By Mark T. Harris
I grew up hearing stories about how one of my ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. I also knew my father's family of English and Welsh immigrants were among the original Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley. Some of them later married Irish immigrants and raised families in Utah and California. Then there were the great-great-grandparents who emigrated from Sweden to Minnesota in the 1890s. Myself, I am a California native of no particular religious bent, who has lived in Illinois, Michigan, New York, Texas, and Oregon. When I was younger I married an Iranian living in the United States on a student visa. I have a brother whose girlfriend is from China, living in the United States on a work visa. Another brother married a woman whose long family lineage in California's central valley includes Native American ancestry.
Our family story is an American story, not unlike countless other American stories. It is a family history of hopes for a better life, of uprooted lives and new, unfamiliar landscapes, of years of hard work and confrontations with adversity and discrimination. It is the story of the Swedish great-grandfather who came to this country in the 1890s as a farmhand, working his way up to an accountant's position with a Minneapolis home heating company. In the bleak Depression era winter of 1931-32, he faced arrest when his employer discovered he had arranged for off-the-books coal deliveries to families who could no longer pay. Distraught, he killed himself. It is also the story of my father, a man with an entrepreneurial spirit whose life was marked by continual success in business. It is the story of other generations who have walked many paths in life. It is an immigrants story.
The immigrant experience in America was never just a glorious tale. But in the United States today the darker side of the immigration story is repeating itself. President Bush has apparently been advised that leadership on the immigration issue means being pro-active, which is another way of saying send in the troops. The White House Deciderator's latest stab at deciding something involves plans now to significantly increase the presence of National Guard troops along the southwestern border. Hearing this latest news I can't help but wonder if the Guard troops will be checking the papers of corporate executives from the United States who are shipping good-paying American jobs to northern Mexico where the plants they operate pay subsistence-level wages. Where I live In Bloomington, Illinois, the local newspaper reports this past week that the General Electric plant is laying off another 56 workers. Their jobs aren't being eliminated, just moved to Apodaca, Mexico and Vega Alta, Puerto Rico. So far I haven't noted any protest by local or state politicians otherwise known for their concerns over the influx of "illegals."
Indeed, immigrants have once again become the target of xenophobic voices who seek to blame the reported 12 million "illegals" for every evil under the American sun, taking jobs and draining social services. In the spirit of the Anti-Exclusion Act of 1882, which sought to keep Chinese "coolies" from American shores, the U.S. House of Representatives bill passed last December under the sponsorship of Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI.) would transform millions of undocumented families into criminal felon families. With visions of building The Great Wall of the Southwest, the bill's flair for the police state is further embellished by a provision that criminalizes anyone who provides assistance to undocumented workers.
Unfortunately, the Senate's "compromise" bill sponsored by Senators Kennedy (D-Mass) and McCain (R-Ariz.) constitutes a compromise only in the justice it also denies to immigrant workers. The Senate bill proposes stepped-up border enforcement measures, but no border wall with Mexico. But it would raise higher the wall of second-class status for immigrants consigned to labor's bargain basement in a greatly expanded "guest workers" program. Here's the thorn in this rose: The proposed ten-year guest worker system expected to win Senate approval later this month represents another way to permanently structure a large, two-tier workforce into the U.S. economy, as the AFL-CIO's Executive Council recently charged. The result can only lead to a further deterioration in the quality of the job market, as once decent-paying, permanent jobs continue to be transformed into temporary, benefit-starved jobs employing foreign "guests" who will be inherently more vulnerable to employer abuse. The thorns get even pricklier as the Senate bipartisan proposal comes at a time when many good American jobs are already being outsourced as low-pay, contract-work spread across the globe.
The folks in Congress likely assumed they could tighten the immigration knot without having to worry about what those directly affected by more restrictive legislation actually thought about all this. They were mistaken. In a display of grass-roots activism as unprecedented as it is understandable, immigrants have responded. Mass protest marches involving millions have in recent weeks made it clear that immigrants want what everyone else wants --equality.
