Adam Ash

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Friday, March 31, 2006

US Diary: freaking out of over immigration -- Mexican immigration

1. Immigration 101 for Beginners and Non-Texans -- by Molly Ivins

In 1983, I was a judge at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, and my memory of the events may not be perfect—for example, for years I’ve been claiming Jimmy Carter was president at the time, but that’s the kind of detail one often loses track of in Terlingua.

Anyway, it was ’83 or some year right around there when we held The Fence climbing contest. See, people talked about building The Fence back then, too. The Fence along the Mexican border. To keep Them out.

At the time, the proposal was quite specific—a 17-foot cyclone fence with bob wire at the top. So a test fence was built at Terlingua, and the First-Ever Terlingua Memorial Over, Under or Through Mexican Fence Climbing Contest took place. Prize: a case of Lone Star beer. Winning time: 30 seconds.

I tell this story to make the one single point about the border and immigration we know to be true: The Fence will not work. No fence will work. The Great darn Wall of China will not work. Do not build a fence. It will not work. They will come anyway. Over, under or through.

Some of you think a fence will work because Israel has one. Israel is a very small country. Anyone who says a fence can fix this problem is a demagogue and an ass.

Numero Two-o, should you actually want to stop Mexicans and OTMs (other than Mexicans) from coming to the United States, here is how to do it: Find an illegal worker at a large corporation. This is not difficult—brooms and mops are big tipoffs. Then put the CEO of that corporation in prison for two or more years for violating the law against hiring illegal workers.

Got it? You can also imprison the corporate official who actually hired the illegal and, just to make sure, put some Betty Sue Billups—housewife, preferably one with blond hair in a flip—in the joint for a two-year stretch for hiring a Mexican gardener. Thus Americans are reminded that the law says it is illegal to hire illegal workers and that anyone who hires one is responsible for verifying whether or not his or her papers are in order. If you get fooled and one slips by you, too bad, you go to jail anyway. When there are no jobs for illegal workers, they do not come. Got it?

Of course, this has been proposed before, because there is nothing new in the immigration debate. As the current issue of Texas Monthly reminds us, the old bracero program dating from World War II was actually amended in 1952 to pass the “Texas proviso,” shielding employers of illegal workers from criminal penalties. They got the exemption because Texas growers flat refused to pay the required bracero wage of 30 cents an hour. Instead of punishing Texas growers for breaking the law, Congress rewarded them.

In 1986, the Reagan administration took a shot at immigration reform and reinstated penalties on employers. They weren’t enforced worth a darn, of course. In 2004, only three American companies were threatened with fines for hiring illegal workers. Doesn’t work if you don’t enforce it.

This brings us to the great Republican divide on the issue. Conservatives, in general, are anti-immigrant for the same reasons they have always been anti-immigrant—a proud tradition in our nation of immigrants going back to the days of the Founders, when Ben Franklin thought we were going to be overrun by Germans. But Business likes illegal workers. The Chamber of Commerce lobbies for them. It’s lobbying now for a new bracero program. What a bonanza for Bidness.

Old-fashioned anti-immigrant prejudice always brings out some old-fashioned racists. This time around, they have started claiming that Mexicans can’t assimilate. A sillier idea I’ve never heard. Why don’t they come to Texas and meet up with Lars Gonzales, Erin Rodriguez and Bubba at the bowling alley. They can drink some Lone Star, listen to some conjunto and chill.

Racists seem obsessed by the idea that illegal workers—the hardest-working, poorest people in America—are somehow getting away with something, sneaking goodies that should be for Americans. You can always avoid this problem by having no social services. This is the refreshing Texas model, and it works a treat.

Aren’t y’all grateful that we’re down here doing exactly nothing for the people of our state, legal or illegal? Think what a terrible message it would send if you swapped Texas with Vermont, and they all got healthcare. In Texas, we never worry about illegals taking advantage of social benefits provided by our taxpayers. Incredibly clever, no?

One nice thing about the benefit of long experience with la frontera is that we in Texas don’t have to run around getting all hysterical about immigrants. The border is porous. When you want cheap labor, you open it up; when you don’t, you shut it down. It works to our benefit—it always has.

