On the night of October 10, Mexican police and soldiers occupied installations of Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LFC), the publicly owned electric company that provided power to Mexico City and the surrounding states. A few minutes later, center-right Mexican president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa decreed the company’s liquidation, merging it with the national power company, the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE). The liquidation meant layoffs for most of the LFC’s 44,000 active employees and possibly the destruction of their union, the 95-year-old Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (SME).
President Calderón’s move provoked fierce controversies and massive demonstrations in Mexico, but there was little reaction in the U.S. media, except in business publications.
The LFC liquidation will end “[b]loated payrolls, inherited jobs and massive pension benefits,” Investor’s Business Daily reported. “The union is howling, but the shutdown is one of the best things to happen to Mexico.” “To appreciate the magnitude of Mr. Calderón’s decision, think of Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers — only bigger,” wrote Mary Anastasia O’Grady, the Wall Street Journal‘s Latin America specialist. She cited an unnamed “internationally renowned Mexican economist” who called the liquidation “the most important act of government in 20 years.”1
This coverage seems to avoid one obvious question: What’s going to happen to the tens of thousands of laid-off electrical workers who have suddenly found themselves looking for work in a country experiencing its worst economic decline since the Great Depression?2
English Lessons for the Jobless
The Mexican government may have an answer. Eager to keep the out-of-work union members from supporting the SME’s legal and political challenges to the LFC liquidation, the Calderón administration has offered a comparatively generous severance package. To sweeten the deal, the government is providing scholarships for three-month retraining courses in fields such as computer work, automobile repair and refrigeration. There are also classes in English.3
For all the heated debate about immigration in this country over the past few years, there has been remarkably little discussion of the connection between economic disruptions in Latin America and the increased number of undocumented immigrants here. This is especially striking when the disruptions result from policies promoted by the U.S. government and media and carried out by U.S. allies like Calderón. “Free trade,” “open markets” and the elimination of stable, secure jobs with pensions and other benefits have driven millions of farmers off their land and pushed millions of workers into the unemployment lines. It should be clear that at least some of these jobless farmers and workers are going to end up looking for employment in the United States — even without an assist from government-sponsored English lessons.
Logically, the people here who complain about “illegal immigration” should be opposing these policies, and yet rightwing columnist Patrick Buchanan and former TV commentator Lou Dobbs apparently had nothing to say about the Mexican layoffs. A quick survey of the immigration restrictionist media on Nov. 18 found only cursory references to the situation.
The Silence of the Pundits
How can we explain the fact that people who claim to oppose immigration to the United States regularly overlook such root causes of immigration as economic displacement in the countries to our south?
The simplest explanation is the one given by labor journalist David Bacon in his 2008 book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.4 He argues that what’s at work here is a highly profitable system that forces foreign workers to seek employment in the United States while at the same time tightening restrictions on these workers when they arrive. The result is that the immigrants have to work for less pay under brutal conditions, creating a “race to the bottom” with native-born workers.
Once we understand this as a system, we can see one reason why Mary Anastasia O’Grady and Investor’s Business Daily are enthusiastic about President Calderón’s attack on the electrical workers. Although they don’t mention the connection, O’Grady and Investor’s Business Daily are proponents of a vast increase in temporary work visas for immigrants — that is, guest worker programs that funnel desperate immigrant workers into low-wage jobs with virtually no labor rights.5 Layoffs in Mexico are an excellent way to provide the desperate workers.
People like Dobbs and Buchanan are simply the other face of this same system. They say they want to stop immigration, but what they really do is whip up the xenophobia and racism that are necessary to keep immigrant workers weak, vulnerable, and willing to accept guest worker programs and other forms of exploitation. Whether consciously or not, the anti-immigration pundits do their part to help create the low-wage workforce sought by Investor’s Business Daily and the Wall Street Journal.6
The Case of Honduras
The connection between immigration and economic displacement isn’t the only link missing from the U.S. corporate media’s coverage. Another is the connection with political displacement.
So far the military coup that removed Honduran president José Manuel Zelaya Rosales from office on June 28 hasn’t produced any noticeable increase in immigration from the Central American country — probably because Honduran workers and campesinos are actively organizing against the coup regime and so far have held it in check. But the situation could change quickly if repression against these grassroots movements increases. More than a half million people fled to the United States from the region during the 1980s, when the U.S. government was funding rightwing forces during civil conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. And people may remember the effects of a very similar coup in Haiti in 1991: the repression that followed the overthrow of President Jean Bertrand Aristide drove tens of thousands of Haitians to undertake the dangerous sea journey to Florida in overloaded boats.
One politician who should be very concerned about avoiding this result is the junior senator from South Carolina, Republican James DeMint. From the time he entered Congress as a representative in 1999, he has built his career largely around opposing immigration, supporting causes like “English only” and the fence along the border with Mexico. In 2003 the immigration restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) gave him a rating of 100 percent. “It is obvious there is no more defining issue in our nation today than stopping illegal immigration,” DeMint announced in 2006.7 And yet he has worked overtime since June to back the coup regime in Honduras; by some accounts DeMint was the key player in getting the administration of President Barack Obama to change its position in October and more or less openly support the de facto government.8
If the coup regime manages to hold on to power and refugees start fleeing their country for exile in the United States, we can be sure Senator DeMint and FAIR will be among the first to ask what part of “illegal” these Hondurans don’t understand.
2 Israel Rodríguez J., “Sigue la caída de la economía; la deuda interna, en nivel record,” La Jornada (Mexico), November 1, 2009.
4 David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon, 2008); see my review, “The Immigration System: Maybe Not So Broken,” MRZine, April 27, 2009.
5 Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “Treating Immigrants Humanely: Sealing the Borders Isn’t an Option, Harnessing Supply and Demand Is,” Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2003; Daniel Griswold, “Bipartisan Visa Program Could Fix Nation’s Illegal Immigration Mess,” Investor’s Business Daily, August 14, 2009.
6 For Dobbs’ off-air economic views, see Sophia A. McClennen, “You Need to Watch Lou Dobbs: Or the Dobbsian Economy of Racism,” MRZine, October 20, 2009.
7 On the Issues website, accessed November 13, 2009: <www.ontheissues.org/senate/jim_demint.htm#Immigration>.
8 James Rosen, “S.C. Senator Jim DeMint Forces U.S. Change on Honduras Stance on Elections,” Miami Herald, November 15, 2009. O’Grady too is a major promoter of the coup; see, for example, “The Cardinal and the Constitution,” Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2009.
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, 2007), and co-editor of Weekly News Update on the Americas.