22 March 2010
Why immigration is more than politics
I recently returned from an Alternative Spring Break trip that took me to the faraway land of Tucson, Arizona to learn about immigration from a social justice perspective. Our group worked with Humane Borders, a faith-based organization that places water tanks in the desert in southern Arizona to help prevent migrant deaths due to dehydration. We also visited Blessed Nuno Society, located in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, to get a better look at what life is like across the invisible line we call the U.S.-Mexico border.
For the sake of a general overview, and as if you have been living under a massive boulder for the last several years, the United States has experienced an enormous increase in the number of unauthorized* migrants crossing the border between the United States and Mexico. The vast majority of these people are NOT crossing with the intent of moving their families and their lives to the United States. Come to find out, we aren't as desirable a place to live as some of us might want to believe. Most people who travel to the United States without authorization do so in order to find temporary work. The hope is often that temporary work will suffice until families can find better ways to support themselves in their native countries. Unfortunately, with globalizing efforts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it has become increasingly more difficult for people south of the border to make a sustainable wage. In the past, Mexico was primarily a farming nation, but NAFTA has made it nearly impossible for farmers to earn a fair trade price for crops. It has become more cost effective for the United States to purchase produce grown in this country rather than import crops from elsewhere. In turn, the Mexican economy has very little substance to serve as a foundation, and things such as drug sales have become a source of profit for the very few people who have chosen that line of work. The vast majority of people who cross the border, contrary to popular belief, are not smuggling drugs or bringing dirty bombs into the United States. (as one piece of hate mail stated that was received by my Alternative Spring Break group). In reality, many of the people who have crossed the border are doing so out of sheer desperation to sustain their families.
Prior to this experience, I really felt unsure about my opinions about immigration. Some have argued that people who are not authorized to be in the United States may not be paying full taxes like those who are citizens. They do, however, pay sales taxes every time they make a purchase in the United States. Depending on their job status, they may very well be paying income taxes and into Social Security, too. Of course, they will likely never see any return on the Social Security payments (though, I may not either at this point...). I also recognize the argument that unauthorized immigrants are working jobs in the United States that could potentially be filled by citizens in the United States, but I think that argument missed the part where most U.S. citizens are unwilling to work low wage, physically laborious jobs. Additionally, I wonder if some of those employers (i.e., fruit orchards, vegetable fields, etc) may not pay minimum wage and perhaps pay workers under the table. Consider that simply a thought since I don't have research to back that up. Anyway, those are just a few of the arguments I had heard before this experience.
At this point, my main concern is that the human aspect has been completely eliminated from conversations about immigration. I'm worried about how little people care about their fellow humans who are in dire need. During our time with Humane Borders, we visited a few of the water tanks placed in the desert. I was [somewhat] surprised to see how many of them had been vandalized. People took down the flags that alert migrants to the existence of the water tanks and threw them out into the desert. Some people shot holes through the tanks so as to drain the water. Some tanks were filled with dirt. It was really shocking to see how upset people were about preventing deaths in the desert. I've been asked several times since I have returned if I think that the water tanks encourage migrants to cross the border, and the best answer I can give is the one given by Humane Borders, which is this: people don't cross the border and travel through the desert for water; they do so for jobs, to survive. Whether or not water is available is unimportant. That jobs may be available and that parents may be able to support their children for another month is what matters.
So, these are the aspects of this debate that make immigration a feminist issue. As a feminist who also identifies as a humanist, I am worried about the way ALL people are treated in this world. Looking at the topic of immigration from an entirely humanitarian effort helped me remember that what matters to me is that people can live and work and sustain themselves while making choices without limitations in a world that supports them. In the case of immigration, choices have been hindered because of policies like NAFTA that restrict commerce between countries, and in turn people cannot support their families with available market jobs. So, they have turned to a market where jobs are available to them, but they have not done so out of choice. In one documentary that we watched (I can't remember for sure, but I think it was The 800 Mile Wall), a mother stated that she had two choices: watch her children die slowly for the next year, or take a life-or-death journey into the United States in hopes of finding work. That doesn't sound like a real choice to me.
Having discussed all of this, it only seems appropriate that I toss out a few thoughts regarding solutions. First, I think we need to start looking at this issue from a perspective that recognized the humanity of those most central in this discussion: immigrants. By doing so, we will be able to begin crafting solutions that make sense for the United States, for Mexico, and for all the people stuck in between. I'm sorry to say that building a wall along the border does not, in fact, protect anybody from anybody in this case, but rather makes the border an ugly, unforgiving place that funnels people into the death trap that is the Sonoran desert. Second, we need to seriously consider work visas that are tied to the employee (versus the employer) so they may have some ounce of pull in case they are treated poorly by their employers. Third, the border needs to be demilitarized. Using Black Hawk helicopters (read: people-killing war machines) to stop people from traveling through the desert in search of jobs is just plain inhumane. Knock it off.
There are a million other things that could (and should) be done about this issue, and I have an immense amount of educating myself to go before I can even begin to fully understand the complexities of all those options. Additionally, I know I've missed some big points here about the great immigration debate. The above are a few good first steps that can potentially lead to other bigger, more important second and third steps. The topic of immigration won't be going away any time soon, so we might want to start having productive discussions about other options (clearly, a 20 foot wall isn't doing the trick). And, wouldn't it be nice to include the voices of those who are migrating into the conversation?
*I have heard so many different preferred terms for people who are migrating that I thought I should clarify my use of the term unauthorized. This is the term I have heard most recently as the most acceptable term. "Illegal immigrants" is considered less than great because, as they say, "no human is illegal" (but their actions may be). I then began using "undocumented immigrants", but was corrected on this because many people travel here with documentation (i.e., passports, visas, etc), but then stay longer than their visa/passport/document allowed. Thus, I have come to use the term "unauthorized" as a way of signifying that a person does not have the proper authorization to be in the United States.