On Immigration

I often wonder why the topic of immigration is so inflammatory in the United States – after all, we learn from an early age that the US is a nation of immigrants. Christopher Columbus did not set foot on uninhabited land, and the people that were here before, the Native Americans, believed in sharing and communal property. The argument for some then becomes, “Well, we fought it out and we took it from the Indians fair and square,” as if access to basic necessities like land and water can be trivialized like a simple game of football.

The topic of immigration is very complex, and a resolution hard to come by. It seems a happy medium is out of the question because of fear – fear of a lack of resources. People think, “there isn’t enough – not enough land, not enough water, not enough money, not enough jobs, not enough safety, etc – and we must therefore make rules that will ensure our families enough resources.” But a reaction out of fear is not the best foundation for making decisions. But what rationales can be used to argue against peoples’ fears?

I recently read a book by Aviva Chomsky called “They Take Our Jobs! and 20 Other Myths About Immigration (2007).” As a student of mythology, the title intrigued me. Myths, like religion, are beliefs a group of people create to bring order and feel safe in an uncontrollable environment. Myths have some foundation in truth, but the rationale for explanations is usually faulty, incomplete, or completely unfounded. Chomsky’s book takes well-known popular beliefs about immigration and explores the topics to uncover the facts.

Although Chomsky covers a wide range of myths, I bring attention only to those I have heard most often. Do the following arguments sound familiar?

“Immigrants take jobs away from Americans, they don’t pay taxes, and they drive down wages.”

Does this string of beliefs make sense? I have to chuckle as a great big “No” comes to mind. First off, American companies find cheap labor wherever they can; if cheap labor is found at home, it is welcomed; if cheaper labor is found abroad, jobs are sent off-shore. Moreover, companies don’t like to pay for good or nice working conditions. As soon as workers start asking for rights, benefits, or even a humane environment, the companies start looking for a more desperate workforce that is willing to work under unsafe or unfair conditions. Secondly, what true American is willing to work in an unregulated environment? Since Americans have rights, this means that unregulated jobs are reserved for those with no rights – people like slaves and individuals without citizenship, or people that are uneducated and unaware of their rights. Thirdly, everyone, regardless of citizenship status, pays taxes. If immigrants use false documents, taxes are automatically subtracted from wages and can never be refunded in case of overpayment. If immigrants use valid documents, they often do not qualify for the services taxes pay for. If immigrants use no documents, they still have to pay other forms of tax, such as sales tax, property tax, etc.

Perhaps companies would stop looking for a cheap labor force if consumers stopped demanding cheap products. Perhaps companies would stop out-sourcing jobs if they were required to supply regulated labor with workers’ rights in any country they established themselves in. And perhaps people would stop accusing immigrants of not paying taxes if citizens acknowledged that everyone pays taxes and that immigration builds population needs, which is fertile ground for creating new jobs. It is important to mention here that emergency medical care, public schools, and the public safety system are mandated services that the federal government requires state governments to provide to all, regardless of immigration status (Chomsky, p. 40).

“Illegal immigrants overrun the US, and then send most of their earnings to families in their country of origin.”

Chomsky clarifies that the term “illegal immigrant” should not be used because, according to the UN  High Commission on Human Rights, “it contradicts the spirit and violates directly the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, which states in Article 6 that “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law (p. 58).” (Not only does this protect foreign visitors in this country, it also protects US visitors in foreign countries.) Furthermore, the difference between legal and “illegal” immigrants is not as clear-cut as people imagine. Since legalization is a process, there will be people in all different stages of the legalization process. In fact, a legal immigrant can become unauthorized overnight due to an expired visa or a change in circumstance. Then there is the fact that many companies that cannot out-source their jobs end up inviting and importing foreign labor. But just because foreign nationals work in the US and send some money home does not mean that they export the majority of their earnings. How many US citizens find it cheap to live in the US? How many Americans cannot keep up with house payments? How many Americans find it difficult to pay for utilities, food, and other basic necessities? The fact is, living in America is not cheap regardless of national origin. The amounts of money that end up abroad in the form of remittances make no one wealthy or comfortable, although in some instances they do slightly improve lives.

“Why can’t people just follow the rules?”

