Friday, November 23, 2007

FINDING THE EMPTY SPACES IN IMMIGRATION RHETORIC

(Map image from Wikipedia)

"We are crossing the border / Come go, come go, come go" -- Chorus from "Crossing the Border" by Si Kahn, labor activist, folksinger, and son of a Hillel rabbi

On Thanksgiving the New York Times published an editorial, The Immigration Wilderness, which attempted to find middle ground on a complicated problem, what it called a "yes and no" issue. It had some good points, but missed the train in several key ways.

I am seriously hankering to see intelligent discussion about immigration, and it must begin with sorting wheat from chaff. Here are the questions to begin with:

Are you concerned about all immigration or primarily that focused along the US-Mexico border?
Which immigration "question" are you primarily campaigning about?
----Terrorist risk
----Economics based on lost jobs for American workers
----Economics based on diverted social services for Americans
----The criminality arising from declaring an entire segment of the population "illegal"
Does your list of solutions including "building a wall"?


We'll start with the last question. According to Wikipedia, the US-Mexico border's "total length is 1,969 miles (3,141 km). It is the most frequently crossed international border in the world, with about 250 million legal crossings every year." It is also estimated that anywhere from 500,000 to a million people cross the US-Mexico border illegally each year, of which approximately 80% are from Mexico and the remaining 20% are primarily from Central America.

"The region along the boundary is characterised by deserts, rugged mountains, abundant sunshine and by two major rivers — the Colorado and the Rio Grande (Río Bravo del Norte) — which provide life-giving waters to the largely arid but fertile lands along the rivers in both countries." "Border Patrol activity is concentrated around big border cities such as San Diego and El Paso which do have extensive border fencing. This means that the flow of illegal immigrants is diverted into rural mountainous and desert areas, leading to a significant number of deaths."

We're talking about the Sonora and Chihuahua Deserts here, folks.

Given this geographic reality, anyone who posits "building a wall" should be treated with the same attitude one displays toward an individual who makes themselves a beanie from Reynolds Wrap to shut out the transmissions from Amalthea -- compassion for their ignorance, but don't hand them a microphone.

Or inches in a national newspaper.

We are not dealing with Troy, Berlin or the Alamo. Check the map: Even Halliburton in its most bloated, Cheney-spittled fantasies could not build such a wall.

The historical fact is, that "porous" southern border is the reason why we have the states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and the southern half of California today. Landgrabbers' guilt, perhaps? With some projection going on?

Just for your entertainment, here's the Department of Homeland Security's current specifications for the proposed wall to be "built in 21 segments and span 69.89 miles through the border towns of Rio Grande City, McAllen, Mercedes, Harlingen, Brownsville, and Fort Brown. ...Design criteria require that, at a minimum, the fence must be 16 feet high and 3 to 6 feet below ground, capable of withstanding a crash of a 10,000-pound (gross weight) vehicle traveling at 40 miles per hour, capable of withstanding vandalism, cutting or penetrating; semi-transparent, as dictated by operational need, designed to survive extreme climate changes, able to reduce any minimal impacts on small animal movement, not impede the natural flow of water; and be aesthetically pleasing."

This is part of why "Mayors along the Texas-Mexico border have begun a quiet protest of the federal government's plans to build a fence along the border: They are refusing to give access to their land." This resistance is also widespread among private landowners, and, according to an AP article a few weeks ago, "About the same time, the government offered to pay some property owners $3,000 in exchange for permission to conduct surveys for the project." Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada commented "I think it's blood money, bribery." He also stated if Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff "is determined to build a wall. I wish Mr. Chertoff would build a wall around his house. We don't want this wall."

Screening the "wall-builders" from public discourse (Buh-bye, Rudy) will jumpstart sifting through answers to the first question, "Are you concerned about all immigration or primarily that focused along the US-Mexico border?" If they are fixated on Mexico, the Cliff Note point is "I'm playing to my racist base".

The fact is, Canada and the US share the longest common border in the world. The terrestrial boundary (including small portions of maritime boundaries on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic coasts as well as the Great Lakes) is 8,891 kilometres (5,522 mi) long, including 2,477 kilometres (1,539 mi) shared with Alaska. This is three times as long as the US-Mexico border, but it has less than 1000 border security agents of any kind compared to 12,000 at the southern US border.

Additionally, Les Blumenthal for the Tacoma, Washington News Star Tribune reports "Given Canada’s open immigration policies, terrorist organizations have established cells there seeking 'safe havens, operational bases and attempting to gain access to the USA,' according to a 1998 report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The report said more than 50terrorists groups might be present, including Hezbollah, Hamas and radical Islamic groups from Iran and Algeria.

"A 2006 report from the Nixon Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, quoted a senior FBI official as saying Canada is the most worrisome terrorist point of entry and that al-Qaida training manuals advise terrorists to enter the United States from Canada.

