Immigrants come Here Because Globalization Took Their Jobs Back There
The wailing in our country about the "invasion of immigrants" has been longand loud. As one complainant put it, "Few of their children in the countrylearn English ...The signs in our streets have inscriptions in bothlanguages ... Unless the stream of the importation could be turned they willsoon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able topreserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."
That's not some diatribe from one of today's Republican presidentialcandidates. It's the anxious cry of none other than Ben Franklin, deploringthe wave of Germans pouring into the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1750s.Thus, anti-immigrant eruptions are older than the United States itself, andthey've flared up periodically throughout our history, targeting the Irish,French, Italians, Chinese, and others. Even George W's current project towall off our border is not a new bit of nuttiness -- around the time of thenation's founding, John Jay, who later became the first chief justice of theSupreme Court, proposed "a wall of brass around the country for theexclusion of Catholics."
Luckily for the development and enrichment of our country, these past publicfrenzies ultimately failed to exclude the teeming masses, and those uproarsnow appear through the telescope of time to have been some combination ofridiculous panic, political demagoguery and xenophobic ugliness. Still, thisdoes not mean that the public's anxiety and simmering anger about today'smassive influx of Mexicans coming illegally across our 2,000-mile sharedborder is illegitimate. However, most of what the politicians and punditsare saying about it is illegitimate.
There is way too much xenophobia, racism and demagoguery at play aroundillegal immigration, but such crude sentiments are not what is bringing thisproblem to a national political boil. Polls show -- as do conversations atany Chat & Chew Cafe in the country -- that there is a deep and genuinealarm about the issue among the nonxenophobic, nonracist American majority.In particular, workaday families are fearful about what an endless flow oflow-wage workers portends for their economic future, and they're not gettinggood answers from Republicans, Democrats, corporate leaders or the media.
For the GOP candidates in this year's presidential run, the contest iscoming down to who can be the most nativist knucklehead. They accuse eachother of not wanting to punish immigrant children enough, of not beingabsolutists on "English-only" proposals, of having coddled illegal entrantsin the past with amnesty proposals and sanctuaries, and of not being hawkishenough on sealing off and militarizing the border.
The leader of the anti-immigrant Republican pack is Tom Tancredo, a Coloradocongress-critter who based his ill-fated presidential campaign on immigrantbashing. This goober is so nasty he'd scare small children. His websitescreeched that immigrants are "pushing drugs, raping kids, destroyinglives," and his campaign slogan is a sledgehammer demand: "Deport those whodon't belong. Make sure they never come back." As for illegal immigrants,Tom thinks that the term "illegal" is too soft, preferring to demonizeimmigrants as "aliens." Tancredo doesn't merely rant, he foams at the mouth,maniacally warning about waves of Mexican terrorists who are "coming to killme and you and your children." Accused of trying to turn America into agated community, he exulted, "You bet!"
At least he's taken a position, even if it's un-American and loopy.Democratic leaders, on the other hand, have mostly tried to do a squishyshuffle, wanting to beef up law enforcement against illegal immigrants whilealso mouthing soothing words about the good work ethic of our friends southof the border and offering a bureaucratic rigmarole to allow some of theyounger ones to gain permanent residency in our country. Worse, suchcorporate Democrats as Rep. Rahm Emanuel urge the party's candidates eitherto adopt the Republican's punitive message or simply to try ducking theissue.
Which brings us to the wall, both figuratively and literally. The fact thatwe are resorting to the construction of an enormous fence between twofriendly nations admits to an abject failure by policy makers, who are sobereft of ideas, honesty, courage and morality that all they can do is totry walling off the problem.
We've had experience here in Texas with the futility of tall border fences.Molly Ivins reported a beer-induced incident that took place in 1983.Walling off Mexico had been proposed back then by the Reaganauts, and a testfence had been built way down in the Big Bend outpost of Terlingua. Thislittle town also happened to be the site of a renowned chili cookoff thatMolly helped judge, and it attracted a big crowd of impish, beer-drinkingchiliheads.
There stood the barrier, 17 feet tall and topped with barbwire. It didn'ttake many beers before the first-ever "Terlingua Memorial Over, Under, orThrough the Mexican Fence Climbing Contest" was cooked up. Winning time: 30seconds.
