Saturday, May 08, 2010

In the Streets for Human Rights: A People Without Borders


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Two of the most inspiring of the many political demonstrations I’ve taken part in have centered around the issue of immigration and human rights for undocumented (so-called “illegal”) immigrants in the U.S. One took place in April 2006 and was part of an unprecedented mobilization of Latino Americans and their supporters of all colors in response to a bigoted bill in the House of Representatives sponsored by Republican Congressmember James Sensenbrenner (“Senselessbrenner” might have been a better name for him). The other was on May 1, 2010 and consisted of a rally in Chicano Park and a quite long march to the Federal Building downtown in opposition to an equally obnoxious bill — one that actually became law in the state of Arizona — called SB 1070.

Immigration is one of those issues where the debate has become so polarized it’s hard to remember that many Americans have positions that fall somewhere between the two extremes. No doubt much of the hysterical rhetoric denouncing “illegal aliens” and calling for their mass deportation is covertly racist — sometimes overtly racist, as when anti-immigrant author Peter Brimelow published his National Review articles and his book Alien Nation, in which he openly called for severe restrictions on documented as well as undocumented immigration in an effort to preserve the U.S.’s “ethnic mix” — in other words, to keep this a white-majority country. At the same time, I think many Americans are good-hearted and sympathetic to the desires of Mexicans and other Latin Americans to come to this country, work hard and claim a piece of the American dream — but are also concerned about the possibility that an influx of impoverished people willing to work cheaper than U.S. citizens or documented residents will drive down opportunities for employment in an already recession-crippled jobs market.

There are darker fantasies, too — fears carefully cultivated by the relentless anti-immigrant, anti-Latino propaganda of talk radio, Fox News and the other outlets of the radical-Right wing of the corporate media. Many of those fears were openly cited by Arizona legislators as reasons they voted for SB 1070 — including the idea that undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than citizens or documented residents (statistics from unbiased sources indicated they’re actually less likely to commit crimes; as immigration through Arizona has increased, the state’s crime rate has actually gone down); that allowing immigrants will bring the violence associated with the Mexican drug cartels to the U.S.; and that, whatever their reasons for coming here, the mere presence of undocumented immigrants on U.S. soil constitutes a “crime” for which they should be punished by prison, detention or deportation. A sign carried by counter-protesters at the Federal Building made clear the hateful mind-set of these people: “Illegal Aliens Aren’t Immigrants: They’re Criminals.”

The U.S. and Mexico have a long and sordid history in which the two countries’ governments and business elites have cooperated in the exploitation of the people of both countries. In 1846-1848 the U.S. invaded Mexico and conquered and annexed half its territory — including the current states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming — in a war which Abraham Lincoln, then a Congressmember from Illinois, quite rightly denounced as an imperialistic adventure pushed by the Southern slaveocracy to expand the slave-holding territory (Mexico had already banned slavery) and fulfill what America’s imperialists called our “Manifest Destiny” to rule the North American continent outright. Between 1876 and 1910 U.S. corporations took advantage of a sympathetic Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz, to take over most of the Mexican economy – and between them. American and Mexican capitalists did such a good job of impoverishing the Mexican people that they fought a bloody revolution from 1910 to 1917 (with the U.S. openly intervening on the side of the counter-revolution) to get rid of us and regain control of their own economy.

But U.S. designs on Mexican resources and labor continued. In 1942, desperate for farm labor with so many American men either serving in World War II or working in defense plants, the U.S. government contracted with Mexico to import farm laborers, called braceros. The bracero program lasted 22 years — far longer than the U.S. involvement in World War II — and did such a good job keeping farm labor wages low that César Chávez didn’t even try to organize his United Farm Workers union until it finally ended in 1964. One of the biggest shocks I have ever experienced in my life was when I met elderly Mexicans at the 2006 immigrant-rights demonstrations who introduced themselves as former braceros who were still owed money they’d earned but hadn’t been paid — for work they’d done over 42 years earlier.

Mexico’s exploitation by the United States got even worse in the early 1990’s, when corporate elites in both countries and in Canada as well pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA required the Mexican government to remove the carefully constructed system of subsidies to their own farmers that had been put in place as a result of the 1910-1917 revolution. U.S. agribusiness companies flooded the Mexican market with cheap corn, selling it at prices below the cost of producing it in Mexico. As a result, millions of Mexicans were forced off their land — and many of them headed north to look for jobs as farm laborers here. The same year as NAFTA went into effect, 1994, the U.S. government also instituted “Operation Gatekeeper” in California and similarly named “operations” in other border states to make border crossings harder — which paradoxically forced undocumented immigrants to stay within the U.S. rather than live here when work was available and return home in the off-season. It also drove immigrants from established crossings like San Diego’s to high-risk routes through the desert — leading to the deaths of up to 10,000 undocumented immigrants — and it created a booming business in so-called coyotes, smugglers who help undocumented immigrants cross for a high price, often transport them under unsafe conditions that kill them, and blackmail them by threatening to turn them in to U.S. authorities for deportation if they can’t pay.

