Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Radical Proposal: Open the U.S.-Mexico Border

If Capital Can Cross Without Limits, Labor Should Too, Activists Say


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Enrique Morones, David Schmidt, Lori Saldaña

“A lot of folks think we’re out here to get a free ride for people and get leniency for lawbreakers,” immigrant rights activist David Schmidt told his audience at Activist San Diego September 21. “We usually talk about what we’re against: the raids, the border wall, deportation and detention. Often we don’t talk about why we’re against them. We’re pretty much saying ‘Leave the laws alone, just don’t enforce them.’” Against the overheated rhetoric of the Right, which frequently portrays immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries as an invading army that must be kept at bay with a triple border wall, high-tech sensors and a heavily armed Border Patrol, Schmidt and his better-known co-speaker, Enrique Morones, raised the question of whether there should be any laws at all restricting the free flow of people across the border. The question they asked is that if the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allowed capital to flow freely across the border, why should workers be trapped in their countries of origin and punished when they try to follow the flow of money and jobs?

Both Morones and Schmidt came to the immigration debate for personal reasons. Morones was born in San Diego to a family from Tijuana — he remembers freely crossing the border in both directions when he was a child and such things were still possible — and started his pro-immigrant activism in 1986, when he and others discovered undocumented immigrants living in a canyon in Carlsbad and started the group Border Angels to bring food and water to them. Schmidt’s involvement with the issue began when he was in college, spending his summers in Mexico with the Mixtec Indians in southern Baja California. He found that they had migrated within Mexico from their homeland in the southern state of Oaxaca, where for generations they had made a living as coffee growers under the protection of Mexican agriculture laws, to pick tomatoes in Baja once Mexico repealed its protections for farmers as a condition of joining NAFTA.

Morones said the key year that turned the immigration issue around — in both positive and negative ways — was 1994. That was the year four things happened: NAFTA took effect, destroying Mexico’s agricultural economy almost overnight and forcing millions of Mexicans off the land and across the border to survive. The U.S. government responded by starting construction of the border fence and launching “Operation Gatekeeper” and similar projects in the major border cities, thereby forcing migrants to make their crossings in the desert under harsh and sometimes life-threatening conditions. California voters passed Proposition 187, a sweeping measure aimed at keeping immigrants and their U.S.-born children out of state schools and social welfare programs, and then-Governor Pete Wilson used 187 to get himself re-elected. The positive item on the slate, Morones said, was the rise of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, which specifically picked January 1, 1994 — the day NAFTA became effective — as the day they would inaugurate their struggle.

“Before the wall and Gatekeeper, instead of one person per month dying while crossing the border, it is now up to two people a day,” Morones said. “Two people will die today just trying to put food on their tables. I guarantee you that not one person in this room full of activists could name just 10 of the 10,000 people who have died since Gatekeeper went into effect in 1994. You all probably know the name of Diego, the whale that was lost in the bay a couple of months ago. You will all know the name of the baby panda when it gets named, but how about the people who are dying every day, crossing the border because they want to have a better life? Marc Antonio Villaseñor, a five-year-old boy, died with 18 men in the back of a semi-truck in Victoria, Texas. Victoria Sanchez was right in the 94 here, in a car with a bunch of people, because they’ve crossed the border. The Border Patrol is chasing them at a high speed, which they’re not supposed to do, and all of a sudden the car flips over and Victoria Sanchez, 17 years old, is killed instantly, and two other women die. The Border Patrol says, “Oh, no, we weren’t chasing them.’”

Because of the vastly increased death toll along the border, Morones explained, Border Angels shifted its focus from going to the canyons — though they still do that — to the desert. They began leaving stashes of water, food and blankets on the common crossing routes for migrants who might need them. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant activism heated up on the Right, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 (which were the work of immigrants who entered the country legally on student visas and overstayed them). Between the armed “Minutemen” patrols on the border, the incendiary rhetoric of local talk-radio hosts like Roger Hedgecock and Rick Roberts as well as nationwide ones like Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs; and the virtual takeover of the Republican Party by immigration opponents who pushed H.R. 4437, a draconian anti-immigrant bill, through the House of Representatives in late 2005, Morones and his cohorts felt they had to take their activism to a more public level.

“We formed a group to do nonviolent confrontations against the Minutemen in 2005,” Morones said. “In San Diego we did direct action and peaceful resistance. We’ve got a lot of the Minutemen arrested, but they remain dangerous groups.” Inspired by the murder of a Latino in Pennsylvania in early 2006 because he was out with his white girlfriend, Morones organized the first Marcha Migrante, a nationwide caravan aimed at stopping H.R. 4437, ending construction of the border fence and cutting the number of deaths along the border. Between the Marcha Migrante in February, the local marches in San Diego in April (“we had the biggest marches in the history of this city,” Morones recalled) and the nationwide mobilization on May 1, 2006, the immigrant rights movement established itself as a force to be reckoned with in national politics.

