Even Arnold Schwarzenegger loves immigrants. “I’m one myself,” he reminds California voters. But in 1994 The Terminator supported California’s immigrant bashing Proposition 187, which the courts voided in 1999. The measure aimed to “prevent illegal aliens from receiving benefits or public services in the State of California.” It would also have stopped non-documented aliens from receiving access to public education and medical care.
A Mexican American friend told me she had watched a Spanish language reporter ask Arnold in early August if his vote for Prop 187 would hurt his electoral chances. She recalls his reply as: You Latins make great music. Keep making great music and leave the politics to me.
If unsuccessful in his attempt to become California Governor, he could use this experience to run for high office in Austria, his birthplace where his father supported the Nazis and he himself had a chummy relationship with Nazi-sympathizing former Prime Minister Jorge Haider.
Mythical America doesn’t hold the past one’s country of origin — against people. This nation, after all, consists of immigrants, except for the indigenous people, whose lax immigration policies cost them dearly. In fact, Americans have long held an ambivalent view of newcomers.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, during times of prosperity few cared about the arrival of a new labor force. In hard times, demagogues exploited anti-immigrant sentiments. The Irish, Jews, Italians and other European newcomers felt the sting of xenophobia. Asians, Africans, Latin Americans and Caribbean people still take their blows. Millions from poor countries seek entry into the United States and find the door tightly shut.
The current recession has revived anti-immigrant sentiment and Congress reacted against foreigners in its panicky post 9/11 measures: tightening immigration procedures, imposing restrictions under the Patriot Act, including detentions without charge or deportations without due process for offenses like routine visa violations.
One exception to the Administration-backed anti-immigrant sentiment looms large, however: Cubans. When Florida Republican legislators, hardly immigrant lovers, write to the White House and complain about the Coast Guard repatriating some Cuban migrants, you know something is wrong. These same folks never complained when the Coast Guard returned boatloads of Haitians.
But Haitians don’t have a high power lobby that drops campaign money and even some votes on powerful legislators. Indeed, under the push of the south-Florida based anti-Castro lobby, Florida lawmakers have demanded that Bush “fulfill his obligations” to Cubans. It’s not clear if they mean those one million plus who have left Cuba since 1959 or those 12 million who remain on the island.
But talking to George W. “leave no child behind” Bush about “obligations” rings hollow. Doesn’t he owe some attention to tens of millions of poor, unemployed and uninsured Americans? The answer is the anti-Castro lobby paid for special treatment, and when it doesn’t get it, political thunder rolls.
The aspiring Cuban migrants have less economic needs than say Mexicans or Haitians as reasons to come to the United States. So what makes them special? Two different entities: Fidel Castro’s supreme disobedience and the success of their own lobbying efforts, which includes influencing the mass media.
Take The Miami Herald, once an independent newspaper before its publisher succumbed to the intimidation campaign led by Jorge Mas Canosa and the Cuban American National Foundation in 1992 over a difference in policy over support for the embargo. Mas plastered anti-Herald signs on busses and other public places. The publisher and several editors received telephone death threats. The intimidators won.
The hate Castro lobby assumes that “being tough” on Castro will lead to his demise. Despite much evidence to the contrary, they continue to demand policies that will hurt this one man as if somehow he were the sole inhabitant of the island. So, they ignore other immigrants and focus only on allowing special status for Cubans who try to migrate.
Now, The Herald along with its Spanish language counterpart El Nuevo Herald, have become the US-based print source for the counterrevolution. Almost daily, it features stories that dramatize the attempt by Cubans to make their way across the 90 miles or more of ocean that separates Cuba from Florida. Such stories obfuscate the reality both of Cuban migration and the need of third world people to find decent paying jobs.
Migrants help capitalists keep wages low, a new UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center study indicates. Men native-born and immigrants “averaged 11 percent less in wages than others in similar service and manual labor jobs when they worked with newly arrived Hispanics.” Alex Veiga, AP, August 19, 2003, reported that “minority workers in those jobs earned an average of 14 percent less.” So, the more newly-arrived Hispanic men on the job, the less money the other workers received.