Yet here come the border sealers again. Bush & Co. (including Democrats whohave allowed the funding) is putting up an initial $1.2 billion to startbuilding this version of the wall, which is projected to cost up to $60billion over the next 25 years to build and maintain. It's a monster wall --two or three 40-foot-high rows of reinforced fencing that take a swath ofland 150 feet wide and stretch for 700 miles.
The Mexican government and people are insulted and appalled by the wall;ranchers, mayors and families living on either side of the border hate it;environmentalists are aghast at its destructive impact on the ecology of thearea. Still, it's being built. Indeed, a 2005 federal act contained alittle-noticed section authorizing Bush's Homeland Security czar to suspendany laws that stand in the way of building the wall. Current czar MichaelChertoff has already used this unprecedented authority to waive 19 statutes,including the Endangered Species, Clean Water and National HistoricPreservation Acts.
All this for something that will not work. As Gov. Janet Napolitano ofArizona put it, "Show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder."People have literally been dying to cross into the United States, and it'snot possible to build a wall tall enough to stop them. They will keepcoming.
The question that policy makers have not faced honestly is this one: Why dothese immigrants come? The answer is not that they are pulled by our jobsand government benefits, but that they are pushed by the abject poverty thattheir families face in Mexico. That might seem like a mere semanticdifference, but it's huge if you're trying to develop a policy to stop thehuman flood across our border.
Although you never hear it mentioned in debates on the issue, you mightstart with this reality: Most Mexican people really would prefer to live intheir own country. Can we all say, duh? Pedro Martin, who has seen most ofthe young men and women in his small village depart for El Norte, put itthis way: "Up north, even though they pay more, you're not necessarilyliving as well. You feel out of place. Here you can walk around the wholetown, and it's comfortable. Life is easier."
Their family, language, culture, identity and happiness is Mexican -- yetsheer economic survival requires so many of them to abandon the place theylove.
Again, why? Because in the last 15 years, Mexico's longstanding system ofsustaining its huge population of poor citizens (including smallself-sufficient farms, jobs in state-owned industries and subsidies for suchessentials as tortillas) has been scuttled at the insistence of U.S. banks,corporations, government officials and "free market" ideologues. In the nameof "modernizing" the Mexican economy, such giants as Citigroup, Wal-Mart,Tyson Foods and GE -- in cahoots with the plutocrats and oligarchs of Mexico-- have laid waste to that country's grass-roots economy, destroying thealready-meager livelihoods of millions.
The 1994 imposition of NAFTA was particularly devastating. Just as BillClinton and the corporate elites did here, Mexico's ruling elites toutedNAFTA as a magic elixir that would generate growth, create jobs, raise wagesand eliminate the surge of Mexican migrants into the United States. Theywere horribly wrong:
• Economic growth in Mexico has been anemic since '94, and thebenefits of any growth have gone overwhelmingly to the wealthiest families.• Since NAFTA, Mexico has created less than a third of the millions ofdecent jobs it needs.• Average factory wages in Mexico have dropped by more than 5 percentunder NAFTA.• Unemployment has jumped, and unskilled workers are paid only $5 aday.• U.S. agribusiness corporations have more than doubled their shipmentof subsidized crops into Mexico, busting the price that indigenous farmersgot for their production and displacing some 2 million peasant farmers fromtheir land.• Huge agribusiness operations, many owned by U.S. investors, nowcontrol Mexican agricultural production and pay farmworkers under $2 anhour.• Since NAFTA passed, there has been a flood of business bankruptciesand takeovers in Mexico as predatory U.S. chains have moved in. U.S.corporations now control 40 percent of the country's formal jobs, withWal-Mart reigning as the No. 1 employer.• Nineteen million more Mexicans live in poverty today than when NAFTAwas passed.
So, here's the deal: Thanks to Mexico's newly corporatized economy, wageearners there get poverty pay of $5 a day (about $1,600 a year), while a fewhundred miles north, they might draw that much in an hour. What would youdo?
The wrong debate
In our national imbroglio over Mexican immigration (yes, some illegalmigrants come from elsewhere, but more than three-fourths are from Mexico),our "leaders" have set us up to look down at impoverished working peopleforced to leave their homeland and risk death in order to help theirfamilies escape poverty.