This question bears the underlying assumption that the pathway to legal residency is, and has been, the same for all immigrants, which could not be further from the truth. Chomsky outlines a long history of “immigration rules” that have not been based on logic and impartiality. It turns out, not surprisingly, that many (if not all) of the immigration rules have been based on unfair, discriminatory justifications. The US has been more a nation by design (in support of Anglo-Saxon culture) rather than a true “melting pot.” This means that immigration was “authorized” when it supported a “White” majority. Chomsky points out that the question of who could be considered “White” was long disputed, just as the question of whether Blacks were human was also disputed at one time. Chomsky gives the example that Italians and Slovics were  not considered White at one point – and when they were not, their immigration was very limited (p. 94). The racial classification of Latin Americans caused similar confusion and contention (p. 95), and before race was lifted as a qualification for US citizenship, the land border was closed and the Border Patrol were introduced in 1924 – thus creating “illegal immigration” along the US-Mexican border where no such thing had existed before (p.98). Aside from trying to design a population with a majority of Whites, the rules of immigration have also been designed to propagate our  definition of “Democracy.” Only when other nations or people support our definition of democracy do we support them. Thus, even though Cuba and Haiti are equally poor and their residents seek political asylum, we mostly refuse immigrants of Haiti because their leader is our political ally. On the other hand, we accept Cuban immigrants as “refugees” because Cuba is not our political ally. Moreover, “immigration” used to refer to those who arrived by sea from other nations; movement across the US / Mexican border remained unmonitored and unregulated prior to the 1920s (p. 96). Thus, our rules for immigration are highly convoluted, biased, irregular, and unpredictable. How can we tell people to “just follow the rules” when the rules are disjointed and inconsistent?

Discrimination, Alive & Well

One of the most surprising points Chomsky makes (based on perspectives from Toni Morrison, Piri Thomas, James Loewen, and on research done on Haitian immigrants) is that, in contrast to popular belief, immigrants of color are least successful when they most assimilate to the American culture. Chomsky’s justification is that racial inequality is so ingrained in US culture that it is easy for European immigrants to incorporate into White culture by accepting rights and freedoms that take away from people of color, and people of color are most often accepted by White culture (assimilated) when they “take their place” in the bottom rungs of society as second-class citizens (p. 104-105).

On the surface, Chomsky’s assertions seem to contradict the belief of America as the land of freedom and opportunity. It would be nice to believe that discrimination has been eradicated in our country, but the truth is another. I recently visited the San Antonio Smithsonian Museum (I forget its proper name – it is the big pink building downtown) where there is currently an exhibit on the Mexicans’ history of labor here in the US. There is no doubt that labor in the US has provided an opportunity for making some money, but the conditions to which we have exposed our working guests have been deplorable – spraying their faces with DDT, transporting and housing them like livestock, and exposing them to work conditions that no home-grown American would willingly tolerate.

Based on my experience with migrant workers, I can say that their current working conditions may have changed a bit, but America still does not take very good care of those whose labor we depend on for our food, shelter, sanitation, and other services. Chomsky makes the argument that just as there are second-class citizens, there is also a dual-labor market with a secondary labor force comprised of unregulated jobs with sub-standard conditions to which we relegate these second-class citizens (p.24). And in order to keep workers in this secondary labor force, we must maintain a population of people with few rights and freedoms (p.25-26). Hence, making immigration illegal and, above that, converting immigration into a highly controversial issue guarantees a workforce for our secondary job market.

To me, these circumstances of converting migrants into “illegals” sounds like a new form of authorized slavery. Some might say, “Well, they come here willingly – so it serves them right!” Based on my experience of working with people in developing countries, I have to say that migrants do not come here with much of a choice – difficult circumstances can eliminate choices and guide people to a no-alternative pathway. Migrants don’t want to leave their friends and family behind. If they do not return to their country of origin, it is because we have made it as difficult for them to return as to come here in the first place.

Take the Bull by the Horns … & Give it Some Love

It is time for us to calm our fears and start taking care of our global family. Fear is a terrible foundation for making choices. The US may fear people coming in and taking resources away, but we have caused others fear too. We have infiltrated other countries in the name of “democracy,” we have taken away lives and left behind poverty. In the trail of devastation, we have claimed ourselves a “nation of glory” and a “land of freedom and opportunity.” And, in our current materialistic lifestyle, we continue to take resources away from others for our own benefit by demanding cheap products in exchange for low wages, thereby propagating poverty. Is it any wonder people seek opportunity in the land where resources end up?

It is when people are selfish and hoard that resources run out. Sharing – our nation could stand learning this lesson from the people we first conquered and then denied citizenship to, and from whom the Latin Americans derived from – the Native Americans. As with the Bible lesson about the loaves and fishes, when people share, there is enough to go around.

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