This banal wage reality gets lost in political drama when it comes to Cuba. By 1993-4, when the Cuban exodus to Florida took on tsunami proportions, President Clinton invented a “wet foot/dry foot” formula, under which Cubans who managed to get a toe in US soil obtained rapid parole status, a quick shot at a green card and fast track to citizenship. Clinton used the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act a Cold War relic to justify his “solution.” Later, as he negotiated a migration accord with Castro, Clinton promised but failed to get rid of the Act. Clinton owed the Cuban lobby a debt for their “timely” 1992 campaign contributions.
President Bush, whose debt to the anti-Castro lobby is even larger, now faces the dilemma of dealing with US national interests or that of the people who helped put him in office Remember who helped intimidate the vote counters during Election 2000?
Even the president’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, took offense when the Coast Guard returned 12 men who hijacked a government boat. Castro’s courts subsequently freed half but sent the other six to prison for up to 10 years. By returning the men, Bush signaled that in the post 9/11 atmosphere he wouldn’t encourage even anti-Castro Cubans to hijack boats and planes.
Nor can Bush simply admit all aspiring Cuban migrants without feeling the wrath of other groups who want their relatives to immigrate.
More than a million Cubans have come to the United States since the 1959 revolution and some of them encourage their relatives to make the sea crossing. They pay smugglers up to $10,000 to ferry their kin in speedboats. Needless to say, some smugglers have little interest in the safe arrival of their human cargo and will dump people overboard at the first sighting of a Coast Guard vessel.
But how about the Mexicans and Central Americans, whose “coyotes” leave them in the middle of the perilous desert between Mexico and Arizona? Mexicans and Central Americans who have left their countries during the same period outnumber Cuban migrants by millions.
Indeed, the harsh treatment they receive if caught dramatizes the desperation that drives them to make the trip across an oven-hot desert. If Nature’s perils alone seem insufficient, think of the armed vigilantes who shoot at them or the border patrol that trap them and sometimes mistreat the “wets” short for wetback, a name invented for Mexicans trying to cross the Rio Grande River that separates the two countries — as they’re known in certain southwest circles.
Immigrant rights members in Arizona encountered significant numbers of baby bottles left by women dragging infants through the desert heat. US Border Patrol spokespeople told AP reporter Michelle Rushlo in her August 16, 2003 story that they think this constitutes evidence that the women take their children in hopes of reconnecting with their husbands or fathers of the children who are already in the United States.
The Border Patrol around Yuma Arizona, on the California border, reported that their “apprehensions” number has risen, especially of juveniles. In the 2001-2002 fiscal year, the Border Patrol had grabbed 947 underage aliens and 5,362 women. This year, from October 2002 to July 2003 they had already grabbed 4,000 underage Mexicans and Central Americans and 6,500 women just in that one border area.
Border patrol units in the rest of Arizona caught some 210,000 people trying to gain entry into the United States, said Frank Amarillas, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Tucson. 38,000 were women, up from 32,000 the year before, 8000 up from 7,000 the year before. In part, the increase stems from the difficulties in obtaining legal entry into the United States in the post 9/11 era. But Mexicans always bear the brunt of US recessions. By late 2000, maquilas began to leave Mexico for the lower-wages of China. The level of foreign investment in Mexico has dropped as well.
Unlike Cubans who have a “dry foot” option, Mexicans can no longer easily obtain even a visitor’s visa to rejoin their families. Men who support their families from wages earned in the United States have become reluctant to cross back into Mexico to visit, fearing that tightened security will make it difficult or impossible for them to return to their jobs.
It’s a very rough world for poor people in the third world. We need a terminator for current immigration policy. Not Arnold, but a political savant that addresses immigration in terms of fairness and justice not protection for Cubans and persecution of Haitians and Mexicans.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. For more of Landau’s writing visit: www.rprogreso.com. His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH S KINGDOM, will be published in September by Pluto Books. Landau can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org