Instead of coming down on them, why not start looking up -- up at theexecutive suites on both sides of the border. Up is where the power is. Themoneyed elites in those suites are the profiteering few who have rigged allof our trade and labor policies to knock down workers, farmers and smallbusinesses, not merely in Mexico but in our country as well.
In the United States, the middle class feels imperiled because ... well,because it is imperiled. Politicians, economists and the richly paid punditskeep telling us that the American economy is robust and that people'sfinancial pessimism and anxieties are irrational. At the kitchen tablelevel, however, folks know the difference between chicken salad and chickenmanure. Yes, these are boom times for the luxury class, but the middle classis imploding. In a recent letter to the editor, a working stiff inCalifornia put it this way:
"We've replaced steaks with corn flakes; we can't afford to get sick; ourkids can't afford health insurance; we hope that our 10-year-old van keepsrunning because we can't afford a new one; our kids can't buy a home becausehousing prices are exorbitant; our purchasing power continually regresses;and worst of all, the poverty and near-poverty classes are growing."
It's this economic fragility that anti-immigrant forces play on. But even ifthere were no illegal workers in our country -- none -- the fragility wouldremain, for poor Mexican laborers are not the ones who:
• Downsized and offshored our middle-class jobs.• Perverted our bankruptcy laws to let corporations abrogate theirunion contracts.• Stopped enforcement of America's wage and hour laws.• Perverted the National Labor Relations Board into an anti-workertool for corporations.• Illegally reclassified millions of employees as "independentcontractors," leaving them with no benefits or labor rights.• Subverted the right of workers to organize.• Turned a blind eye to the re-emergence in America of sweatshops andchild labor in everything from the clothing industry to Wal-Mart.• Made good healthcare a luxury item.• Let rich campaign donors take over both political parties.• Passed by hook and crook a continuing series of global-trade scamsto enrich the few and knock down the many.
Powerless immigrants didn't do these things to us. The richest,most-powerful, best-connected corporate interests did them. Judy Ancel,director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri,offers this example of Iowa Beef Processors (IBP), the largest meatpacker inthe United States, now owned by the multibillion-dollar conglomerate TysonFoods:
Until the late 1970s, meatpacking was a high-wage industry, with highlyskilled workers in charge. Factories were in union cities, union contractsprovided good wages and benefits, and unions set professional standards foreverything from worker training to safety conditions. Then IBP's executivestransformed this beneficial model into today's profiteering system. Thefactories moved to nonunion cities and rural areas, and lower-skilledworkers were hired to do repetitive cuts on speeded-up assembly lines. WithReagan as president, meat-industry lobbyists were able to emasculate laborlaws, and unions lost their influence over the workplace, which became muchless rewarding and more dangerous. IBP began intensive recruiting of Mexicanworkers (legal or not) to do what had become very nasty work. In only 20years, meatpacking wages dropped by roughly half, the union was ousted, andthe rate of workplace injury became one of the highest of any industry (morethan a fourth of meatpacking workers now suffer "accidents").
Immigration reform cannot be separated from labor and trade reform. We can'tfix the former without dealing with the other two. We must stop theexploitative NAFTAfication of such aspiring economies as Mexico and insteaddevelop genuine grass-roots investment policies that give people there anability to remain in their homeland. Then we must enforce our own labor laws-- from wage and hour rules to the NLRB -- so as to empower American workersto enforce their own rights.
Eliminating the need to migrate from Mexico and rebuilding the middle-classladder, here is an "immigration policy" that will work. But it requires usto go right at the corporate kleptocracy that now owns Washington andcontrols the debate.
We must challenge Democrats, especially, to broaden the debate and torecognize that they must choose sides -- to be for workers or for more tradeimperialism. Right now, the Democratic leadership is siding with imperialismand exacerbating the economic causes of Latino migration. For example, justlast month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi engineered a vote to extend NAFTA to Peru,a corporate favor that could be called the Tom-Rahm Bipartisan Axis ofImmigration Stupidity, for it drew enthusiastic support from both TomTancredo and Rahm Emanuel.
America's immigration problem is not down on the border, it's in Washingtonand on Wall Street.
From "The Hightower Lowdown," edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer,January 2008. Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, publicspeaker and author of the new book Swim Against the Current: Even a DeadFish Can Go With the Flow. (Wiley, March 2008)