Immigration & Border Control

Addressing underlying economic causes rather than merely responding to symptoms

by Douglas Dunn

Copyright (c) 1999, 2007 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications -- all rights reserved

"What part of 'ILLEGAL' don't you understand?" is the commonly-heard rhetorical mantra, which seeks to reduce a complex mix of economic, historical and cultural issues into a simplistic bumper-sticker solution. The same people who protest so loudly about the "rule of law" and rail against those who are "illegal" are often the same ones who fudge on their income taxes, routinely exceed the speed limit, and look the other way as their off-leash doggies poop on neighbors' lawns; they are the same ones who revere Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi while forgetting that all of them were "illegal" when they challenged unjust laws, as Norma Villegas wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune 5-9-07.

Just calling people "illegal" does nothing to solve the very real problems that exist. It only serves to divide, and to alienate Angle/European-Americans from those they will have to work with if they ever hope to find real solutions -- which DO exist and CAN be implemented if the vast majority of those who are harmed by current patterns of uncontrolled migration and exploitation of a working underclass can unite against the elite few who benefit from the existing situation and want to perpetuate it.

Further to the issue of "legality" is the fact that it cuts both ways. Those of Mexican ancestry can just as quickly throw it back in our own faces. Many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, especially those whose ethnic ancestry is primarily from the original indigenous inhabitants of this continent, believe that American claims of sovereignty over California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas (and parts of Nevada and Texas) are illegitimate anyway since that entire land mass was illegally taken by a hostile and unjustified invasion in the Mexican War to steal Californian wealth after gold was discovered there (today the analogy would be invading a non-threatening nation to take its oil). At the same time, no matter how unjust the American occupation may be, the descendants of the invaders note that it is not practical to expect that, in today's reality, they could ever muster the political (or especially military) power to undo 150 years of history (which those fighting over land claims in the Middle East going back thousands of years wouldn't find convincing). They also find little credibility in those who complain about immigrants trying to jump to the front of lines that, in reality, they aren't even allowed to get into, while comparing the new ("illegal") arrivals with those of their own immigrant ancestors who complied with all the rules for admission through Ellis Island, while conveniently forgetting that for most of that history compliance was merely a matter of processing documents; there were no waiting lists or country-specific quotas restricting WHO was allowed to enter.

To solve the very real problems, we have to move beyond name calling, to real solutions.  It is not feasible to suggest that the Southwestern United States should be returned to the present government of Mexico. First, that would simply not be possible to achieve, and solutions have to be developed in the realm of the possible. Second, the injustice was perpetrated 160 years ago. No one involved in it is alive today, and many (such as myself) now living in that region were born here. We are now the native citizens of this land! Third, as discussed with greater in-depth analysis below, the best solutions should be coming from within the government of Mexico. But this government does not represent the interests of the powerless descendants of the aboriginal native inhabitants; the current Mexican government is extremely corrupt and represents the interest of a few elite families who are descended from the European Spanish invaders who conquered the land in the first place. Poor, desperate immigrant laborers come to the U.S. to escape the system that has imposed this economic oppression and which has denied real equality of opportunity for them to change things. Why would anyone who seeking to correct a historic injustice even think of returning land to the agents most responsible for perpetuating the injustice?

Immigration Problems are Real and Serious

When two very different cultures, with massively differing levels of general economic prosperity and opportunity, sit side-by-side in adjacent geographical regions, the natural tendency to bring the imbalance into some kind of economic equilibrium is going to generate social, cultural and economic stress. And as those with the least wealth and the least opportunity seek to expand their options, and those wanting to protect their privilege and elite status seek to defend against those they perceive as trying to get ahead at their expense, it is no surprise that friction results. While open borders, such as between the U.S. and Canada or among the nations of the European Union, might be a worthy goal for the future, it would not be feasible to simply remove borders as long as such profound disequilibrium remains. The wealthier nation offering greater opportunity would simply be overrun and overwhelmed. Chaos would ensue. Many fear this and perceive it to be coming. Real economic parity and stability must be firmly in place before anything remotely resembling open borders can even be considered. So the question becomes: how do we promote economic advancement in Mexico, and what can we do from this side of the border without being the "Ugly Americans" who infringe on Mexican sovereignty?

