The Immigration Malaise

School children used to learn Emma Lazarus’ ode to the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (The New Colossus)

These words resonate around the world, so why act surprised, or outraged, when poor people believe the propaganda and risk everything to get here? After all, globalization’s promoters, like former President Bill Clinton and NY Times columnist Tom Friedman, continue to hype the advantages of our country and its open borders ­ for capital and goods. Their logic should also apply to people employed by capital who make the goods. Unfortunately, capital refuses to pay them a living wage or invest sufficiently in the third world, so people come here in order to provide for their families.

Instead of recognizing these facts, mountebanks resort to clichés that each cyclical immigration debate produces: “they [illegal immigrants, mostly of color] should obey the law and leave and stop mooching off taxpayer money.”

Law? Daily reports detail how the government electronically spies on us without warrants, kidnaps suspected Al Qaeda agents, kills Iraqis without legality. We learn of Halliburton building an Iraqi oil pipeline for hundreds of millions of dollars that geologists told them could not be built. Which laws should we defend and which should Bush break?

The United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In Article 26, the Covenant affirms that “all persons are equal before the law.” The Covenant also forbids using race and national origin as grounds to discriminate.

Law? Historically, the United States seized by war or threat most of its territory. In the second half of the 20th Century, the US illegally invaded several countries including Cuba, The Dominican Republic and Panama; overthrew elected governments in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, destabilized governments in Jamaica, Cambodia and Nicaragua; carried out or attempted assassinations against Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Lumumba in the Congo and Castro in Cuba. In recent years, the Bush government kidnapped and tortured “suspected terrorists.” Law-abiding citizens wring hands or practice denial. But on immigration, they demand action.

Even though hundreds of thousands of Americans underpay women who care for their children and clean their homes and offices, they wax righteous about “how immigrants drive down wages” and how “taxpayer money goes to educate illegal children and pays for their hospital care.”

In 1994, this argument emerged over California’s Proposition 187, designed to deny illegal immigrants social services, health care, and public education. The Proposition passed, effectively refuting Lazarus’ notion. The tired, poor and huddled became identified in the public mind with poverty and laziness.

Even though the courts ruled the Proposition unconstitutional, the ugly spirit that inspired it has returned. On the “John and Ken Show” on Los Angeles’ KFI, the network that also broadcasts Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura, John and Ken stop just short of calling for the assassination of “those people.” They invoke law, morality, patriotism and of course God in their arguments to keep the Mexicans out.

In the days of slavery, preachers assured plantation owners that God favored slavery. During one hundred years of segregation, the theological sons of those ministers found biblical passages to “prove” that the Lord also opposed race mixing.

Biblical literalists should point out that God caused the first migration by sending Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Then, God punished Cain for slaying his brother by making him into a perpetual migrant. “A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.”

Later in Genesis, “the Lord scattered” his people “over the face of the earth.” The Lord subsequently ordered Abraham to “Get out of your country.” Indeed, the Bible has people constantly moving, often at God’s command. Nowhere in the old or new testaments does the word “visa” appear; nor does God establish high quotas for Western Europeans and low ones for Asians, Africans and Latin Americans ­ as the US immigration laws do.

Yet, world history reveals constant movement and interaction between various races. History, in short, is the sum total of combined and uneven development and constant human migration. Tens of millions of migrants work in the oil-rich Gulf states; others try Europe, while millions more labor in the United States and Canada. Logically, people migrate from poverty and towards sources of wealth.

For centuries, those immigrants who came first put up barriers for those who aspired to settle in the “promised land.” At one time, those of English stock tried to keep out the Irish; in turn the Irish raised objections to the Italians. Ironically, Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican Congressman whose ancestors migrated from Italy, has a bill to make it a federal crime – punishable by up to five years in prison – to offer aid to undocumented immigrants.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) demurred: “It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scripture because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.” However, Clinton did endorse a fence with high tech capability that could recognize when people were coming near it while they were still a few hundred yards away, to keep illegal immigrants out. (NY Daily News April 23)

In November 2005, Tancredo, who chairs the 68-member Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, introduced the Be Real Act (The Border Enforcement and Revolving Employment to Assist Laborers Act), which encouraged the military to patrol the Mexican border and calls for a national digitized computer system that would instantly check employees’ immigration status. Tancredo warns of terrorists slipping into the country. Last year, he demanded that the INS deport an 18-year-old high school honor student. Tancredo resented the fact that this young man received honors for breaking the law. But he lavishes praise on the American Border Patrol, volunteer vigilantes looking for Mexicans coming across the Arizona-Mexico border, and the similarly intentioned California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Report,” refers to Mexicans as “savages.”

Tancredo denied any racism. “I love that country [Mexico] and those people.” He compared his heritage with that of Mexican Americans. “My people are gregarious and so are yours, my people are big hearted and so are yours, my people are hard working and so are yours, my people are short and so are yours.” (Marcelo Ballve Pacific News Service, Dec 11, 2003)

In Washington DC, Tancredo unveiled an oversized identification photo of “El Presidente,” Mexican President Vicente Fox. The National Council of La Raza, the Mexican Embassy and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus denounced the move as offensive to Mexico and Mexicans.

Tancredo responded: “Whom would I put on there, the prime minister of Sweden?” Tancredo’s actions show how out of control the immigration issue has gotten in the age of security-terrorism.

National security served as a pretext in the early 1980s, when Vietnamese refugees in Monterey Bay, California, began out-fishing the local fishermen. In response, Congress passed a law forbidding non citizens from fishing within 25 miles of the coast ­ for security reason ­ thus effectively eliminating the livelihood of the newly arrived Asians.

Before that, the Japanese became victims of discriminatory legislation. At the turn of the 20th Century, anti-Japanese violence preceded a 1907 Japanese immigration restriction. The Japanese also had begun to outperform the locals economically.

The Chinese fishermen were the first Asians in Monterey to experience this “immigration syndrome.” Their fishing practices proved so successful that the Italian-American fishermen demanded their ouster. The Chinese fished for squid at night fishing so as not to confront the Italians. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forced the Chinese fisherman to take up other enterprises or leave. In case anyone in California didn’t understand the reasoning behind the anti-Asian moves, in 1905, the San Francisco School Board clarified it: “Our children should not be placed in any position where their youthful impressions may be affected by association with pupils of the Mongolian race.”

Fear based on economic competition or loss of jobs inevitably leads to racism. Hopefully, school boards will combat the resurfacing of this deadly combination by teaching the kids that migration is the leitmotif of history and can’t be dispatched by walls, fences or stupid legislation. Human history has been the history of migration. How pathetic that on April 26 the Senate opportunistically transferred of almost $2 billion in Iraq funds for “border control.” Is this the way they want to advertise US culture, wealth and freedom? Immigrants made this country and have enriched it ever since. Let ’em come!

SAUL LANDAU, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, is the author of Pre-emptive Empire and The Business of America.




SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.