Walls, Amnesty, and False Choices

The national immigration debate largely is split between two camps.

The first “anti-immigrant” camp notes that the number of undocumented workers has shot up in recent years, perhaps to as many as 10 million, and claims that these people are taking jobs and using services that should belong to “Americans.”

The other, “pro-immigrant” camp notes that these “illegals” wouldn’t be here unless they were being hired for jobs that no one else is willing to do, and claims that therefore they should be allowed to stay and some form of legalization, possibly amnesty, should be accorded to them.

Both of these positions address an extremely narrow question (namely, what do we do with “these people”?) and both fail to ask the primary underlying questions: why are these people coming here in the first place? Will there be more of them? Why do they continue to come?

It may not be possible to comprehensively answer these questions, but let’s take note of the obvious: in the U.S. the majority of undocumented immigrants are coming from Central America and Mexico. Equally obvious is that this is an area of the world that has been almost completely under the influence of U.S. foreign policy since at least World War II, and possibly since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. After all, the U.S. has militarily occupied numerous countries in Latin America, among them Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, as well as a long and brutal occupation of an Asian country, the Philippines. Not coincidentally, the largest Asian immigrant population in the U.S. comes from the Philippines. Among the more sordid examples of early U.S. military interventions is the 1854 destruction of an entire Nicaraguan city, San Juan del Norte, allegedly to avenge an insult to an American dignitary.

Policies Favor Big Companies

Perhaps not so obvious to us, but certainly very clear to those who live through it is the fact that in all of these places, U.S. supported governments and companies have put into place policies that greatly favor the interests of the rich and big companies, often companies based in the U.S., over the interests of everybody else.

To give only one of many examples, in the 1950s the U.S. orchestrated a coup against the elected government of Guatemala. Its major crime: taking back some of the land that the Cincinatti-based United Fruit company had been given by the Spanish empire. Though it offered compensation to the company, this wasn’t enough for then U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who ultimately succeeded in his arguments for U.S. intervention.

There were two results of that intervention. The first was to return land to United Fruit and to reduce its tax burden and that of all international companies significantly. The second result was to plunge Guatemala into a bloody 36-year-long civil war. When Guatemala finally came out of this in the mid 1990s, it was a complete wreck and it continues to be one of the most impoverished countries in the Americas.

Towards the end of that war, the International Monetary Fund moved in to basically make irrelevant the issues which were on the table in the 1950s. Like structural adjustment programs anywhere, these programs relied on a number of policies designed to take resources away from wherever they are, commodify them, and turn them into profits for the few at the top. So right now a U.S./Canadian company is involved in a mining project which would not be possible without IMF backed land privatization, that threatens to displace thousands of mostly indigenous people, and in so doing possibly create a mini-civil war. Trade liberalization and export oriented policies have meant that farmers are forced to grow coffee, even though coffee prices are low and have been dropping since the mid-1980s, while the country imports grain in order to feed its population. While one would expect life to be getting better for the average Guatemalan since the end of the civil war, the standard of living has gone down for much of the population. Malnutrition, infant mortality and poverty rates are going up and life expectancy rates are going down.

The Appeal of El Norte

Faced with this situation, what are the choices before an average Guatemalan? Well, either you tough it out as best you can, growing coffee or trying to find work in the city, or you leave for El Norte. The same El Norte that you know to be the cause of policies that gave you these grim options in the first place.

Guatemala is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest (after Haiti) in the hemisphere, but this situation will be all to familiar to the average Salvadoran, the average Nicaraguan, the average Dominican as well as to the average Congolese, the average Ghanaian, the average Filipino, the average Indonesian, and so on. In all of these places, neoliberal hyper-capitalist policies are causing a global wave of migration hitherto unknown in human history.

What does this mean for us in the U.S.?

First of all, the idea that people come to the U.S. to “steal” jobs or services is incomplete at best and at worst is simply propaganda. Most of the people who come here do so because they have little choice.

It’s worth bearing in mind that there is another kind of foreigner, one who does not come here at all except perhaps to visit or to take up a highly specialized middle class profession. These are the immigrants no one has a problem with because they come here legally. Under H1B visas, they work in software development companies, or biotech companies or even in the U.S. government. But for the most part they do not leave their countries of origin, preferring instead to remain part of an educated and fairly well-off elite in their country of origin.

The difference between the Mexican working for Microsoft on an H1B visa and the Mexican who looks for work every day at the day labor center cannot be understood in terms of nationality. It is a difference of class.

In order to understand that difference, we must be willing to do a class analysis. Such an analysis categorizes people and the communities they come from based not on nationality, which is what the immigration debate in the U.S. is all about at the moment, but on how they live their lives, on their work and on their level of income.

