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The Immigration Debate Rolls On

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


The Immigration Debate Rolls On:

Mexico – So far from heaven; Washington – So far from fielding a legitimate and straight immigration strategy

* While long on heated rhetoric and mythology, the current immigration debate is short on historical perspective.

* The path to the current crisis was paved with failed policy decisions and mooncalf goals, with Washington deserving most of the blame, but Mexico is not undeserving of some of it.

* A plague on both your houses.

As hundreds of thousands of mainly Mexican migrants mount impressive displays of strength and self-esteem as they publicly protest harsh immigration reform proposals across the country, one must not lose sight of a long series of decisions and counterproductive public stands which have helped contribute to the magnitude of the immigration problem. Indeed, it is no stretch to claim that the immigration crisis that now dominates the congressional and national debate is the direct result of decades of pretences, deception, and benighted policies that have motivated several million Central and South Americans to make the somber decision to leave their homelands for the U.S., together with millions of more Mexicans who constitute the largest bloc of undocumented migrants now in the country. Together with the other dysfunctional Bush administration policies which have been adopted relative to Latin America – whether in the realm of foreign policy or trade agreements – Washington has once again failed in spectacular fashion when it comes to a sound immigration policy.

Creating a Crisis

Illegal migration is fueled by desperation, and in the history of the hemisphere no event has created such social devastation as the Central American wars of the 1980s which were spearheaded by the Regan Administration. Many Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans left their homelands for an uncertain future in the U.S. only after U.S.-promoted civil conflicts in those countries dislocated their society, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their countries. The migration began in record numbers only after the internal conflict in their countries threatened their lives and livelihoods. Most refugees headed for the U.S. which, ironically enough, was their victimizer. These wars were not natural occurrences, but were provoked and prolonged by the manipulations of Washington policymakers such as Elliot Abrams (now in the Bush National Security Council after being pardoned by Bush’s father for committing perjury to the U.S. Congress).

In Mexico, trade policy had a similar devastating impact on rural areas, with the NAFTA trade pact leaving small farmers unprotected in the face of tariff-free imports from massively subsidized U.S. agro industries. So damaging was the agreement to small- scale Mexican farmers – whose ancestors have grown maize for millennia – that they found themselves being undercut by corn from Iowa. This forced them to sell off their land at a fraction of its earlier worth, and destined many of them to head north to the U.S.

As the pressures pushing Latin Americans to immigrate illegally were growing, politicians in the U.S., symbolized by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, were perpetuating a policy of denial, which failed to confront the hard realities of the border issue. While Bush and Mexico’s President Vicente Fox were engaging in mutual photo ops, the immigration situation rapidly worsened as more drugs and contraband were transited at the border and the border patrol became increasingly helpless. Patrols were overwhelmed by the attempted entry of over a million would be refugees annually. Instead of meaningful enforcement, immigration policy essentially consisted of the designation of a 10 mile zone back from the border where the rules were at least intermittently upheld. But once an immigrant made it past that surveillance, enforcement simply didn’t occur. What this often meant was that by simple individual initiative together with prearranged transportation by U.S. factories and agro-business, immigrants would be taken to their factory jobs (e.g., Tyson Chicken Company in Arkansas). Rather than interdiction being upheld, the dirty little secret was that porosity knowingly and purposely reigned along the border.

Greed Rules the Day

This policy of non-enforcement was not by accident. Powerful corporate interests within the U.S. who held the ear of politicians made no secret of their desire to maintain a flow of cheap, unregulated labor. The complicit response was the decision to make no good-faith effort to uphold the responsibility of employers to comply with laws against the hiring of undocumented migrants. This arrangement greatly benefited the corporations which were willing to stretch the rules in order to ultimately achieve a conditioned marketplace that relied upon an underpaid workforce. Politicians, more than tangentially aware of the growing problems caused by the flows of illegal immigrants, at best paid staccato attention to the need for reforming the status quo, but in the end lacked the political will and motivation to directly confront the problem and implement enlightened and effective changes.

Towards a Sensible Reform

Despite a history of neglect and counterfeit initiatives masquerading as policy, the current emphasis on the immigration issue has provided an opportunity for meaningful change, particularly as the returning pressure directed against hard line Republicans like James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Tom Tancredo (R-CO) raises the profile of the debate. That both sides of the issue, both pro-immigration and anti-immigration, have fully mobilized their forces, suggests that Washington policymakers may finally be forced to own up to past missteps. The well attended marches and rallies seem to be having an impact, as Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN) had tried to distance himself from the Sensenbrenner House measure, which, according to polls most Americans view as being too harsh. While a progressive, rational Senate bill ultimately died, the opportunity to implement sound guest worker programs and somehow legalize the status of the huge number of illegal immigrants already in the country still exists. Such an approach offers a far more constructive and realistic immigration policy than the draconian “enforcement only” House legislation. What Congress and the administration must own up to is that they and their predecessors, by enacting destructive foreign policy towards the region, helped to produce the record numbers of illegal immigrants who they now moralistically decry.

The reality of the border suggests that immigration reform constitutes a profound issue that requires the bipartisan backing of U.S. policymakers, who now must be prepared to examine both the labor practices of U.S. corporations, and failed past U.S. foreign policy initiatives which went a long way in driving illegal immigration. One positive step would be to reevaluate free trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA-DR to ensure that productive rural and industrial employment exists in Latin America, and is not smothered by an unfair single factor rationale that attempts to justify existing policy. In Washington’s dealings with Mexico City, the ugly truth is that much of Mexico is being devastated by untrammeled trade. Another constructive measure would be to sensibly enforce immigration policies within this country, a practice which would remove the incentives to hire undocumented workers.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Fellow Michael Lettieri
April 12, 2006


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