Mainstream America Suddenly Notices Immigration

Southeastern Arizona This is an exciting and scary time. Finally, the largely ignored working underclass of this country has been provoked into organizing and demanding that their voices be heard. It's like my neighborhood is suddenly at the center of a debate that has caused some of the largest protests in American history. You can bet I'll be writing on this, I'll also be posting some of the articles I've been reading as all of this is unfolding. Hit this, let's talk about this:

First, a round up from the Mexico Solidarity Network, current as of 26marzo:


More than 500,000 demonstrators (according to police - organizers claim a million) clogged downtown Los Angeles on Saturday demanding immigration reform favorable to 12 million undocumented workers currently living in the US. The largest demonstration in the history of Los Angeles came on the heals of similarly historic mobilizations in Chicago (200,000), Milwaukee (30,000), Atlanta (80,000 immigrants participated in a day-long strike), Phoenix (officially 20,000, though probably many more as the march closed the downtown area), Denver (50,000), Washington, DC (30,000), and dozens of other cities. Late last year, the House passed the Sensenbrenner Bill, which would criminalize undocumented workers, fine employers and build a 700-mile wall along the border. President Bush endorsed the bill, but has been less clear recently as he promotes an ill-defined guest worker program that would accompany the more draconian measures. Republicans are divided. Big business (particularly corporate farmers, meat-packers, hotel and restaurant owners, and construction companies) is demanding access to cheap labor, while overtly racist conservatives want to preserve the predominant culture. Democrats are also divided. Sen. Ted Kennedy (joined by Republican John McCain) supports a path to citizenship for undocumented workers who pay a fine, settle back taxes, and learn English, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein supports more limited reforms that would allow agricultural workers to harvest fruits and vegetables in California?s central valley. On Monday, the debate will be centered in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where there seems to be little chance for compromise among widely divergent opinions. President Fox claims the Bush administration is on the verge of breakthrough immigration reform, but Fox is playing to a domestic audience in the midst of a presidential campaign in which the PAN candidate trails badly. As Congressional elections approach in the US, comprehensive reform is unlikely. It may take more time for the burgeoning immigrant rights movement to make its weight felt in the halls of Congress.

Missing so far from the debate is a clear understanding of immigration dynamics. More than 500,000 undocumented workers enter the US each year from Mexico, a direct result of neoliberal policies promoted by the Bush administration via the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and NAFTA. Nearly one percent of the Mexican workforce leaves for the US each year because Mexico?s export-oriented economy provides no alternatives for millions of workers. Until the US ends its insistence on neoliberal policies that result in an upward concentration of national resources, immigration will be the only option for millions of poor families.

Also largely missing from the debate is the extreme exploitation of undocumented workers. Many immigrants work in factories and restaurants using false identification. Employers deduct social security from their paychecks, but the workers never have the possibility of enjoying retirement benefits. The Social Security Administration has over US$30 billion in its coffers that cannot be linked to registered recipients. In effect, millions of undocumented workers are subsidizing the US budget deficit with these uncollectible contributions. In addition, undocumented workers pay sales taxes and real estate taxes (via rent payments), and often pay payroll taxes, without any possibility of participating in welfare programs or other social services. Many undocumented workers earn the minimum wage or less, making fruits and vegetables, hotel rooms and restaurant meals cheaper for the rest of the public. And 12 million undocumented workers generate their own economic dynamics that provide increased jobs and wealth for the country.

Does this country really think it can deal with 12 million felons created overnight by a congressional bill? Law enforcement couldn't handle it, some cities have vowed not to enforce it and I'm sure that the immigrants in this country wouldn't tolerate it. Even these people--who tolarate so much in this country everyday--will only stand for so much. Immigration laws must be enforced, sure, but not without a viable guest worker program and real opportunity for citizenship.

Tonight on Newshour with Jim Lehrer I heard Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform actually say that the American middle class does not benefit from the presence of illegal immigrants in this country. I wonder if Mr. Mehlman thinks it would impact the middle class if we could only buy oranges at $5.oo a pound instead of .20. I wonder if Mr. Mehlman ever goes out to eat, sends his dirty dishes into the kitchen. I wonder if Mr. Mehlman or any of his friends have built a house in the last ten years.

These people are here because we have no choice. Our economy completely depends on them--from their contributions to Social Security and taxes to their muscle powering our most basic and necessary industries.

These people are here because they have no choice. It's like a man told me one rainy morning, waiting for a collectivo bus in Chicamán, Guatemala: "Aquí no se gana." You don't earn anything here.

He then asked me for advice on how to arrive here, on how much the coyotes would charge to smuggle him across. I didn't know what to say, didn't know how to explain to him that life here would be hard too, a different kind of hard. I didn't want to tell him that it could cost almost $7,000 to arrive here. That morning I felt as I do tonight: as though there are no good answers, only hard questions we must continue to ask. There's no going back now, the cat is out of the bag. This country will no longer be allowed to ignore illegal immigrants while eating of their hard labor. In the coming weeks, this situation will either begin to be fixed or begin to spiral toward disaster.

More to come.