Global Underclass

At the most superficial level, such an analysis reveals that the world we live in consists of at least three classes: the first is a massive underclass, which includes a significant number of U.S. citizens. Those who live on less than one dollar a day, or those who lack access to clean drinking water or access to basic healthcare and education, or those who live in homeless shelters in New York or in Mexico city are all members of this underclass.

The second set of people is a global middle class. These are folks who have access to basic services, who may be somewhat mobile in that they can take their vacations in Florida or in Bali, Indonesia, and who by and large are the university professors, the managers, the technocrats, the knowledge producers, and so on.

The last and by far the smallest set of people are those who represent a global upper class. Though this group of people is almost too miniscule to be seen in terms of population, they are the ones controlling most of the wealth. According to the latest data analyzed in the Economic Policy Institute’s State of Working America, in 2004 the richest 5% of the U.S. population controlled 58.9% of U.S. wealth. In contrast, the poorest 40 percent of the population together controlled only 1.2% of the wealth. These figures are bad enough, but in many developing countries, which have been forced to adopt the U.S. economic model, they are likely to be much worse.

The numbers tell a terrible story: a very small number of people in the world are getting much richer at the expense of the majority of the world’s population. Getting back to the question of why immigrants are flooding in, it is not that the U.S. is doing things so well that “those people” want to come over to take “our” jobs and “our” services. They come because of a bleak reality: it is better to be a member of the global underclass in the U.S. than to be a member of that underclass in Guatemala or in Mexico or in the Philippines or in Cameroon.

Policy Alternatives

The solutions on the table in U.S. policy include border-hugging walls, amnesty, and the tightening or weakening of immigration restrictions. These are all band-aid solutions. There is no wall high enough or strong enough to hold back the millions of people that our foreign policy has helped condemn to poverty.

Meaningful solutions will instead address the rising inequality and injustice that is the root of the problem, whether here or in countries from which immigrants are coming. Some possibilities:

1) Get rid of the IMF. The International Monetary Fund effectively makes economic policy for countries around the world based on its own outdated market fundamentalist economics which perpetuate global inequality and the violence of poverty. These policies have been acknowledged by many governments, including the government of Great Britain, to be unsuccessful even when it comes to what they’re supposed to do. This needs to stop. Decisions about Ghana’s economic policy should be made by Ghanaians, not by Washington, DC technocrats.

2) Un-do NAFTA. It has now been twelve years since the implementation of the North America Free Trade Agreement. During this time, the investors’ rights provisions of NAFTA, which allow foreign companies to sue governments who do not allow “equal treatment,” have been used as a weapon by U.S. companies to ensure them access to the Mexican market, usually at the expense of developing viable Mexican industries. At the same time, the threat of “exporting jobs to Mexico” has allowed companies to keep their wages low, and is part of the reason that there has been only one increase in the Federal minimum wage in the twelve years since NAFTA came into effect. NAFTA has been an attack on workers and the poor both here and in Mexico.

3) Implement wealth redistribution and home and don’t block it abroad. In many ways, the situation we are in now is similar to where we were in the late 19th century. Then, “robber barons” were making millions while everybody else had to work for pennies to survive, leading to huge and sometimes violent clashes between workers and police. By the time the Great Depression came about, it was understood that this kind of a society would be unworkable, and therefore a system of progressive income tax (meaning you tax rich people more) coupled with social services (meaning ordinary people get something out of those taxes) was promoted as a method of wealth redistribution. In the past three decades, we have moved away from this system, by reducing taxes for the wealthy and simultaneously reducing public spending on social services. We need to move back towards this system.

At the same time, the IMF conditions have by and large ignored the development of a national tax-base for these kinds of purposes. In some places where taxes have been proposed on industries that have been under-taxed, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s diamond industry, the IMF has effectively vetoed this option. Similarly nationalization programs aimed at redistribution in Bolivia, Chile, Iran and elsewhere have been opposed, sometimes with force, by the U.S. government. Until the U.S. stops promoting policies that enrich a few while impoverishing millions, wave after wave of immigrants will trade in one kind of poverty for another, less brutal kind of poverty.

And what if the U.S. were to embrace policy alternatives, to allow meaningful pro-poor development in Africa, Latin America and Asia? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the tide would indeed stop and some may even choose to return to their country of origin. After all, there’s no place like home.

Sameer Dossani is Director of 50 Years Is Enough: U.S Network for Global Economic Justice in Washington, DC and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His parents immigrated to the United States from war-torn Bangladesh in 1971.