Morones has organized three Marchas Migrantes since. The one in 2007 was primarily a lobbying trip to tell the horror stories of border deaths to Congressmembers and their staffs in Washington, Dc. “In Marcha Migrante III in 2008 we told people it was important to be registered to vote and to have a voice,” Morones said. “We told people who weren’t citizens that they too could help by going door-to-door or hanging out yard signs. Marcha Migrante IV was from San Diego to Washington, D.C. and was aimed at telling President Obama, ‘We marched, we voted. Now it’s time to demand that you keep your promises.’” Though Morones is disappointed that undocumented people are not included in the health insurance reforms currently being debated in Congress, he’s hopeful that immigration reform will soon pass and the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. will achieve some form of legal status.

The biggest obstacles in the way of a decent immigration policy in the U.S., Morones said, are the myths: “’Undocumented people don’t pay taxes.’ They do. ‘Undocumented people are criminals.’ They’re ten times less likely to be criminals than U.S. citizens or documented residents. Racism isn’t just limited to whites. I debate Ben Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), every month.” [Incidentally, though immigration opponents like to present themselves as only opposing “illegal” immigration, FAIR’s Web site,, makes it clear that they want significant reductions in the amount of legal immigration to the U.S. as well.] Morones charged that FAIR is funding the Minutemen, and in turn is receiving money from the Pioneer Fund, “which believes in eugenics and creating a superior race.”

Morones said that even when he speaks to church groups and audiences he thinks will be liberal, he frequently gets the response, “But they’re breaking the law.” His response is that the immigration laws themselves are unjust. “Once slavery was the law in the U.S.,” he said. “Once it was the law in this country that women couldn’t vote. The other thing we hear is, ‘Why don’t they get in line’ [to emigrate legally]? I confronted John McCain on this and said, ‘Most people who immigrate are poor, and there is no ‘line.’ There is no way they can come here legally.” He also said that since Obama’s election he’s been to Washington, D.C. six times, trying to persuade the administration and Congress that they need to enact immigration reform in the next six months or they’ll lose the opportunity for at least another two years. “Some Democratic Congressmembers were elected in difficult districts, and even they are afraid of the myths,” he said.

In some ways, Schmidt staked out an even more radical position than Morones. He came flat-out and said the border between the U.S. and Mexico should be totally open — a position Morones didn’t take in his remarks at the same meeting. Defending Obama as at least marginally “less bad” on these issues than Bush — “I’m no political expert, but we can probably expect some form of legalization of the people already here, some family reunification and some additional visas” — Schmidt reviewed both the history of immigration law since the last big federal bill in 1986 and its relationship with NAFTA and the so-called “free trade” issue.

“Under the 1986 law, three million people got their papers, but there was a tradeoff: heavier enforcement of immigration policies on the border,” Schmidt explained. “That started the current machinery with the Berlin Wall on the border. It was presented as ‘amnesty,’ forgiving people but leaving the laws in place and getting stricter about enforcing them. Now immigrant rights activists have proposed stopping the raids, the border wall, deportations and detention centers. But even if Obama said he’d give us all those things, would that be ‘reform’? They have reduced the number of raids and focused on employers rather than workers, but even if they did everything we demanded, there’d still be an unjust law in place that doesn’t jibe with the reality of the world and the global economy. It is still practically impossible to immigrate here legally if you’re poor and from Latin America.”

The contradiction both Schmidt and Morones see is between a global trade regime that allows free movement of capital and commerce anywhere in the world — while workers are forbidden to move from one country to another to take advantage of global economic realities. Morones said that when they signed NAFTA, the U.S., Canada and Mexico essentially became a single economy — except on immigration policy, where they’re still behaving like three separate nations with three separate economies. “In the current economy,” Schmidt said, “capital and money don’t have borders, corporations don’t have borders, but people do. When we talk about ‘reform,’ are we really talking about charity?”

Schmidt said he had his “first brush with global economics” in 2001, when he went to Ensenada to spend the summer with the Mixtec Indians. He joined them picking tomatoes in the fields for about a week, “and I looked at the crates we dumped the tomatoes into, and they were labeled in English. There was an American company name on them and a California address. If I’m a multinational corporation, I have three choices. I can pay Americans a decent wage; pay a lower wage to undocumented workers in the U.S.; or pay still less by growing in a country with lower wages and almost no labor laws.” One additional “benefit” for the company was that they could spray their fields with pesticides and other chemicals banned in the U.S. — thereby, Schmidt said, giving birth defects to the children of women so desperately poor they have to keep working while they’re pregnant.

“A few years later, in 2006,” Schmidt said, “I traveled to Oaxaca [the Mixtecs’ homeland] and went out to the Mixtec village that produced coffee. It was a ghost town; there were only old men, a few women and children. The young men and women had all left the village to go to northern Mexico to work in the tomato fields. I heard from migrants within Mexico that they were being discriminated against for speaking a different language [many indigenous people in isolated parts of Mexico speak their native languages and have never learned Spanish] and having indigenous features. Everybody left the village because a few huge mega-corporations control the world’s coffee supply, and since 1979 the lassiez-faire corporate globalization model has led to up-and-down fluctuations in the price growers get for their coffee, which makes it impossible for them to stay in business — while the prices U.S. consumers pay for coffee has stayed about the same.”

