The Immigration System: Maybe Not So Broken

David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, Beacon Press, 2008.  Hardcover, 261 pages, $26.95.

Illegal PeopleWith the Obama administration reportedly set to push for immigration reform this year, the debate on immigration seems likely to start up again.  If it’s anything like the debate we got from the mainstream media in previous years, we can expect something remarkably shallow and repetitious.  We’ll hear the two sides agree that “the system is broken” and that the United States must “stem the tide” of undocumented immigrants.  Then the hard right will insist on a vast expansion of existing enforcement measures, while the “left” will propose a compromise based on a modest increase in enforcement coupled with a limited amnesty for the current undocumented population and a guest worker program for future immigrants.

If we want a more productive discussion this time around, we should start off differently, with some basic questions: If we don’t want undocumented workers in the United States, shouldn’t we ask why they come here?  If we’re planning to expand enforcement, wouldn’t it make sense to ask what results we’ve gotten from the billions of dollars we’ve already spent on enforcement over the last two decades?  And why do we so rarely hear the views of the people most directly affected — the 12 million undocumented immigrants themselves?

These are exactly the questions veteran labor journalist David Bacon addresses in his latest book.  (Disclosure: David Bacon gave advice and other help with a book of which I’m a co-author and provided one of his photographs for the cover.)

Much of Bacon’s answer is right there in his title: Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.  He argues that undocumented workers come here largely because of the neoliberal economic policies that the U.S. elite has vigorously pushed on our southern neighbors over the past 30 years, disrupting local economies and forcing millions to seek employment outside their countries.  At the same time, he says, U.S. legislators were passing laws that tightened restrictions on immigrants from these countries.  These restrictions haven’t stopped immigration; instead, they’ve created a class of “illegals” who are forced to keep their heads down as they work for less pay in brutal conditions — involuntarily providing downward pressure on the wages of native-born workers.  In short, he shows us a system that lets U.S. corporations profit from globalization in countries like Mexico and then profit again by exploiting globalization’s victims when they seek work here.

It’s easy enough to document this process with statistics and academic studies, and Bacon does his share of that.  But he also brings the statistics to life by providing the other element missing in the immigration debate — he tells us about the experiences and opinions of actual immigrants.

— Juan González (not his real name) worked at the giant Cananea copper mine, which the Mexican government sold in 1990 for a fraction of its value to the Grupo México corporation as part of a massive privatization program promoted by the United States.  González was fired in 1998 because of his role in a strike against the new owners.  Blacklisted and unable to find a decent job in his home state of  Sonora, he ended up becoming an “illegal” working in an Arizona warehouse.

— Luz Domínguez and Marcela Melquíades worked for years cleaning hotel rooms in Emeryville, a small city on the San Francisco Bay.  Their employers had no problems with their lack of legal status until the city council passed a living wage ordinance and some hotel employees complained their bosses weren’t in compliance.  Management then discovered problems with the workers’ documents and fired them.

— Edilberto Morales is the only survivor of a September 2002 accident that killed 14 immigrant forestry workers when their speeding van ran off a wooden bridge into Maine’s Allagash River.  The workers were employed through the U.S. government’s H2 guest worker program.  The U.S. Labor Department found that the employer, Evergreen Forestry Services, had failed to ensure the workers’ safety and fined Evergreen $17,000 — but the company never lost its certification for the H2 program.

Bacon brings together the system’s different aspects in the person of Representative James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin.  Sensenbrenner is best known as the author of HR 4437, an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would have made felons of undocumented workers like González, Domínguez, and Melquíades.  But Sensenbrenner has other interests in the issue.  His family founded the Kimberly-Clark Company in the early 1900s, and the family trust continues to be an important shareholder in the papermaking giant.  Many of the workers who plant and fell the trees that ultimately become Kimberly-Clark’s paper are hired through the H2 program by forestry companies like Evergreen, which employed Morales and his 14 coworkers.  Kimberly-Clark’s Mexican subsidiary is closely associated with Grupo México, which fired González from the Cananea copper mine.

Far from being broken, our immigration system actually seems to work quite well for people like James Sensenbrenner.  Whatever the CEOs and politicians say in the media, it’s hard to see what interest they would have in fixing it, and in fact their proposals usually look more like a blueprint for increasing the pressure on immigrant workers while using guest worker programs to regulate and streamline the exploitation.

What is the solution for the rest of us?  Most discussions of reform focus on legislation, and Bacon addresses the issue, highlighting the pro-worker features of HR 2092, introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston in 2005 (reintroduced in 2009 as HR 264).   But Bacon’s emphasis is more on what immigrants and their allies are doing on the street and on the shop floor.

He tells about the activists the media’s immigration debate pointedly ignores: Pablo Alvarado, who uses leaflets and Mexican corridos to organize day workers on Los Angeles street corners; Ana Martínez, who applied union organizing skills she learned in her native El Salvador to a 1993 strike by United Electrical (UE) workers in Pomona, California; state legislators, unions, and activists from the African American and immigrant communities joining together to empower workers through the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA).  The great May 2006 demonstrations for immigrants’ rights may have been unprecedented, but they were a natural result of this sort of incremental organizing over the years.

For Bacon, as for many immigration activists, the real reform will come from these immigrant organizers and from citizens who recognize that their interests lie in solidarity with their immigrant neighbors and coworkers, not with the Sensenbrenners.  Instead of accepting the mainstream media’s superficial framing of the immigration debate, people who are serious about these issues should read Illegal People — and then go join some “illegal people” on a picket line or at a march for immigrant rights this May Day.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007).