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Immigrant Scapegoats and the Manufacturing of a Crisis

Pundits and politicians in Washington have called for rounding up and deporting millions of people, breaking up families and fracturing communities. Now politicians and the Pentagon want to put military troops along our border with Mexico along with hundreds of miles of fencing, not unlike the Israeli border with Palestine or walls and fences installed in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. With these facts in mind, it appears we are facing a crisis of enormous proportions that is sapping our nation and threatening to cause enormous harm to Americans. But behind the scare tactics of Lou Dobbs and Bill Frist, the truth is that immigrants have strengthened our country and any negative effects of their presence are outweighed by the benefits. Furthermore, there are indeed policies that are burdening our country and many working people–the war in Iraq, tax cuts for the very rich, corporate greed–but loose restrictions on immigration are more a benefit than a burden.

Some of the arguments for the immigrant/border overreaction

Low Wages and Competition for Jobs.

Dobbs claims that immigrants in the U.S. illegally depress wages for American citizens by an estimated $200 billion a year. But declining wages have a multitude of causes and much more logical solutions than restricting the movement of labor. The more obvious and simpler solution would be to raise the minimum wage for everyone. According to OMB Watch, the federal minimum wage of $5.15 has lost over 17 percent of its purchasing power since 1997. While American economic productivity has been rising, in large part because of the influx of immigrant labor, wages remain relatively stagnant. Working people, whether legally in the country or not, are not seeing the benefits of higher productivity, but corporations, shareholders, and executives certainly are. An Economic Policy Institute Report shows since 2001, the share of the gross domestic income going to corporate profits has jumped 3.9 percent compared to a 1.4 percent decrease in labor compensation.

Burdens on Social Services such as Health Care and Education.

This argument is laughable as the U.S. has so few social services compared with other Western nations. In light of the billions we spend on war and tax cuts for the rich, it wouldn’t take much to improve our schools and hospitals for every American resident, whether citizen or undocumented.

Furthermore, the rise in health care costs has a lot more to do with the greed of insurance and pharmaceutical companies than immigrants who use ambulance and emergency room care. The California Nurses’ Association announced at the end of last year that the world’s 13 largest pharmaceutical companies earned $62 billion in 2004, while the 20 largest HMOs in the United States made $10.8 billion in the most recent fiscal year, and hospital profits hit a record $26.3 billion in 2004. With such record profits, why are both major political parties blaming immigrants for the lack of resources and high cost of health care? Perhaps it is because both political parties accept millions of dollars from the health care industry and insurance companies.

Drugs and Crime.

Yes, both political parties are involved in this scapegoating. For example, the Democratic Governors of Arizona and New Mexico have each declared a state of emergency because of the fictitious border crisis. Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona, declaring a state of emergency, said, “the health and safety of all Arizonans is threatened daily by violent gangs, coyotes and other dangerous criminals.” Democratic Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico even cited “damage to property and livestock.”

As to Governor Richardson’s point, loosening restrictions on immigration would help lessen property damage because human beings wouldn’t be forced to sneak into this country over private land. The more serious and violent criminal activity appears to be tied to illegal drugs that may or may not have anything to do with border policy. It would be a huge task to tackle all the arguments over the “War On Drugs” here, but it is increasingly obvious that enforcement has wasted billions of dollars and done little if anything to solve the problem of drug violence or addiction. We could do a lot more to treat addiction and lessen crime by legalizing some drugs and decriminalizing many others while focusing on treatment. Not to belabor the point, but we could do a lot more of that effectively if we weren’t spending so many resources on an unnecessary and harmful war in Iraq while giving tax breaks to a wealthy few who don’t need them.

Terrorism.

There are no confirmed reports of any terrorists entering this country across the Mexican border. Most of the recent terrorist attacks in this country were performed by people who entered this country legally through airports or people born and raised as citizens like the Oklahoma City bombers. But the bottom line on this argument is that it has very little to do with the actual objectives of those who seek to close our Southern border. The emphasis in the debate has been about the millions of working poor from Mexico and Latin America entering this country, not the random sophisticated terrorist who would probably have the resources to get into the country one way or another. If this were the real issue, people would be calling for the same militarization on the Canadian border. Terrorism is just a red herring and one more conveniently frightening detail to add to the mix.

Immigrants Dying in the Southwest.

This is the ultimate liberal argument for securing the borders–it is at once both tough but seemingly compassionate–we must secure the border not because we are racist but because we care about the welfare of the immigrants attempting to cross. But the reason so many immigrants are perishing in the deserts of border states is because of how militarized the border has become elsewhere and because of our restrictive immigration laws. Again, the best solution for this problem is fewer restrictions, not more.

In a global economy with the level of trade we have between the North and South, it is absurd to see walls and weapons as a solution to a mobile labor pool. The way to make such policies seem less absurd is to blame immigration for low wages, tight social services, drug addiction, crime, and terrorist threats. Immigrants are people, not problems. The solutions to these issues do exist; they just aren’t in the interests of the corporate media or our two corporate parties. Immigrants have increased our productivity, paid into our social security system, paid taxes, and consume products and services in our country, creating more demand. Neither their presence nor their crossing our Southern border constitute a crisis, but they certainly serve as a convenient distraction from the real crises our nation is facing.

CARLOS VILLARREAL is the Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at: carlos@nlgsf.org