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Understanding Illegal MigrationComprender la migración ilegal

“Understanding Illegal Migration”
Unitarian Universalist Church
Birmingham, Alabama
July 11, 2010

This morning I will be making some remarks that I hope will help elucidate what I think are some of the most important things ethical people need to keep in mind as we reflect on illegal migration.

First of all, I think that so often those on both sides of the debate fail to ask what I think is the central question which is, “who benefits by the illegal migration system?” Related to that question is another question: “is illegal migration to be attributed simply to people who don’t ‘play by the rules’ as President Obama said in his State of the Union address or is it the logical outcome of American policies and programs?”

My overall conclusion is that illegal migrants are not the principle beneficiaries of the system, they are among its principle victims. Their decisions to migrate and their consequential deaths are not because they are 12 million people who don’t care to play by the rules. Instead their decisions to migrate and their deaths are the logical outcomes of North American policies, programs, and points of view.

First, as we reflect on illegal migration, we need to remember our history. We need to understand that we Americans are not innocent by-standers to the outpouring of illegal Latin American migrants. The cumulative effect of nearly two centuries of U. S. economic and foreign policies have contributed to the massive poverty and limited access to power of the people of Latin America. For example, we would do well to remember that throughout most of the 20th century, our primary Latin American client state, Nicaragua, was under the brutal rule of the U. S.-trained and installed Nicaraguan National Guard and President Anastasio Somoza García who was one Latin America’s greediest and most brutal military dictators. And that the Sandinista overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 was heralded throughout Latin America all the way to the tip of Chile as a long-overdue victory against U. S. imperialism. And that, when we talk about the line between what is legal and what is illegal, we need to recall that when president Ronald Reagan funded the Contra counter-revolution, Nicaragua sued us in the World Court claiming that we were violating international law. The Court found in favor of Nicaragua and ordered us to stop mining Nicaragua’s harbors and in other ways acting to depose the Nicaraguan Government of Reconstruction, a government with which we had formal relations. We continued in our illegal and deadly practices anyway.

Who benefited?

Second, we need to look at our current legal entry system. We have a racially and socially encoded legal entry system. We have one system for Canadians and western Europeans. We have another system for Latin Americans, Africans, and most Asians. Canadians and western Europeans can enter with only a passport. That means that all they have to do is show up. Latin Americans, Africans, and most Asians have to have a visa to enter. That means they have to qualify. They have to fit into narrowly defined categories. They have to demonstrate that they have strong ties to their home countries. What we mean by strong ties is first of all, title to property, and second, a certain amount of money. This means that people who live on communally-held lands, for example, the indigenous, peasant farmers of Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, by our definition, don’t have strong ties to their home countries. Lack of legal title to property is an easy way to disqualify a Latin American or African or Asian from coming. The number 1 reason most are disqualified, however, is money. In other words, illegal migrants come here illegally because they cannot come legally.

Who benefits?

Third, there is an exception to America’s legal barrier to poor people. It is the guest worker visa. But foreign workers can’t request those visas. Only U. S. employers can. In other words, the guest worker visa does not change the fact that there is no line that a poor person can make an independent decision to get in. And, the guest worker program allows poor people to come legally to the U. S., but according to attorney Mary Bauer, an expert on the program with the Southern Poverty Law Center, they come with a legal status that is “close to slavery,” as she titled her report. Primarily this is because the program binds the worker to the employer who brings him or her into the country. If the employer turns out not to have the work that was promised, or forces the worker to clear land for free prior to the promised tree planting work, or insists on sexual favors, to name a few examples, there is very little the worker can do because he or she is legally bound to that one employer. Contrary to what one south Alabama nurseryman who argued for an extension of the guest worker program before the Alabama Legislature told me, they cannot “leave anytime they want to.”

Who benefits?

Fourth, we need to look at the impact of the North American Free Trade and other free trade agreements on illegal migration. Sometimes, I think we confuse the term “free trade” with the term “fair trade.” The two terms have nothing to do with each other and are indeed antithetical. Free trade is about the lifting of protections for small farmers and factory owners and their products to the advantage of factory farms and other large corporations. Free trade is about freely allowing U. S. factory produced corn and beans to cross the border into Mexico, for example, and undersell small peasant farmers. It is also about allowing Canadian-owned factories to produce cheap t-shirts in Honduras and put 150 textile factories in Fort Payne, Alabama out of business.

