Immigrants Are Not the Enemy




I

grew up hearing stories about how one of
my ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. I also knew my father’s
family of English and Welsh immigrants were among the original Mormon
pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley. Some of them later married Irish
immigrants and raised families in Utah and California. Then there
were the greatgreat-grandparents who emigrated from Sweden to Minnesota
in the 1890s. Myself, I am a California native of no particular
religious bent who has lived in Illinois, Michigan, New York, Texas,
and Oregon. When I was younger I married an Iranian living in the
United States on a student visa. I have a brother whose girlfriend
is from China, living in the United States on a work visa. Another
brother married a woman whose long family lineage in California’s
central valley includes Native American ancestry. 


Our family story is an American story, not unlike countless other
American stories. It is a family history of hopes for a better life,
of uprooted lives and new, unfamiliar landscapes, of years of hard
work and confrontations with adversity and discrimination. It is
the story of a Swedish great-grandfather who came to this country
in the 1890s as a farmhand, working his way up to an accountant’s
position with a Minneapolis home heating company. In the bleak Depression
era winter of 1931-32, he faced arrest when his employer discovered
he had arranged for off-the-books coal deliveries to families who
could no longer pay. Distraught, he killed himself. It is also the
story of my father, a man with an entrepreneurial spirit whose life
was marked by continual success in business. It is the story of
other generations who have walked many paths in life. It is an immigrant’s
story. 


The immigrant experience in the U.S. was never just a glorious tale.
But in the United States today the darker side of the immigration
story is repeating itself. President Bush has apparently been advised
that leadership on the immigration issue means being pro-active,
which is another way of saying send in the troops. The White House
Deciderator’s latest stab at deciding something involves plans
to significantly increase the presence of National Guard troops
along the southwestern border. Hearing this latest news I can’t
help but wonder if the Guard troops will be checking the papers
of corporate executives from the United States who are shipping
good-paying American jobs to northern Mexico where the plants they
operate pay subsistence-level wages. Where I live in Bloomington,
Illinois the local newspaper reports that the General Electric plant
is laying off another 56 workers and their jobs are being moved
to Apodaca, Mexico and Vega Alta, Puerto Rico. So far I haven’t
noted any protest by local or state politicians otherwise known
for their concerns over the influx of “illegals.” 


Immigrants have once again become the target of xenophobic voices
who seek to blame the reported 12 million “illegals” for
every evil under the sun, taking jobs and draining social services.
In the spirit of the Anti-Exclusion Act of 1882, which sought to
keep Chinese “coolies” from U.S. shores, the House of
Representatives bill passed last December, under the sponsorship
of Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), would transform millions of
undocumented families into criminal felon families. With visions
of building the “Great Wall of the Southwest,” the bill’s
flair for the police state is embellished by a provision that criminalizes
anyone who provides assistance to undocumented workers. 


Unfortunately, the Senate’s “compromise” bill sponsored
by Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and McCain (R-AZ) constitutes a compromise
only in the justice it also denies to immigrant workers. The bill
proposes stepped-up border enforcement measures, but no border wall
with Mexico. It would raise the wall of second-class status for
immigrants consigned to labor’s bargain basement in a greatly
expanded “guest workers” program. This proposed ten-year
guest worker system represents another way to permanently structure
a large, two-tier workforce into the U.S. economy, as the AFL-CIO’s
executive council recently charged. The result can only lead to
a further deterioration in the quality of the job market, as once
decent-paying, permanent jobs continue to be transformed into temporary,
benefit-starved jobs employing foreign “guests” who will
be inherently more vulnerable to employer abuse. 








The
folks in Congress likely assumed they could tighten the immigration
knot without worrying about what those directly affected by more
restrictive legislation thought about all this. They were mistaken.
In a display of grassroots activism as unprecedented as it is understandable,
immigrants responded. Mass protest marches involving millions have
made it clear that immigrants want what everyone else wants—equality. 


