to Black workers specifically.
    http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/IllegImmig_10-14-10_430pm.pdf (statements below quoted directly)
    TITLE: The Impact of Illegal Immigration on the Wages and Employment Opportunities of Black Workers
    Illegal immigration to the United States in recent decades has tended to depress both wages and employment rates for low-skilled American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black men (p3).
    Dr. Hanson‘s coauthored research suggested that a 10 percent immigrant-induced increase in the labor supply is associated with a 4 percent decrease in black wages, a 3.5 percent decrease in the black employment rate, and a 0.8 percent increase in the black incarceration rate (p5).
    Dr. Briggs stated that about 12 million illegal immigrants are currently in the U.S. labor market, … and that in his view, further legalization of such immigrants with family reunification would be economically devastating to low-wage workers of all races and black workers in particular (p8).
    Dr. Briggs also stated that the inflow of immigrants has resulted in low-skilled wages not rising over time. He viewed the reduction of both wages and jobs as a massive violation of the civil rights of all low-skilled workers, and of black workers in particular (p9).
    Dr. Briggs objected strongly to what he viewed as the use of public policy to drive down wages artificially. Dr. Jaynes agreed on that point, noting that this is indeed a civil rights issue, since such policy was being used to trample on the rights of all workers by driving down wages and avoiding employment rights…. Dr. Briggs responded that it was, since deliberate failure to enforce the law was responsible for the wage suppression, and such action was indefensible (p13).

  • JustData

    The number one priority of immigration reform, policy, laws, or proposals should NEVER be amnesty (no matter if you call it legal status or a path or any thing else that dishonestly misrepresents the outcome).
    The number one priority of all reforms, policies, laws, and proposals at any level of government in the United States should be to support the rule of law and to protect American workers and families.

    The reason so many Americans are struggling and our problems keep getting worse is because corrupt politicians from both parties aren’t trying to solve any of our problems; those corrupt politicians are pandering to special interests – against the public interest – to enrich themselves and their rich donors.

    The people who benefit directly from amnesty/legal status are the exploitative employers, the dishonest foreign nationals here illegally, and the Chamber of Commerce/Wall Streeters/banksters/super rich. The people who get clobbered with the costs are honest, hard-working Americans and our children, most often the working class and working poor Americans who are disproportionately minority.

    The CBO reports that Dems’ S.744 amnesty drives down wages for at least a decade and drives up unemployment for much of a decade (from The Economic Impact of S.744… at cbo. gov/sites/default/files/113th-congress-2013-2014/reports/44346-Immigration. pdf). Democrats are making high unemployment and stagnant wages WORSE for American workers and American families. But those effects aren’t evenly distributed. Wages are driven down most on unskilled and low-skilled Americans -the working poor and working class- who are disproportionately minority. The report also notes that S.744 increases the return on capital for two decades, which means that those who have the capital to invest will make more on their money for the next 20 years. That means the rich get richer even faster.

    The US Commission on Civil Rights reports that illegal immigration has had disastrous effects on working class Americans and particularly on Black workers. In fact, the USCCR report describes the effects of legal status plus family reunification as “economically devastating” to Black workers specifically.
    usccr. gov/pubs/IllegImmig_10-14-10_430pm. pdf (statements below quoted directly)
    TITLE: The Impact of Illegal Immigration on the Wages and Employment Opportunities of Black Workers
    Illegal immigration to the United States in recent decades has tended to depress both wages and employment rates for low-skilled American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black men (p3).
    Dr. Hanson‘s coauthored research suggested that a 10 percent immigrant-induced increase in the labor supply is associated with a 4 percent decrease in black wages, a 3.5 percent decrease in the black employment rate, and a 0.8 percent increase in the black incarceration rate (p5).
    Dr. Briggs stated that about 12 million illegal immigrants are currently in the U.S. labor market, … and that in his view, further legalization of such immigrants with family reunification would be economically devastating to low-wage workers of all races and black workers in particular (p8).
    Dr. Briggs also stated that the inflow of immigrants has resulted in low-skilled wages not rising over time. He viewed the reduction of both wages and jobs as a massive violation of the civil rights of all low-skilled workers, and of black workers in particular (p9).
    Dr. Briggs objected strongly to what he viewed as the use of public policy to drive down wages artificially. Dr. Jaynes agreed on that point, noting that this is indeed a civil rights issue, since such policy was being used to trample on the rights of all workers by driving down wages and avoiding employment rights…. Dr. Briggs responded that it was, since deliberate failure to enforce the law was responsible for the wage suppression, and such action was indefensible (p13).

  • Baird Law

    This was a well written article regarding varying immigration policies – which ever side you believe is the proper path it is important to educate on all forms while also understanding current labor laws.

  • Nathaly D

    I agree with Bernie Sanders legalization and citizenship for the
    current unauthorized immigrant population. He is not saying that all immigrants should have citizenship but to those ones who have been here, as Costa explains. When Sanders talks about non immigrant workers, and that they can negatively affect wages of Americans, he is not talking about the immigrants that are already here and have been here. Sanders has a plan for citizenship and in studies show that this will help the economy. In the website immigration policy are some facts of the positive affects of immigration reform. (http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/immigration-stimulus-economic-benefits-legalization-program)