Refugees, Not Immigrants

The debate on immigration reform has failed to address the root cause of why people, particularly from Mexico, are coming here "illegally." Perhaps it would be better to reframe the issue in terms of the problem being a refugee problem, not immigration.

All across the country immigration has returned as a hot topic. May Day saw demonstrations in many major cities where people came out by tens of thousands to show their opposition to the new immigration law in Arizona. In Dallas there were more than 20,000 and more than 50,000 in Los Angeles.

Opponents say it amounts to racial profiling.

Proponents say that is nonsense and that Arizona is trying to enforce federal laws since the federal government has been unable or unwilling to do so but the bill allows law enforcers to arrest without a warrant if they have "probable cause to believe" someone has committed a crime and should be deported. Another vague term tossed around in the bill is "reasonable suspicion." Opponents of the bill see these broad terms as where the racial profiling comes from. Your accent and skin color may lead Officer Such-and-such to think you’re an illegal and he may watch you like a hawk in order to find any legal pretext to ask for your papers. In a country known for its racism (past and present) and racial profiling, terms "DWB" (driving while black) and “FWM” (flying while Muslim) go a long way to show the fears certainly are rational.

This debate, however, says nothing about why people are coming here in the first place.

A couple of years ago a study in California (which has the highest number of "illegals") showed that US-born citizens are more likely to commit a crime than immigrants. Clearly, whether they come here legally or illegally they don’t want to risk being sent back home. Yes, many have broken a law just by coming here but it’s not as if they could have done otherwise. The realities of our immigration policies coupled with the biological realities of starvation often have people ranking not starving above not breaking US immigration laws.

So why are so many leaving home to begin with? In his book Economic Justice and Democracy; From Competition to Cooperation, the political economist, Robin Hahnel, points out that

as liberalization in agricultural trade destroys the livelihoods of billions of peasant farmers in Third World countries swelling the ranks of the urban unemployed, Third World workers do not enjoy the beneficial effect one might otherwise expect from increased international investment and specialization in labor intensive manufacturing in their countries. Instead we have seen declining real wages in countries like Mexico as NAFTA displaced more peasants than it created labor-intensive manufacturing jobs. In sum, by strengthening the bargaining power of global capital versus any and all who it negotiates with, liberalization of investment and trade has led to downward pressure on wages, labor standards, and environmental standards in first world and Third World countries alike.



Something worth focusing on in particular is corn. The US subsidizes the growing of corn to the tune of $5 billion a year, on average. When NAFTA was signed the bargaining power of the US ensured the subsidies would continue but Mexico wouldn’t be able to do anything about cheap corn being dumped on their markets. For Mexico, tariffs were not an option. The predictable result was that corn farmers would be put out of work. We, in the US, need to realize that corn is the staple of their diet. They have gone from being self-sufficient to reliant on the US.

Then along came ethanol, the biofuel. When the US started allocating more and more corn to be used as a fuel it drove up the price of corn, which resulted in the tortilla protests (notice how this linked article presents the "cheap corn imports" as a good thing when in fact they seriously hurt domestic corn farmers) in Mexico in 2007.

In any market transaction the strong will use its bargaining power at the expense of the weak. This has played out with clarity in terms of economic relations between the US and Mexico. Our business leaders reaped more of the benefits of NAFTA than Mexico did. We also reap the benefits of their migration north.

To add more perspective about our own reaction to immigration in the US let’s look at China. Amnesty International has pointed out that, "Tens of thousands of starving North Koreans have fled their country over the past few years, crossing the border to China’s northeastern provinces of Jilin and Liaoning" and that Chinese "authorities should cease detentions and forcible repatriations" so that the "Chinese government [can] review its policy towards North Korean asylum seekers and ensure that they are given access to a fair and independent asylum procedure."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has consistently criticized China for their crack down on North Koreans living illegally in China. Even US politicians speak out about the plight of North Koreans simply trying to escape suffering. And while China uses somewhat similar rhetoric as Americans do towards Mexican immigrants the UNHCR says these people should be viewed as refugees because if they were to return they could face torture or even death. In a press release, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Hong Quan refered to "illegal immigrants" who "shouldn’t intrude into foreign embassies and consulates in China under some people’s incision, which violates China’s laws and regulations and threatens China’s social security." The talking point is nearly identicle: we need to protect our borders against people who break our laws and threaten our social security.

What would happen to the Mexican migrants if they were sent back because they couldn’t afford to come here legally? Aren’t they trying to escape their suffering and provide for them and their families? And if we send them back, assuming we don’t address our unfair economic relations, it is a "reasonable suspicion" (pun intended) that they would suffer, or worse: die a slow, tortuous death of starvation?

Noam Chomsky, the infamous American gadfly, has said that if we want to stop terrorism we should "end our own role as perpetrators" and "attend to the grievances that are typically in the background, and if they are legitimate, do something about them." Something similar can be said about Mexican immigrants: if Mr. and Mrs. White American want them to stop coming here then maybe they should be more outspoken on our role in their suffering and attend to their grievances, which are legitimate and which we can do something about. Rather than pretending we are resolving a problem of "protecting our borders" from "criminals" with beefed up law enforcement it might be better to see these people as what they are: economic refugees, not immigrants. This could likely cause us to recognize the root of the problem (which so far is largely off the radar): racism and economic injustice.

The Zapatistas began their rebellion on the day NAFTA went into effect and they have long connected their problems in Mexico to neoliberalism. And while they have made an art out of listening we should do the same. Or as Howard Zinn liked to say, "The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is."

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