The problems are real and serious. And yes, solutions do exist, but special interests who benefit from the current system naturally resist real, lasting solutions, while giving lip service to addressing obvious needs in an attempt to placate the majority of the population that does NOT benefit. And contrary to popular mythology, those benefiting are NOT the impoverished, economically desperate immigrants sneaking across unwelcoming borders in a last-ditch effort to provide for their children and families.

The purpose of this article is to go beyond complaining about the problem and offer real solutions that protect the social, cultural and economic interests of hard-working, contributing members of society on both sides of the border, with mutual respect and the enhancement of real opportunity.

Complex Issue - American Perspective

It is no surprise that middle-class Americans seeking to defend their economic advantage are going to resist those trying to undermine their level of opportunity, but in singling out those who work the hardest while taking the smallest share of the economic pie, they are "defending" against the wrong targets. Poor, desperate immigrants are not trying to take anything away from middle-class Americans. If anything, by offering long hours of labor at low wages and having taxes withheld from their meager earnings which they are afraid to recover through tax refunds or by getting services that (contrary to popular mythology) they are unable to qualify for (other than the most extreme emergency care), they are creating far more wealth and general economic benefit that what they will ever receive.Yet there are those who are squeezing both the middle class Americans AND the poor, desperate immigrants, and they have managed to successfully create a smokescreen that diverts the attention of the middle class away from the real causes of squeezing the American middle class and the Mexican underclass.

In the U.S., corporate CEO's at the top of a very exclusive economic pyramid, who receive incomes in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars (and in a few cases the tens of billions) per year want to squeeze the middle class economic base by transferring high-wage middle-class jobs to low paid subsistence wages (if they could get away with reinstating slavery, i.e., hard work for NO wages, I'm confident they would consider that to be economically advantageous). Because American workers are so accustomed to their comfortable salaries, these CEO's seek low-wage workers elsewhere, and the best source is among the hard-working, economically desperate impoverished underclass trying to survive or seek refuge from the squalid conditions of third-world unregulated economies where a few wealthy live very well, a middle class is almost non-existent, and much of the population can be described as the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." These people, barely surviving in the most extremely foul conditions, are glad to work for wages that are a fraction of what the American middle class would ever tolerate. So corporate CEO's, not satisfied with their billions, want to further expand their own wealth and squeeze the middle class by exploiting the desperation of those in third word economies. And these CEO's can draw upon this cheap labor source in two ways: first, they can eagerly (and legally) outsource factory labor to those workers' own countries such as India, the Philippines, Thailand, China, and elsewhere at subsistence wage levels and without the expense of ensuring safe or humane working conditions; and second, for the kinds of service labor that can't be performed from remote distances, they can create a magnet to draw those desperate workers who are able to get into this country illegally, to work here. Because they are "illegal" they are afraid to enforce labor laws, file complaints about working conditions; as a result, all the burden of legal responsibility is brought to bear on those who are already most desperate. Meanwhile, the corporate masters who engineer and benefit from this system hold themselves up as pillars of the community, and it is the middle class who is being squeezed that is left to holler about "illegals" while directing their ire at those who are victimized by the system instead of those who benefit from it.

Complex Issue - Mexican Perspective

In Mexico, the legacy of white European colonialism is perpetuated in the extremes of economic disparity we still see today. Many Americans perceive Mexico as being a poor country. Not so! With its huge oil reserves and national oil company (Pemex) and other extensive national resources, Mexico is among the richest nations on earth today. But virtually all of that wealth is concentrated among thirteen families who consistently rank among the top twenty wealthiest IN THE WORLD! And who are these families? They are the white descendants of the European invaders and conquerors who came from Spain, a European nation, and forcibly expropriated the land, wealth and resources from the indigenous peoples that were occupying the lands they found here. Many of these Mexicans today who are descended from the original Spanish invader-conquerors, are blond and blue-eyed and when they visit the United States they do not "look Mexican" and they do not make Americans who are often used to judging first impressions based on superficial (racial/ethnic) physical traits uncomfortable. And who are the descendants of the indigenous people the Spanish invaders found here? They are the brown-skinned natives. They are the ones who "look Mexican." They are the ones who had their land, wealth and resources stolen by conquering invaders and have never been allowed an equitable share of what should be their own inheritance, in their own lands. Like the slaves taken by force and brought to the United States, the conquered indigenous peoples of Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America can never be said to have bought into the European "social contract" that was imposed on them by force.

