The battle for the rights of the undocumented was set off by the December passage of HR 4437, which reduces the complex issue of immigration and global poverty to a few simplistic "us vs. them" measures, including the construction of a preposterous, 700-mile Wall of Paranoia on the Mexican border, and the turning of millions of people into felons either for being undocumented or for hiring or in some way aiding those who are. The movement against this is what I would call nation-building, just as the civil rights movement was.
Over the objections of those who wear their patriotism like a straitjacket, and whose first impulse is to find an enemy they can dehumanize ("Illegal Alien Armies March on U.S. Cities"), the pro-immigration rallies seek to expand the national promise of fairness and justice to a long-suffering "shadow" population who serve our economy with their toil, who are routinely exploited and whose presence in the U.S. has a lot to do with our own cynical dominance of the global economy.
But before this is about economics or politics or even civil rights, it's about borders. My long-time friend John Auer, a Methodist minister, put it this way recently when he spoke at an immigration rally in Reno, Nev.:
"Each one of us has to decide for ourselves what this matter and movement are to us. It may be the call of our lifetimes. My own point of reference is that first picture we all remember of Earth from outer space. No boundaries, no borders, no barriers - but just this fragile and beautiful 'pale blue dot' dangling there for all to embrace and cherish.
"My own questions this day," he went on, "include: How big is my world, my Earth? How big is my human family? How complex and diverse? How expansive and inclusive? And above all, what kind of world do I hope for my children? My grandchildren? The next seven generations? For me this is not about laws and flags, markets and borders, so much as it is about what kind of world? What kind of family? Religiously speaking, how big is my God?"
That is to say, how big and borderless are our hearts? Is every last soul on Earth in some fundamental way deserving of justice and freedom from want and a fair shake as he or she tries to make a life? If we can overrule our suspicions and fears long enough to recognize the artificiality of "us" and "them," we can begin to enter the spiritual realm of openness, and from there see how futile it is to criminalize a segment of humanity.
But don't kid yourself that the issue of immigration is simply about idealism. "People come out for profound reasons," the late Shun Chetty, who worked for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said at a meeting I attended some years ago. That is, only utter desperation drives people to wrench themselves out of their own cultures and seek new lives elsewhere. Far from "lining up at our borders," waiting for the least relaxation in U.S. immigration laws, emigrants are responding to their own terrible necessities at home.
And the U.S. is hardly an innocent bystander in the conditions that spur exodus, especially in this hemisphere. Consider NAFTA, for instance:
In late 2004, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a number of impact-assessment reports "concluded that NAFTA has produced benefits for transnational corporations while for everyone else - workers in all three countries, family farmers and small businesses, the social and ecological environment on the U.S.-Mexico border - NAFTA has been a disaster," Garrett Brown of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network wrote in his essay "NAFTA's 10 Years: Portrait of a Failure."
"Both absolute and relative levels of poverty have grown in Mexico since NAFTA went into effect," he continued. "Of the 100 million-plus Mexicans, 54 million now live in poverty (less than $2 a day), while 21 million live in extreme poverty (less than $1 a day). There are 19 million more Mexicans living in poverty today than 20 years ago."
The rational consensus is that the only way the United States can stem the flow of immigration from Mexico is to reassess its trade policy and begin to address the dire poverty that drives so many Mexicans to leave family members behind and risk their lives to cross the border on the hope of finding sub-minimum-wage work in the United States.
I remember back in the 1980s, when my Chicago neighborhood became a port of entry - one of many around the country - for Central American refugees fleeing repressive regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. They were, of course, unwelcome to the same contingent of "fed up Americans" (as U.S. Rep. Steven King, R-Iowa, a HR 4437 sponsor, described his constituency in the Des Moines Register) now convulsing over today's flood tide of immigration. The irony, of course, is that the Reagan administration then was lavishly arming the nightmare regimes the refugees were trying desperately to escape.
Today people are fleeing a NAFTA economy. Militarizing their plight is a cruel stupidity that will add to their misery but do nothing to stop their flow.
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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at email@example.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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