Schmidt’s main demand of his audience was that they stop taking advantage of indigenous Mexicans and the world’s other working poor people by giving up the cheap consumer products their underpaid labor makes possible. “You and I have so many consumer options because folks like this are being exploited,” he said. “If we look at all the policies that push people to migrate, it’s directly connected to the lifestyle we lead. We’re the ones getting a free ride. We need to change the things we consume: to buy sweatshop-free clothing and fair-trade coffee. If you do that, you could be giving someone a chance to survive in their homeland. I went to Mexico with a church group, and these kids asked, ‘What can I do to help them?’ I said, ‘Before you do anything else, stop being part of the problem.’ A lot of those kids came back and plugged right back into the lifestyles that are causing part of the problem. If we talk about immediate goals without changing the economic structure, we’ll be part of the problem.”

After showing some film clips of the 2006 Oaxacan riots — where, like the Iranians this year, people rose up when a corrupt governor was re-elected based on fraud, only the U.S. media ignored them and the Oaxacan government used U.S.-made trucks and other equipment to suppress them — Schmidt called on his audience to “change the way we talk about immigration rights and connect them with trade policies that cause immigration. When we’re in reaction mode, we’re not putting forth our own policies. We need to say the law is fundamentally broken and unjust. We want the stuff they make, but we don’t want them. We need to talk about economic refugees driven out of their countries by economic policies we support. We need to talk about changing the economic conditions so people don’t have to migrate — so they can have a decent life in their homelands.”

Ironically, Activist San Diego had originally called this meeting to discuss the situation at Friendship Park, also known as Border Field State Park — but as things turned out this was only touched on at the meeting. Friendship Park was inaugurated in 1971 by that well-known radical, Patricia Ryan Nixon, who attended the dedication ceremony. The idea was to create a place where U.S. and Mexican citizens could come together, socialize and picnic, and where families with members in both countries could reunite for a day. In 1994 a fence was put in place down the middle of the park, so people could no longer socialize bi-nationally — though they could put their fingers through the holes in the fence and touch each other. In 2008 even that became impossible; as part of the border fence project, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security put another fence down the middle of the park, effectively closing it and turning a part of U.S. territory into a no-man’s-land in which ordinary U.S. citizens could not go without risking arrest.

Though the law authorizing the border fence — pushed through by former San Diego-area Congressmember Duncan Hunter (who in the 2008 election was replaced by his son) — allows the federal government to set aside any state or local law that might stand in its way, Morones is confident that “Friendship Park will be reopened.” The park has been strongly supported by progressive elected officials like Congressmember Bob Filner and state Assemblymember Lori Saldaña. Saldaña was at the September 21 meeting and spoke briefly about the park, saying that it was California state property and “we need, for lack of a better word, reparations from the federal government for the money we California taxpayers put into it.”

Morones said he and members of his organization met a month and a half ago with Mike Foster, who assured him that Friendship Park will be reopened. “The question is how,” he said. “I will meet with him again in two days and will tell him about the Border Patrol agent who beat up a migrant on Sunday [September 20] at noon. I will talk about the deportees in Tijuana being lined up against the fence in full public view” — a violation, Morones said, of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that transferred California from Mexico to the U.S. in the first place. That treaty called on the U.S. to respect the rights of Mexicans in their former territory and to grant equal status to English and Spanish as official languages — but, as Schmidt grimly mentioned, the U.S. has a history of breaking its treaty obligations whenever it wants to.

In addition to expressing her support for Friendship Park, Assemblymember Saldaña also talked about her own lobbing efforts to get the federal government to take immigration more seriously. “Every chance I get to talk to people from the administration,” she said, “I tell them that if they don’t solve the immigration crisis, they won’t be able to do anything else. What do we do to solve the high rate of Latinos who drop out of school? Make their parents documented. What do we do about health care? Solve immigration first, because if you don’t they’ll keep beating you up about it. People need reminders, postcards, visits, marches. We have a whole group of people who are living in the shadows, like the people in Escondido who are afraid to report crimes because they fear deportation.”

Saldaña gave a what-is-this-world-coming-to reaction when she talked about a forum for the candidates for San Diego county sheriff sponsored by one of the “teabag” protest groups. “The big questions were what are they going to do about ‘illegal’ immigration, and when can we be allowed to carry concealed weapons,” she said. “Right now we have no clear path to citizenship for people who want to come here and be part of our country. Until we have one, these people will continue to live in the shadows and be exploited.” Asked how grass-roots activists can give support to progressive elected officials, Saldaña said, “Send that message; please work on specific issues. Too often we hear the opposition saying, ‘Don’t do this. No new taxes.’ We need to make sure we fund health care and education. We need our schools and health care to work.”