The mass marches had the effect of a depth charge on the narrow
liberal-conservative debate over immigration. The sea of humanity
in the streets from coast to coast conveyed with a previously unseen
force the human dimension of the immigration issue. You could see
it in the eyes of the marchers. You could hear it in their chants.
You could read it on the banners and signs. This was a pageant of
humanity gone to extraordinary lengths for their aspirations for
fair play and a better life. 


Equality now translates first into amnesty for those illegal workers
and their families who are working in the United States. Equality
now also demands that any Congressional legislation that increases
the hardships of immigrant workers and the undocumented be rejected.
Instead of focusing on new enforcement provisions against employers
who hire undocumented workers, public energy would be far better
spent targeting the exploitation of these workers. Is it right that
“illegal” workers who contribute to the legal profits
of thousands of companies live without equal employment law protections? 


Indeed, the questions we can ask about the plight of immigrants
quickly become questions we can ask about all working Americans.
Is it right that the minimum wage in 2006 fails to translate into
even a close approximation of a living wage? Is it right that full-time
work in this country does not guarantee a life out of poverty? U.S.
citizens express growing concern over the Bush administration’s
encroachments on civil liberties under the guise of a “war
on terror.” Rightly so. They should also be concerned that
the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 declared that even legal immigrants
convicted of a crime can be subject to indefinite detention. 


Isn’t it obvious that the fate of U.S. workers are linked to
what happens to our immigrant brothers and sisters who work in this
country’s poorest, most exploited jobs. The current economy
is a hardship economy for tens of millions worried about broken
pension plans, unaffordable health care, and too many damn jobs
with too little pay. 


It’s encouraging at least that the AFL-CIO’s current position
on immigration rights rejects scapegoating foreign workers. Its
March 1 executive council called for reforms to provide a path to
permanent residency for currently undocumented workers. Their reasoning
is simple—and right: “The broken immigration system has
allowed employers to create an underclass of workers, which has
effectively reduced working standards for all workers.” 








In
Mexico, of course, the situation is more dire. The impact of NAFTA
has flooded the country in recent years with cheap, subsidized U.S.
corn, forcing some two million Mexican farmers into poverty and
ruin. Wages in Mexican industry have also fallen precipitously.
Many Mexican immigrants who come to the United States are victims
of these unjust corporate trade policies. We should ask ourselves:
“Why should they be punished for trying to survive?” 


Yet this is exactly the blamethe-victim logic of a national political
debate that fundamentally views immigrants—not corporate policies
—as “the problem.” Predictably, the upswing of activism
in defense of immigrant rights is also sparking some public backlash.
Typical of such sentiment is the recent letter writer to the

Chicago
Tribune

who finds herself “appalled at the nerve of illegal
immigrants and their friends marching in our streets demanding and
threatening that we reward them for breaking our laws.” It’s
unknown whether this letter writer from the upscale Chicago suburb
of Lake Barrington has also taken up with her local municipality
the issue of the undocumented workers who undoubtedly maintain the
landscapes of many of that towns long driveways and expansive lawns.

 


The irrationality of such anti-immigrant sentiment is evident in
the ways immigrants are attacked for both working and not working.
They’re portrayed to suit convenience as either lawless stealers
of jobs or as outsiders living off our public services. It’s
a picture that demonizes the plight of millions of human beings
whose aspirations and concerns are not that different from the average
citizen. In fact, more than 90 percent of undocumented men work,
according to a 2005 Urban Institute report. That’s a rate higher
than that for U.S. citizens or legal immigrants. Yet this group
is ineligible for welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid. They do pay
taxes, however. Undocumented immigrants also contribute to the costs
of state and local education in real estate taxes included in rents.
Additionally, three-quarters of undocumented workers pay social
security taxes, the benefits of which will elude them. 


What’s great now about the action in the streets is that immigrant
communities are finally emerging from these exploited shadows, discovering
in their own solidarity a newfound voice where once they were ignored.
The dynamic of the current moment speaks to the potential of this
new civil rights movement to spill over into a broader activism
in defense of labor rights. That’s good news for everyone who
works for a living in the United States.


 





Mark
T. Harris is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Illinois.