But many will say that it was the education, culture, and civilization that the conquering Spanish invaders brought that generated the origin of Mexican wealth. Again, not so! In the 16th century, when Hernando Cortes invaded Mexico, what he encountered were two of the greatest, most advanced civilizations on earth: the Aztecs around what is now Mexico City and the Mayans, in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala. These were civilizations far more advanced in math and science than any nation in Europe. In fact, Europe of that time was quite primitive, squalid, disease-ridden, in the throes of hundreds of years of what was called the "Dark Ages" and would only begin to emerge into a Renaissance of enlightenment after encountering its exposure to the more enlightened civilizations in the Americas and Asia and Africa. Some have said to me, "If they were so advanced, how come the European invaders were able to conquer them so easily." I answer: "Imagine three Americans walking down a modern American city street: a doctor, a lawyer and a physics professor. They encounter a lone gang-banger, who robs them, beats them and kills them. With his weapons and aggressive disposition, he can defeat them easily. Yet who is the more civilized or educated?" In fact, Hernan Cortez and his ragtag band of bloodthirsty hooligans was merely a primitive, barbarian of illiterate bullies. No credible historian could possibly dispute this.

Today it is the brown-skinned, black-haired, dark-eyed descendants of the conquered original inhabitants who are systematically excluded from any semblance of equality of opportunity for education or economic advantage, and the white descendants of European invaders, who live luxuriously on wealth created by others and handed down to them through inheritance, perpetuate their legacy of conquest by refusing to allow economic participation by the rightful heirs to their wealth and those who still provide the labor on which new wealth is added to the economic pie.

Notwithstanding that many of the descendants of the original indigenous occupants of this continent believe that California was wrongly taken from Mexico by violent, uprovoked force (after the same lands were similarly taken from their ancestors by Spain through violent, uprovoked force), the same people generally understand that they are not likely to reverse the last 150 years of history, however unjust, and realize that in the current socio-economic environment they are greeted by most Americans with hostility and discrimination, and they do not want to come here. They come not out of desire or choice but out of economic desperation.

Guess what? In the United States, the corporate CEO's at the top of the economic pyramid, who receive tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, like this system. In Mexico, the small network of families descended from invading European conquerors, sitting atop a huge stockpile of incredible wealth, like this system.

There are real, do-able solutions to the problem of "illegal immigration" but they won't fit on a bumper sticker, and those who are the real beneficiaries of the current system don't want to see the real reforms that would not only solve the problem, but create greater wealth for both the American middle class as well as the Mexican underclass.

Real solutions, not immigrant bashing

We can't just open up the borders and invite widespread chaos as equilibrium seeks to replace imbalance, or suddenly undo more than 150 years of our history, however unjust. There are real problems, and we need to find real solutions, without name-calling or immigrant bashing. We can't just hide our heads in the sand and ignore the fact that, like it or not, legal or not, immigrants are here. We can't just pass more laws against them; their entrance and presence in the United States are already illegal. We can't focus virtually all of our attention on the border with Mexico and those who cross it, while ignoring the millions of "illegal" immigrants who are white and come from Europe by overstaying student or tourist visas, and then feel offended by charges of racism. We can't simply find, round up and deport twelve million people, many who have complex relationships with other close relatives who are citizens. While we can and already do exclude them from most public services based on their status (contrary to popular myth) we can't simply exclude them from emergency care. If we turn children away from our schools, they will come back to haunt us in high gang membership, higher crime statistics, and a drain on economic productivity (not to mention that many of the children of illegal parents are, themselves, not only legal residents but often citizens who have been born in this country).

Addressing Causes, Not Symptoms

We must develop real solutions that are humane and compassionate, and which address the causes of the problems, not merely react to the symptoms. The problems that exist today are the result of economic differences between Mexico and the United States. Not only are workers in Mexico struggling to survive on wages that are 1/10 to 1/25 of those paid in the United States, but those wages have been reduced (in real terms) by 50% over the past 10 years. Can we look down on any sensitive person, driven by worsening poverty across the border to a land of strange customs and language, away from family and loved ones? Who among us would not try to find a better life for our loved ones?