(Molly Ivins is the former editor of the liberal monthly The Texas Observer. She is the bestselling author of several books including Who Let the Dogs In?)

2. The New Civil Rights Movement by Marjorie Cohn

In a wave of mass protest not seen since the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for the undocumented. An unprecedented alliance between labor unions, immigrant support groups, churches, and Spanish-language radio and television has fueled the burgeoning civil rights movement.

The demonstrations were triggered by the confluence of a draconian House bill that would make felons out of undocumented immigrants and HBO's broadcast of Edward James Olmos's film, "Walkout." But the depth of discontent reflects a history of discrimination against those who are branded "illegal aliens."

Since September 11, 2001, immigrants have become the whipping boys for the "war on terror." Calls for enhanced militarization of the southern US border - including a 700-mile-long Sisyphean fence - reached a crescendo in the bill passed by the House of Representatives.

Under its terms, three million US-citizen children could be separated from their parents, who would be declared felons and be subject to immediate detention and deportation. Those who employ them, and churches and nonprofits that support them, could face fines or even prison.

Cardinal Roger Mahony called it a "blameful, vicious" bill, and vowed to continue serving the undocumented even if it were outlawed.

Immigrants comprise one-third of California's labor force. But claims that immigrants take jobs away from Americans are overblown. Last summer, California suffered from labor shortages in spite of the high percentage of undocumented workers who labor in the fields.

As a likely result of pressure from business dependent on cheap labor and the escalating protests around the country, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill that strikes a more reasonable balance. It would legalize the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, and provide them with the opportunity to become citizens. They would have to remain employed, pass criminal background checks, learn English and civics, and pay fines and back taxes. A temporary worker program would allow about 400,000 foreign nationals to enter the United States each year; they too could be granted citizenship.

The current debate in the full Senate has focused on accusations and denials of "amnesty" and threats to national security. But the "immigration problem" is more complex than the sound bytes that proliferate. Seventy-eight percent of the 11 million undocumented immigrants are from Mexico or other Latin American countries.

According to Michael Lettieri, a Research Fellow with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "The free trade accords that the Bush administration so tirelessly promotes do little to remedy such maladies, as both NAFTA and CAFTA-DR leave regional agricultural sectors profoundly vulnerable, as well as disadvantaged, in the face of robustly subsidized US agribusiness that enables Iowa to undersell Mexico when it comes to corn."

The US was instrumental in the passage of NAFTA, which protects the rights of employers and investors but not workers. As a result of NAFTA, wages in Mexico, Canada and the United States have fallen. US food exports have driven millions of poor Mexican peasants from their communities. They come north to find work.

Seventeen-year-old Carlos Moreno was among the thousands of students in Los Angeles who walked out of their high schools to protest the attack on immigrants. "I was born here," he said, "but I'm doing it for my parents, and for my family, and for all the Latinos, because I know what the struggle is."

Sergio, an undocumented tenth grader from San Diego High School, attended a rally in San Diego's historic Chicano Park. "My parents are proud of me," he said. "They told me that I should help every time I can."

A few years ago, San Diego filmmakers Issac and Judith Artenstein released "A Day Without a Mexican." In the film, all of the Mexicans in California disappeared one day. Gone were the cooks, gardeners, nannies, policemen, doctors, farm and construction workers, entertainers, athletes, as well as the largest growing market of consumers. The world's fifth largest economy was paralyzed.

Today we celebrate the birthday of César Chávez, one of the most influential labor leaders this country has ever known. In the 1970s, when undocumented workers crossed the border and went to work in California's fields for lower wages than employers had to pay union members, the United Farm Workers began to call the migra to have them deported. Eventually, César realized that a much better solution was to organize those immigrants into the union.

The answer is not to shut out those who work for less than minimum wage, without workers' compensation, occupational safety protections, and overtime pay. "It is a common-sense solution to bring an underground economy above ground," Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "with strong labor protections to improve working conditions for all."

(Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, President-elect of the National Lawyers Guild, and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists.)


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