Return to Sender

The titles that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attaches to its operations reveal a great deal about the logic behind current U.S. immigration policy.

Among the most suggestively titled is the ongoing Operation “Return to Sender,” one of the largest such operations in U.S. history. The program, supposedly designed to target “fugitive aliens,” has resulted in the indiscriminate round up of over 13,000 undocumented migrants in cities throughout the United States. The cynical name given to this even more cynical operation implies a sender, a receiver — and an object. The object, or rather objects, are migrant workers and their families.

Operation Return to Sender is an instrumentalist policy that ignores the humanity of migrant workers. It refuses to recognize that migrants have hopes and dreams, that they have a legitimate need to eat and think and act. It denies family ties and affective relationships. It also ignores the central role that undocumented workers play in the U.S. economy and the factors that brought them to the country in the first place.

In short, Operation Return to Sender acts on the premise that the millions of undocumented workers in the United States today are little more than globalization’s junk mail.
Who’s the Sender?

A large proportion of the detentions in Operation Return to Sender have been Mexicans, which is logical given that most undocumented migrants are Mexican. According to immigration expert Raúl Delgado Wise of the University of Zacatecas, Mexico is now the world champion in exporting its own people, with 11 million Mexicans currently residing in the United States. The migratory drain on Mexico’s population shows up in demographic statistics, where 800 townships now register negative growth.

The reason for this massive out-migration is clear. Mexico is not producing enough decent jobs for its people — and the United States is hiring. Between 2000 and 2005, Mexico lost 900,000 rural jobs and 700,000 in industry. President Felipe Calderon got off to a bad start in his attempt to reverse this trend. Government statistics for the first two months of his administration showed a loss of 178,370 jobs in the formal sector. The future doesn’t look any rosier. A recent Bank of Mexico business survey projected 615,000 new jobs this year, representing a drop of 300,000 compared to last year and far short of the estimated one-million-plus jobs needed to absorb the number of Mexicans who enter the labor market every year.

Growing unemployment and massive labor outflow are the results of the lopsided way Mexico has integrated into the global economy. Raúl Delgado Wise puts it bluntly: “The strategy that Mexico followed through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and indiscriminate trade liberalization detonated an explosive growth in migration.”

The National Campesino Front estimates that two million farmers have been displaced since NAFTA, in many cases related to the increase in U.S. imports. In 1994, the first year of the agreement, the United States exported $4.59 billion of agricultural products to Mexico, according to the Department of Agriculture. By 2006 the figure had risen to $9.85 billion — an increase of 114%. U.S. exports of corn, Mexico’s staple crop and largest source of rural employment, alone doubled to over $2.5 billion in 2006.

This combination of unemployment in Mexico, the huge gap between salaries in the United States and Mexico, and U.S. demand for cheap labor to compete on global markets has created the current situation. In other words, it’s the international labor market that writes the addresses and stamps the envelopes.

The Mexican government didn’t explicitly decide to send off these human missives to the United States. Despite the central place in the economy that remittances have gained over the years, no national policy aimed to export able-bodied citizens abroad. In fact, NAFTA was supposed to solve immigration problems and decrease the pressure to seek jobs in the United States.

The Mexican economy has, however, benefited from the predicament. Guillermo Ortiz, head of the central Bank of Mexico reported recently that 2006 remittances rose to an all-time high of $23.54 billion — 20% over the previous year.

As the second source of foreign income after oil revenues, remittances have been a main factor in reducing extreme poverty in the countryside. While the World Bank, among others, cites NAFTA and the Mexican government’s poverty assistance programs for achieving that end, a 2005 report from the Bank of Mexico gives credit where credit’s due­poor families receive more assistance from remittances than from all government programs combined.

This contradiction has led critics to blame the Mexican government for fomenting out-migration because of its economic dependency on foreign income from migrants. Few Mexican politicians explicitly tout the role of remittances in countering severe imbalances in the national economy. Nevertheless, this reliance on remittances substitutes for any national development policies specifically aimed at generating employment and stimulating rural production.

Who Receives?

According to recent studies, most migrants to the United States already have a job offer before they get there, or at least strong connections to sources of employment. The average time between arrival and employment is very low, usually not more than a few weeks. The demand for undocumented labor in the U.S. economy is structural. It’s not just a few companies seeking to cut corners. These are not just jobs that “U.S. workers won’t take.” Migrants work in nearly all low-paying occupations and have become essential to the U.S. economy in the age of global competition.

The meatpacking industry provides a good example. Eric Schlosser’s excellent exposé of the U.S. meat industry as it went global shows a fast slide in working conditions over the past decades as a result of de-unionization, erosion of wages and benefits, and increasing safety and health hazards. Part and parcel of that slide has been the replacement of unionized U.S. workers with migrants.