Respecting Mexican Sovereignty

But these are Mexican problems. The United States can't just barge into a sovereign state and force them to address issues of unfair labor practices, rampant corruption and social injustice, no matter how much such actions would address the real origins of the problems, or how helpful such solutions would be in reversing these seemingly intractable problems. Some might suggest that we help them by more investment in the Mexican economy, but that would only cause further loss of jobs here and would still be a form of outside domination from a strong country over its weaker neighbor. And commercial investment would only enrich wealthy business owners, not their underpaid workers. While the best solutions would include the implementation of land reform and economic reform with protections for workers, consumers and the environment that would provide a broad-based economic stimulus, those kinds of reforms must come from within Mexico. American efforts must be focused on what we can do on this side of the border, from an entirely domestic perspective, but which would influence those who are attracted to our successful economic prosperity (based on free enterprise with regulations to protect workers, consumers and the environment) and who wish to invest in our nation's wealth.

Some suggest that since it is the corporate employers who benefit from cheap labor and lowered productions costs that they should bear most of the responsibility for correcting the problems, and suggest vigorous employer sanctions. This may be part of the solution, but there is still the problem of requiring business owners to assume the additional burdens of immigration enforcement, and the fact that this is still a "solution" that is essentially reactive, and does not address proactively the causes of the economic desperation the dangle such a powerful magnet of attraction to desperate, low-wage earners.

Initial Baby Steps...

Initially, solutions might include an intense program of Peace-Corps style local education and training in Mexico. Mexicans are the descendants of the Aztecs and Mayans, premeir scientists of their time, and their descendents have it in their genes -- in their blood -- to be inventive, innovative and the best educated people on earth if given the opportunity. Education should go beyond scientific and technological fields such as computer science, telecommunications and biotechnology, to include sanitation, food production, and sociological sciences to lift people out of the poverty that comes from rampant disease and overcrowdedness from lack of family planning. Education is one of the driving engines that lifts people out of poverty, and such efforts could present an important first step in the right direction. But providing equality of opportunity also requires that we address systemic failures to protect working people (on both sides of the border), without infringing Mexican sovereignty, and so we must implement solutions to encourage a broad overhaul of international labor policies...

Specific Wage Tariff Proposal

While there is much about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that I object to, it is currently the law of the land. The following proposal is an example of the kind of strategy that could be implemented, within the guidelines of the NAFTA treaty: The United States could eliminate the current 4% import tariff, and replace it with our own domestic policy requirement that all goods sold in this country (from any other nation, not just Mexico) be produced by labor paid at a minimum standard of wages and working conditions based on a percentage of the American standard, computed at the current exchange rate. We could establish a target goal of, say, 60% of American wages, which could be phased in gradually, over a period of several years, for existing import operations, but would apply immediately to new ventures.

Any company importing goods should be required to accept two conditions: 1) That all such goods are produced at the wages and working conditions required by law; and 2) That, in consideration of importing goods to the United States, they accept American judicial review of complaints by workers, so that workers could sue in our courts to recover unpaid wages under this policy (with a treble damages penalty to put some real "teeth" into the proposal and eliminate corruption and favoritism in foreign courts).

This proposal would raise wages for all workers and drive up the competitive value of labor in Mexico, as well as other countries that sell goods here. At the same time, American companies would lose the incentive of cheap labor from foreign production of domestic sales, thus limiting foreign labor investment (outsourcing) to production of foreign goods for sale in foreign markets, without the need for more formalized legislative regulation to restrict such outsourcing through tax penalties and incentives, though there may still be a place for considering such remedies as another part of the solution. As labor standards improve, workers in Mexico (as well as other third-world countries where there is now an economic draw to the United States) would have less incentive to seek economic refuge in the United States. They would be able to buy the goods and service they produce, thus creating their own domestic market, and the start of an improving economic cycle, which they so badly need, while simultaneously addressing the problems of our immigration dilemma.

We already have tariffs to ensure prices, and enforceable tariff rules to ensure compliance with United States standards of product safety and environmental standards. This is because tariffs to protect price protect corporate owners and investors who ensure protection of their interests. Why are the interests of the wealthiest more sacred and worthy of protection than those who work the hardest and receive the least benefit? Why should protections for the workers who actually produce tangible wealth, both here and abroad, be exempt from protection? It is time now to include a wage tariff which would protect labor here and abroad, broaden the economic base from the bottom up and improve conditions in other countries without infringing their sovereignty in any way since the proposal only regulates their lucrative commercial operations in the United States which they would adopt on a purely voluntary basis in consideration of such desirable trade opportunities.

Copyright (c) 1999, 2007 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications

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If you are interested in issues of immigration, border control, and the economic ramifications of our immigration policy, you might also wish to see the web site by this author, Douglas Dunn, regarding MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), and the allegations of racism in the web page "Is MEChA Racist?":

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