Blame the foreigners for our woes, cry some Members of Congress, reflecting the emotions of their constituents. Don’t people read US history and see a repetitive cycle? Since the 19th Century, different immigrants have suffered similar indignities. A review of history might lead to reason, a better tool for dealing with immigration than vituperative flummery. Hosts John and Ken (“The John and Ken Show”) on Los Angeles’ most listened to talk radio station have stopped just short of advocating murder as the answer to “illegal immigration.”
The influx of population, especially from the Spanish-speaking south, has provoked undisguised racism and revealed deep insecurity. Colorado Republican Rep,. Tom Tancredo has won fame or notoriety because he links immigration with terrorism.
He declared his candidacy for President with immigration as his platform. “Illegal immigrants,” he claimed, “demand social services, refuse our language, and take our jobs, asking not what they can do for their country, only what our country can do for them.” (WHO 1040, “The Jan Mickelson Show,” April 2)
In May 1999, Tancredo set up The Immigration Reform Caucus, whose membership of mostly far right wing Republicans mushroomed from a dozen House members to almost 100 by January 2007. (10 members lost their seats in the November 2006 elections) Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) says the group intends to combat the “explosive growth” in “illegal immigration” to the United States, reverse the growth of legal immigration, and halt efforts to provide what he calls a “mini-amnesty” for undocumented migrants. The new migration patterns, he maintains, represent a terrorist threat.
Tancredo’s mass appeal relies on this fear factor: “Tomorrow’s attacker is more likely to board a commercial airliner bound for the United States with a tourist or student visa-or he may simply walk across our porous southern or northern border carrying a device in his backpackWe are, I believe, in a clash of civilizations.” (TeamTancredo.com)
In fact, former soldier Timothy McVeigh and his former army buddies who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing would agree with the premises of most of Tancredo’s screed. Tancredo supporter, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO), also spouts fierce anti immigrant rhetoric to combine with ultra fundamentalism on religion and politics. Gay marriage, for example, is “the most important issue that we face today.” (September 27, 2006, ThinkProgress.org)
Republican Party fundamentalist cadre seem to think that God wrote the anti-gay and anti-immigrant commandments, but also told Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, His modern disciples, to keep foreign heathen south of the Rio Grande. According to Biblical scholars, God instructed Abraham and Jesus in Hebrew and Aramaic. But sometime in the late 20th Century, He learned English so he could communicate with Falwell and Robertson. Hollywood Biblical scholars claim that God still uses Aramaic to speak to Mel Gibson.
The anti-immigration rhetoric, however, only begins to resonate in the minds of a significant public when accompanied by economic distress. By mid 1999, the rosy scent of the Clinton boom years had begun to dissipate; fewer new jobs appeared. Anti-immigration causes began to gain adherents. Tancredo at first mouthed “keep ’em out” arguments, opposing amnesty and “guestworker” programs favored by agribusiness and other industries that relied on low wage immigrant labor.
Then came 9/11 and Bush’s war on terrorism. Tancredo seized the opportunity to link illegal immigration with “the potential for terrorism.” (House Immigration Reform Caucus, “Our History”)
In 2004, Caucus members failed to inscribe their immigration restriction language into the Party platform. Tancredo accused the platform committee of having “not only ignored the base of the Republican Party but the will of the American people.” Tancredo demanded that no immigrant should have access to Social Security credits if he was not legally in the United States. He also wanted to deny driver’s licenses to “illegals” and force them to return to their country of origin before applying for legal admission.
Tancredo and his politically ambitious Caucus have buried the causes of migration under their thinly disguised racist rhetoric. A “clash of civilizations” doesn’t explain why migrants encompass 3% of the global population, according to the International Organization for Migration. Indeed, the Caucus’ provocative campaigns directed against the neediest sector of the work force covers up a long term migratory pattern. Hundreds of millions have left their homes to find work abroad, driven by dire need. This displacement of people has accompanied corporate “globalization.”
With government initiatives designed to help their profits and streamline their production, under the benign heading of globalization, several hundred transnational corporations have internationalized production and distribution. This process also caused industrial Michigan, Ohio and Indiana to turn into the “rust belt” as factories from Detroit and Akron relocated to Mexico or China.
In China, hundreds of millions were forced to leave farms for cities. This metamorphosis of peasant farmers into industrial workers also occurred in Mexico, where ejidatarios (farmers living on collectively owned land) found themselves unable to compete with US agribusiness under the 1994 free trade (NAFTA) arrangements. Agribusiness began to export corn and beans into Mexico and later Central America, where small farmers had provided their nation with self-sufficiency for centuries. Millions forced from their land could not find work in the maquiladoras. They migrated north to add to the US supply of low-wage labor. Those remaining on farms grew flowers, strawberries or broccoli for export to the US.
IMF and World Bank prescriptions of structural adjustment have induced third world governments to devalue their currency, end subsidies on staples and eliminate the social safety net. Either the poor must work harder to earn the same or less, migrate in order for their families to survive or a combination of both.
Foreigners with needed skills or professions can still get visas in the North. Those without those attributes cannot. A skilled computer programmer or nuclear engineer gets a US visa; a lettuce picker does not. The disparity in wages between Mexico and the United States works to the advantage of the large corporations the main beneficiaries of national borders. Their goods and capital flow freely, but workers do not; thus, corporations employ low wage Mexican labor instead of higher wage US labor and still maintain a large consumer market.
Such facts and analysis should take the place of current rhetoric and begin to drive the congressional, media and public discourse on immigration. Conflating immigration with terrorism, as Tancredo has done, detracts from the search for a viable and constructive solution.
In the Congressman’s home state of Colorado, last year’s legislature passed tough anti- immigrant laws that forced migrant workers to leave; in turn, Colorado faces a labor shortage. In March, the Department of Corrections launched a pilot program to use low risk prison inmates to do farm labor, jobs once handled by migrants. “The reason this [program] started,” said Rep. Dorothy Butcher, “is to make sure the agricultural industry wouldn’t go out of business.” (March 1, 2007, Nicolas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times) Farmer Joe Pisciotta doesn’t share the enthusiasm. He finds Colorado’s use of criminals working on his fields “absurd.”
Tancredo has no interest in finding solutions to the immigration morass. What platform would he run on if not “hate the newcomers?” The White House offers a regurgitation of the antiquated guest worker program once used by both the United States and Europe to get cheap labor to do crappy jobs. Then send them home. Even the more “reasonable” solons have yet to discuss the issue seriously.
“Plans” have emerged from Congressional offices to deal with the 12 million “undocumenteds.” Those in the so-called “sane-range” would re-enforce border security and inflict heavier penalties on migration-related offenses and offer temporary contracts for needed workers provided US citizens had the first shot at job openings.
Thus far, no one in Congress has suggested examining an indexing formula that tied wages to productivity and cost of living. This mixture would reduce motivation for migrating. By investing in Mexico to ensure wages one fourth of the US average, the US would dampen motivation for Mexicans to migrate. Combine this with facts: most Mexicans don’t want to leave their families for a hostile if not downright dangerous environment. Investing in Mexico and Central America would help alleviate the dire poverty suffered by some 100 million of our southern neighbors. The EU employed similar formulas to curb migration from Portugal, Spain and Greece and helped them to emerge as union partners. Apply such a strategy to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and other places that currently supply the “unwanteds.” Then we would see!
An American Indian friend chuckles over this issue. “Our problem,” he quips, “would never have arisen if we’d had a few Tancredos as Chiefs when the White settlers first arrived-as illegal immigrants.”
Farrah Hassen is a Melman Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.