The “blame the victim” logic accuses undocumented workers of crossing the border and stealing these jobs. But the order of events is demonstrably the opposite. The industry developed cost-cutting strategies to break up unions and seek out the cheapest, most vulnerable labor force possible. This created the demand for undocumented workers.

The example becomes relevant since the ICE just carried out one of its more spectacular (and controversial) raids on Swift meat-packing plants in six states, resulting in the arrest of 1,282 workers. Swift claims the action temporarily shut down 100% of its beef production and 77% of its pork production.

As David Bacon has pointed out, it’s no accident that the actions came against the Swift plants. Five of the six plants have unions. The company has complained bitterly that it was in negotiations and fully cooperating with the federal government when the raids took place. Aside from traditional employment in agriculture, another major source of the use of migrant labor has been the advent of sub-contracting. This practice, well in place since the early 1980s, has contributed to the de-unionization of the workforce. It conveniently releases employees from direct responsibility for the legal status and treatment of workers in their employment.

The ICE reports that even the U.S. military employs illegal migrant labor. Last September the ICE arrested 122 Mexican and Central American workers hired by a sub-contractor to build military housing for the Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado. The ICE used the arrests to once again make the spurious link between immigration and terrorism. The press release on the operation notes, “ICE works closely with industries, such as airports, power plants, oil refineries, and military bases, to secure them from the risk of terrorist attacks posed by unauthorized workers employed in secure areas of our nation’s critical infrastructure facilities.”

In the end, these selective crackdowns on workers will do nothing to eliminate underground hiring. Any attempt to more systematically eliminate undocumented workers from the workforce, rather than sending a clear signal to migrants as proponents claim, would have the even more disastrous effect of terrorizing entire communities and creating labor shortages in vital sectors of the economy.

Likewise, the guest worker programs supported by President Bush and the Mexican government fail to solve the root problem of a dual labor market. Divided between legal and illegal workers, this market takes advantage of the vulnerable status of undocumented workers. Under these systems, migrant workers still do not enjoy full labor and civil rights and are often subject to blacklisting if they exercise even their more limited rights–as seen in the experience under the existing temporary work visa programs now in existence in certain parts of the United States.

A More Rational Response

The ICE claims that Operation “Return to Sender” seeks to weed out those who have committed a crime. But its own records show that for the majority of detainees, the “crime” is working for low wages in U.S. factories, meat-packing plants, gardens, and homes without the papers that have been denied them.

In a weeklong series of raids in the Los Angeles area last January, the ICE detained 750 migrants. According to its own figures, less than 20% belonged to the target group of individuals with previous deportation orders. In raids across the country, ICE reports show that most of those captured have no previous criminal record.

Immigrant rights organizations have noted that the crackdown has led to serious human rights violations. Families are separated. Hearings are slow, and often families do not know for long periods of time where their loved ones are being held. A January 16 report from the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General of conditions at five detention centers identified frequent violation of federal standards, overcrowding, and health and safety violations.

All this has provoked a response from pro-immigrant groups. Following the official “progress” report on Operation Return to Sender on Jan. 23, pro-immigrant groups denounced the raids, saying that the 13,000 arrests since May 2006 had led to separation of families, cost the United States an untold fortune in economic losses, and gets us no closer to reasonable and viable policies.

In the Los Angeles area the January detentions galvanized local groups and communities into concerted action, with strategy meetings to stop the raids. A nationwide mobilization for May Day 2007 is also in the works.

The revived efforts are good news. The movement had entered into a soul-searching period following the May 2006 mobilizations. The unprecedented force of the nationwide demonstrations had a centrifugal effect on mobilization organizers. Faced with an anti-immigrant backlash, they could not agree on next steps.

Slowly, however, local, regional, and national organizations are trying to pull together and develop new strategies. Local actions to defend immigrant rights, protest detentions, and counter racist vigilante groups are growing throughout the country, alongside Latino voter registration drives and for a new effort to reform immigration law.

The Security Illusion

In a visit to Mexico on February 16, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff stated firmly that there could be no consideration of immigration reform until “the border is secured.” By so doing, he merely reiterated the formula that has deepened the crisis on the border and eroded binational relations.

This persistent refusal to take a more integrated and realistic approach has led to a policy dead-end that poses risks for communities on both sides of the border. Creating new immigration policies that rationally integrate the nation’s security, economic, social, and political realities is a huge challenge. But approaching that challenge by focusing exclusively on security exacerbates problems in the other areas and will ultimately fail to resolve the security issues.

The ICE reports it returned 190,000 migrants to sending nations in 2006. The massive expenditures, economic losses, and human tragedy produced no demonstrative progress on any front. Migrant workers are central to cross-border economic integration. A political system that ignores them — or worse, treats them as junk mail — is not only hypocritical but severely out of touch with reality.

LAURA CARLSEN is director of the Americas Program in Mexico City, where she works as a foreign policy analyst for the International Relations Center. The IRC Americas Program is online at She can be reached at:



Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .