Circling the Wagons and Building Walls:Washington’s Immigration Policy

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So Bush and company want to put thousands of armed troops on the border between the United States and Mexico.  The supposed reason for this move is to stem the flow of immigrants coming into the US from the south.  I have a feeling that this move will be probably popular in Congress and amongst many US citizens who have fallen for the propaganda that it is the men and women looking for work without papers in the United States that are to blame for their falling earning power and growing debt.  Of course, this is not the case, but trying to convince people of that is an uphill struggle.  Instead of looking at the robbing of the national treasury by rich and powerful US corporations and citizens, most of us look at our fellow workers who just happen to be Latino and blame them.  Instead of asking how those tax cuts for the rich can be good for the economy or how a trillion-dollar war is helping pay our bills, we look at our paychecks and their earning power and blame immigrant, who have less earning power than us.

My understanding of the economics of immigration is this.  The increased globalization of capital has created a situation where investment flows at a greater rate than ever to wherever it is cheapest to make goods and profits.  Until so-called free trade agreements like NAFTA were signed, this meant that corporations moved their production centers to countries where labor could be had for a few dollars a day per worker.  After the free trade agreements began to have an effect on less industrialized countries — primarily by making the goods previously produced in these agrarian parts of the world not worth producing locally because the same goods now imported into the country were cheaper — the people living in these countries needed money.  Like capitalism has always done (especially when it enters a new phase), it disrupted the lives of the small farmers in Mexico and other countries and forced them to the cities for work.  Since there is not enough work in the cities in the workers’ home countries, they went (and continue to go) to the US, where corporations welcome them in order to keep wages low for all workers.  In the wake of this development, there are some that want to turn off the supply of workers and use the laws that forbid foreign workers from becoming citizens to create an anti-immigrant hysteria.  US-born workers fall for the game, blaming undocumented workers from other countries for the fact that corporations have played a shell game on them by encouraging immigration to the North in order to keep a cheap labor source available.  A larger labor pool means that even US-born workers will work for slave wages just to have a job.  The free trade agreements only created freedom for the big corporations.  Everyone else, especially workers on both sides of the borders, have less freedom and less security.  If workers on both sides of the borders organized together for livable wage jobs, it may become more profitable for the corporations to create work in the immigrants’ homelands.  However, as long as immigration, not the rapacity of the corporations, is considered the problem, big business will continue to laugh at our ignorance all the way to the bank.  Once they get there, the bank will laugh with them.  To paraphrase James McMurtry and his song “We Can’t Make It Here”: “Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin/Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in/Should I hate ’em for having our jobs today/No I hate the men sent the jobs away”  Even if it was only to LA.

Many people insist that they are not against immigration, just illegal immigration.  This is the line put forth by many members of the Minutemen vigilante group.  From conversations with some folks that hold this view, it becomes clear that, for some, this is just a politically proper way to say that they don’t like immigrants.  Others, however, don’t seem to have any particular prejudice against immigrants yet still fail to see how the fact of one’s legality or illegality is a completely arbitrary status.  If the government in Washington wished, all those immigrants in the US illegally could be made legal tomorrow.  Likewise, all of those here legally could be made illegal just as easily.  All it takes is a new law or a presidential mandate.  The creation of statuses like that of enemy combatant after 9-11 is a good example of the arbitrary nature of the status any of us hold.  Just recently in Israel, several dozen Sudanese refugees had their official refugee status canceled and were reclassified as illegal workers.  Now, they must leave the country or be deported.  Once again, I bring up this example only to emphasize the transient and arbitrary nature of anyone’s status vis-a-vis any government in the world.

As for those Minutemen.  Despite their protests to the contrary, their fundamental philosophy is nativist bordering on outright racist.  At their recent rally in Washington, many of the few dozen in attendance carried signs calling immigrants invaders and made speeches opposing amnesty for undocumented workers and urging that they be sent back to their home countries.  It seems to me that, if the Minutemen were truly only opposed to illegal immigrants, then they would be in favor of a law that ended these immigrants’ illegality.  Instead, their position is even more reactionary than that of Mr. Bush, who prefers a guest-worker program that benefits his business cronies by keeping the cheap immigrant labor pool transient and at the mercy of the government — not just the corporations.

On top of all this, there is the money involved in keeping many immigrants illegal.  This money goes from the taxpayers’ pockets to the bank accounts of those corporations that build and maintain detention centers and the growing wall along the United States’ southern border.  Besides the detention centers already in existence, the Haliburton Corporation was just given a $385 million contract to build more of these jails.  On top of the construction profits, the maintenance of these centers costs taxpayers more than $200 million a year (the 2002 figure).  As for the human cost — let me cite a couple statistics.  Most of the detainees are legal immigrants that get picked up for minor offenses after being stopped by police.  Often, they are deported to countries that they have not even visited for decades.  While in jail, they are paid a dollar a day to work and are separated from their families, who may not know where they are.

As for that wall.  Although it is currently only about twenty miles long, there is pressure to have it run the entire length of the US-Mexico border.  Estimated costs of this construction run from $851 million to over $2 billion.  Of course, there would be ongoing maintenance costs as well and innumerable other charges as yet unmentioned.  Besides the costs associated with the wall, the hypocrisy of the so-called leader of the free world building a wall to keep out others is only too obvious.  I recall the uproar against the Soviets and their wall in Germany when I was a child.  That was a wall built for political and economic reasons, too.  Where is the comparable outcry from US citizens about the wall their government is building?

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <>.