"The report concluded that 'despite widespread alarms raised over terrorist infiltration from Mexico, we found no terrorist presence in Mexico and a number of Canadian-based terrorists who have entered the United States.'

"Among them were Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber who was stopped in 1999 by an alert agent at a border crossing in Port Angeles before he could carry out a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. Also named is Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, a Palestinian terrorist who was mistakenly released after being stopped near Bellingham. He then moved to Brooklyn, where he later was convicted of plotting to bomb a New York City subway station."

If I was a terrorist with intact reasoning skills looking to enter the US illegally, possibly with hazardous materials in tow, let's see, which border would I try to cross? Tough one. I'll give you a minute, while we tick the "terrorism" threat off our immigration list, because as we all know, "immigration" as a code word for "scary brown people" can't be applied to Canada. (Even though some people do speak French up there.)

Buh-bye to you, Tancredo, with a final "kaboom" at the end of that farewell.

Regarding the economic questions: According to migration experts at the University of California, Davis, about 45% of all agricultural laborers in the United States are undocumented immigrants. They also fill our low-paying factories and construction jobs whose hours and living conditions are frequently inhumane. If the jobs filled by undocumented immigrants are truly not acceptable to American workers, then clearly those employers are not paying enough to sustain an American worker way of life. (Duh).

Attempts to eliminate the presence of workers who are forced, by desperate circumstances, to take these jobs so far have only driven those workers further underground, creating a higher degree of societal risk for us all. An alternative solution would be to raise the minimum wage, especially for farm workers, while simultaneously protecting small farms against being gobbled up against their will by agribusiness AND changing farm subsidies to encourage the production of fruits and vegetables (particularly organics and other labor intensives) instead of grains for expensive/inefficient biofuels and the meat lobby. Multiple facets of the economy would flourish, Americans would eat better, there would be more people able to afford good food -- in fact, the only downside would be for multinationals linked to big farm/big oil. (Oops.)

For a lovely in-depth examination of this, read The True Cost of Immigration Policy by Devilstower posted last February at Daily Kos.

Likewise, The Center for American Progress last June published a report on the Five Key Myths About Immigrants which have been given far too much play over recent years.

The 5 myths are as follows:
1. The US public health insurance programs are over burdened with documented and undocumented immigrants.
2. Immigrants consume large quantities of health care resources.
3. Immigrants come to the US to gain access to health care services.
4. Restricting immigrants access to the health care system will not affect American citizens.
5. Undocumented immigrants are free riders in the American health care system.

Some of the debunking offered by CAP:

"In Texas, for example, nearly seven percent of the state’s population was comprised of undocumented immigrants in 2005. The state’s health care costs for undocumented immigrants that same year were a mere $58 million. Yet state revenues collected from undocumented immigrants exceeded what the state spent on social services provided to these immigrants such as health care and education by $424.7 million.

"Immigrant contributions to social services are similar across the country. The National Research Council concluded that immigrants will pay on average $80,000 per capita more in taxes than they will use in government services over their lifetimes.

"Additionally, in March 2005, more than seven million undocumented immigrants were in the workforce yet received few public services for their labor and tax contributions. The Social Security Administration, for example, reaps an enormous benefit from the taxes paid by undocumented immigrants. It estimates that workers without valid social security numbers contribute $7 billion in Social Security tax revenues and roughly $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes annually, yet elderly immigrants rarely qualify for Medicare or long-term care services provided through Medicaid.

"In 2001, the Social Security Administration concluded that undocumented immigrants "account for a major portion of the billions of dollars paid into social security that don’t match SSA records," which payees, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, can never draw upon. As of July 2003, these payments totaled $421 billion."

My penultimate question, about the damage caused to us all by creating an "illegal" class of people looking to work for a better living for their families, is the best one addressed by the NY Times article. As it concludes:

"America is waiting for a leader to risk saying that the best answer is not the simplest one. As John Edwards said at the last debate, 'When is our party going to show a little backbone and strength and courage and speak up for those people who have been left behind?'

"He was talking about the poor and people without health insurance, but he could — and should — have included a host of others: Business owners who want to hire legal workers. Americans who don’t want their opportunities undermined by the off-the-books economy. Children whose dreams of education and advancement are thwarted by their parents’ hopeless immigration status. And the immigrants, here and abroad, who want to find their place in a society that once welcomed their honest labor, but can’t find a way to do it anymore."

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a huge breath of fresh air and clarity. Thank you so much.

Robert D Feinman said...

You may find some of the stats I compiled for an essay of mine on the topic of immigration useful to your mission.

Immigration Facts Debunked

I deal with issues of economic impact, primarily.

Maggie Jochild said...

Robert, thanks SO MUCH for the link. I especially appreciated you raising the issue of unions and NAFTA as real sources for economic loss in the middle and working classes. I think it's obvious by now that distracting white working class people with fear of immigrants has become the favorite tool of those who most benefit economically from our current system. Getting the word out there is essential.