According to people who analyze NAFTA from the perspective of small, traditional Mexican farmers, for example, NAFTA has caused catastrophic suffering. Figures vary, but the consensus is that NAFTA has pushed at least one and a half million peasants, many of whom were in the corn and bean sectors of the Mexican agricultural economy, off their lands and into migration. And that millions more low and middle-income people in the combined sectors of the Mexican economy also were dislocated.

Who benefits?

Fifth, illegal migration also is about a continuation of the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands. To me it is ironic that Fort Payne, which has been devastated by free trade agreements and was at the center of the debate over CATFA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, is on the old Trail of Tears. Now, Fort Payne is home to thousands of indigenous peoples, many of whom are from Guatemala, also pushed off their lands by economic policies, a brutal civil war in which the U. S. was complicit, as well as natural disasters. Many of the indigenous people there and elsewhere in Alabama and other places speak indigenous languages. Some manage Spanish only as a second or third language. It seems to me that they cannot possibly desire to be here.

Who benefits?

Sixth, we really need to understand that the beginning of the militarization of the U. S. / Mexico border preceded the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by almost 10 years. The militarization of the border had nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with NAFTA. In 1993, the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service concluded that throughout the following decade illegal migration would increase as a result of the implementation of NAFTA. And so it developed its Southwest Border Strategy to militarize the border in order to deter illegal migration. The strategy included, in its words, making the crossing “so difficult and costly” that “fewer individuals would try.” In other words, migrants would be pushed away from the relative safety of crossing through urban areas and into more and more remote desert areas. Limited numbers would die, word would get back to Mexican communities, and migrants would stop trying to cross. The deaths of poor Mexicans and Central Americans was part the INS’s official policy of “deterrence.” The policy of deterrence has been a dismal failure. It did not stop people from trying to cross. Instead, at a minimum, 5,000 men, women, children, and babies have lost their lives mostly in Arizona’s treacherous Sonora desert.

Who benefits?

Seventh, big money is involved in the trafficking of migrants. If it is correct that 2,000 people a day find their way across the border, and if each one pays an average of $2,000 to a coyote or smuggler, the total for a single day’s trafficking is $4 million. If a more accurate cost per person is an average of $3,000, then the total for a single day’s trafficking is $6 million.

Who benefits?

Eighth, many people, including migrant activists, don’t fully understand that all the federal comprehensive immigration reform packages that have been presented thus far have included significant extensions of the guest worker program as well as increased militarization of the U. S. / Mexico border. It is true that they also offer family reunification plans and paths to citizenship. However, in particular those of us who say we are on the migrants’ side need to ask ourselves very seriously whether indentured servitude and deaths in the Sonora desert are a good exchange for family reunification.

And, we need to ask, who would be the primary beneficiaries?

Ninth, I think we need to consider this. Is the U. S.’s increasingly rigid demarcation line fundamentally about promoting national security and the rule of law? Or is it fundamentally about cosmopolitan class privilege, no-holds-barred capitalism, transnational suppression of wages and working conditions, and global apartheid?

When I was Arizona shooting the documentary someone remarked to me that migrant activists there say that “Arizona is the new Alabama.” By that I think he meant that Arizona is the epicenter of an intense struggle in which every day 2,000 people illegally try to cross a rigid demarcation line and thousands of other people try to stop them.

His remark caused me to reflect that here in Alabama, especially in Birmingham, we continue to invoke the memory of the four little girls who died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. And it caused me to reflect that at least four little girls have died trying to cross this new colorline. Lorna Celeste Robles Enríquez was 5 years old when she died trying to cross Arizona. Carmen Alejandra Robles Enríquez was 11, Teresa Vela Velásquez was 16, as were Keila Velásquez-González and Michelle Acosta González, Lourdes Cruz Morales was 12, and Milka Lopez-Herrera was only 1 year old when she died in Arizona. And the list of little girls who are dying trying to realize their families’ dreams or reunite with parents grows every year.

We in Birmingham in particular need to reflect on the fact that the remains of 11 girls under the age of 16 and 29 boys under the age of 16 have been recovered from Pima, Yuma, and Cochise Counties, Arizona.

It occurs to me that we in Alabama could well honor Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair by remembering Lorna and Carmen and Teresa and Keila and Michelle and Lourdes and Milka and all those who have lost their lives to an inherently violent system which gives their interests no priority. And like those who struggled so long and so well to bring down the segregation line, I think we would well remember the four little girls who were killed in 1963 by insisting on economic, legal, and labor legislation which would bring down this line of demarcation.

Thank you.”

Ellin Jimmerson

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