The mass marches had the effect of a depth charge on the narrow liberal-conservative debate over immigration. The sea of humanity in the streets from coast to coast conveyed with a previously unseen force the true human dimension of the immigration issue. You could see it in the eyes of the marchers. You could hear it in their chants. You could read it on the banners and signs. This was a pageant of humanity gone to extraordinary lengths for their otherwise very ordinary aspirations for fair play and a better life.
Equality now translates first into amnesty for those illegal workers and their families who are working in the United States. Equality now also demands that any Congressional legislation that increases the hardships of immigrant workers and the undocumented be rejected. Instead of focusing on new enforcement provisions against employers who hire undocumented workers, our public energy would be far better spent targeting the exploitation of these workers. Is it right that "illegal" workers who contribute to the very legal profits of thousands of companies live without equal employment law protections?
Indeed, the questions we can ask about the plight of immigrants quickly become questions we can ask about all working Americans. Is it right that the minimum wage in 2006 fails to translate into even a close approximation of a living wage? Is it right that full-time work in this country does not guarantee a life out of poverty? American citizens express growing concern over the Bush Administration's encroachments on civil liberties under the guise of a "War on Terror." Rightly so. They should also be concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 declared that even legal immigrants convicted of a crime can be subject to indefinite detention.
Isn't it obvious that the fate of American workers are linked by ties of class, not to mention an elementary sense of social justice, to what happens to our immigrant brothers and sisters who work in this country's poorest, most exploited jobs. The current economy is a hardship economy for tens of millions, worried about broken pension plans, unaffordable health care, and too many damn jobs with too little pay. It's a circumstance expressing the skewed social priorities that result when corporate power holds such sway over our democracy. It's also an expression of decades of labor union quiescence.
It's encouraging at least that the AFL-CIO's current position on immigration rights rejects scapegoating foreign workers. In its recent Executive Council statement (March 1, 2006), the labor organization calls for reforms to provide a path to permanent residency for currently undocumented workers. Their reasoning is simple --and right: "The broken immigration system has allowed employers to create an underclass of workers, which has effectively reduced working standards for all workers."
In Mexico, of course, the situation is even more dire. The impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has flooded the country in recent years with cheap, subsidized U.S. corn, forcing some 2 million Mexican farmers into poverty and ruin. Wages in Mexican industry have also fallen precipitously. Many Mexican immigrants who come to the United States are victims of these unjust corporate trade policies. We should ask ourselves: Why should they be punished for trying to survive?
Yet this is exactly the blame-the-victim logic of a national political debate that fundamentally views immigrants --not corporate policies --as "the problem." Predictably, the upswing of activism in defense of immigrant rights is also sparking some public backlash. Typical of such sentiment is the recent letter writer to the Chicago Tribune, who finds herself "appalled at the nerve of illegal immigrants and their friends marching in our streets demanding and threatening that we reward them for breaking our laws." It's unknown whether the letter writer, writing from the upscale Chicago suburb of Lake Barrington, has also taken up with her local municipality the issue of the undocumented workers who undoubtedly maintain the landscapes of the more than one resident of this town of long driveways and expansive lawns.
The irrationality of such anti-immigrant sentiment is evident in the ways immigrants are attacked for both working and not working. They're portrayed to suit convenience as either lawless stealers of jobs or as outsiders living off our public services. It's a picture that demonizes instead of edifies the plight of millions of human beings whose aspirations and concerns are not that different from the average citizen. In fact, more than 90 percent of undocumented men work, according to a 2005 Urban Institute report. That's a rate higher than that for U.S. citizens or legal immigrants. Yet this group is ineligible for welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid. They do pay taxes, however. Undocumented immigrants also contribute to the costs of state and local education in real estate taxes included in rents. Additionally, three-quarters of undocumented workers pay social security taxes, the benefits of which will elude them.
Two years ago I was in an auto accident with a fellow who sideswiped my car on a snowy Illinois road. He turned out to be from Mexico and was working in the Chicago area with no drivers license or insurance. The police arrested him on the spot. How much better it would have been for both of us if he could have legally acquired a license and insurance. Why not? Is it better that so many people have to live in the shadows of our communities?
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