We’re Tackling the Wrong Problems
Causes of Unauthorized Immigration
Before we can decide how to “deal with” undocumented immigrants, we must first understand the factors which led them to make the decision to enter this country. We should explore the political and economic situations which they have left behind, and the social factors which drive them to reunite with their families and communities. Most importantly, we must examine whether or not our own country has in any way contributed to this current pattern of immigration.
Poverty and Inequality
The primary reason for immigration is poverty. Despite all the economic progress that Latin America has made in the past few decades, conditions have worsened or remained unchanged for many of the region’s poorest. In the Mexican countryside alone over ten million people subsist on a dollar a day. In some communities, literally the easiest way to find a job could be to take out a loan and entrust both lives and money to a smuggler. Even working for little pay and under horrible conditions, there are often much better opportunities in the U.S. than at home. The World Bank estimates that by working at unskilled jobs immigrants in the U.S. can earn up to 15 times what they would in Latin America. Immigration is a way to provide for families back home, to pay for children’s education. Remittances, or remesas, are a large and necessary source of income for those family members who remain behind. In 2009, remittances made up 15.9 percent of El Salvador’s total GDP, and 19.3 percent of the GDP of Honduras.
Many immigrants come from groups which are disenfranchised within their own countries. Indigenous peoples from areas such as Oaxaca, Mexico, suffer from lack of education, health care, and employment. They suffer from extreme poverty, and due to their ethnicity and class are largely denied the chance of ever achieving anything more. Immigration to the United States at least gives them hope of survival, if not equality.
The elephant in the room when it comes to immigration policy is the reality that current immigration is a direct result of U.S. foreign and trade policy. Whenever we create an unfair trade agreement, support a war, or otherwise meddle in Latin American politics for U.S. economic gain, we affect the lives of millions of people. Some are left with no better alternative than to immigrate to the country which displaced them in the first place, and hope for a better life.
Generally, as Aviva Chomsky points out, immigration takes place between different regions with a shared history. Trade, invasion, colonization, and a host of other factors can lead to this sort of relationship. In 1848, when the US illegally stole half of Mexico’s national territory, around 80,000 Mexicans were granted US citizenship. In the years that followed, we continued a policy of intervention in the region. In the 1940s, when the US workforce shipped off to war, the bracero program exploited the labor of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who brought in our harvests. Through these actions, we created immigration networks which have continued up until today.
Throughout the twentieth century, the US repeatedly intervened in Latin American politics in the name of capitalism and “civilization.” We carried out coups and supported dictatorships all throughout the region, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Chile. During the civil war in El Salvador, more than 350,000 Salvadorans immigrated to the United States, fleeing U.S.-sponsored violence in their home country. Many were denied refugee status because those in power did not want to admit that the U.S.-backed government was so brutal. Many Central Americans from this era literally had to make a choice between unauthorized immigration and death.
U.S. Trade Policy
For years, U.S. citizens have been complaining about immigration and outsourcing, as two different forces which combine to steal their jobs. What many do not realize is that the two are related.
Take the case of Mexico, for instance. A free-trade agreement between Mexico, the United States, and Canada was sold as a win for all. Mexico would get foreign investment, modernize, and have a better economy. The U.S. would gain access to new markets and would also be able to profit off of Mexican labor within Mexico. However, nothing has turned out exactly as planned. NAFTA did develop Mexico, but only the northern half. At the same time, as part of the agreement, cheap, government-subsidized U.S. corn started flooding the Mexican market. Corn-growers in southern Mexico could no longer afford to keep working their land at those prices. So, many of them headed further north, to work in the new factories along the border. Many of them crossed into the United States. Ironically, when we in the U.S. complain about our work going overseas, what we do not realize is that others are also losing their work. When we complain about immigrants coming into this country and stealing our jobs, what we do not understand is that, through our trade policies, we have already stolen theirs.