The United States may have a legal right under international law to enforce its borders, but it has long since forfeited the moral right to do so given how relentlessly we have exploited the Mexican economy. The undocumented immigration problem would virtually disappear if we didn’t keep it going. Instead, we continue vicious “free trade” policies like NAFTA which make it impossible for Mexico to protect its citizens against the exploitative practices of U.S. corporations. We also do little more than token enforcement of the laws against employers hiring undocumented immigrants; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents occasionally stage raids in workplaces and do mass deportations of the undocumented immigrants who work there, but have you ever seen the officials of the corporations that employ them doing a perp walk? Didn’t think so! Even the existence and violence of the drug cartels in Mexico is largely the responsibility of the United States; it’s our people who fund them by buying their drugs, and it’s our lack of effective gun control that allows them to arm themselves to the teeth with lethal weapons they cannot buy in their home country.

The simple fact is there is no moral authority undergirding the U.S. immigration laws, especially as applied to immigrants from Mexico and Latin America in general. And since there is no moral authority behind these laws, they are unjust laws and people who have been impoverished by U.S. policies have every moral right to break them. As the most popular chant during the May 1, 2010 demonstration put it, we are “un pueblo sin fronteras” — “a people without borders.” If we’re sincerely worried about a flood tide of undocumented immigrants from a poor neighboring country crossing a border that is already more militarized than any on earth between two countries that aren’t actually at war with each other, we need to think outside the box and look for solutions that empower the working people of both the U.S. and Mexico, including renegotiating NAFTA to make it a true instrument of free trade instead of an economic weapon of U.S. corporate bullies against the Mexican economy.

The speakers in Chicano Park on the morning of May 1 said some fine and noble things. It was particularly impressive, after all the propaganda about how people of color were supposedly more likely to vote for the anti-marriage equality Proposition 8 than whites, to hear Bruno Remiano of the May 1 Coalition, co-organizers of the action, boast that his group had “a very broad participation of people from all these different movements: immigrant rights groups, community organizers, students, teachers, anti-war activists, feminists, LGBT groups, homeless, based on humanitarian groups.” It was even more inspiring when Remiano, a native of Brazil, read the Coalition’s five demands and they included — along with legalization of all undocumented immigrants “without conditions,” jobs and housing for all, funding for education and social services instead of war, repeal of SB 1070 and a boycott of Arizona until the bill is history — was one for “immigration and full rights for LGBT partners. As a Gay man legally married to my partner of over 15 years, I felt included in this demonstration in a way I haven’t always felt in other progressive actions.

At the same time there was, as in so many other progressive organizations and demonstrations, a palpable sense of disgust at the Obama administration. “There were more raids, more deportations and more families broken up in the first year of Obama than in the last year of Bush,” said the rally’s MC. (He said it in Spanish but it wasn’t hard to figure out.) He’s absolutely right; on immigration enforcement — as on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantánamo and torture in general, the rule of law in dealing with suspected terrorists, the military’s bigoted “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of excluding openly Queer people and the “drill, baby, drill” energy agenda of more offshore oil drilling and more development of earth-destroying coal and nuclear energy — Obama’s term has been a continuation of Bush’s policies.

During Obama’s first year in office, the U.S. deported 380,000 people — not only undocumented immigrants but, in some cases, their U.S. citizen children — more than in any previous year in our history. According to an internal ICE memo published in the Washington Post, ICE officials lamented that even that number had fallen short of their “quota” of 400,000 deportations for the year. The law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996 gave ICE the authority to deport instantly any undocumented immigrant convicted of a crime, no matter how minor — and according to a 2009 Department of Homeland Security, ICE has been using that authority to deport people who haven’t been convicted of any crime at all. In 2009, nearly 60 percent of the people deported under the so-called “Criminal Alien Program” had no criminal convictions — and in the first quarter of fiscal year 2010 ICE deported 56,853 people with criminal convictions … and 60,397 without them.

One can’t understand the persistence of so-called “illegal” immigration as an issue without realizing how many purposes it serves the American ruling class. By allowing undocumented immigrants in and building up the mythology that they “take the jobs Americans won’t work” (they actually take jobs Americans won’t work at the piss-poor wages offered — or in some cases, like much farm labor, they take jobs Americans can’t work because the skills involved have largely disappeared from our citizen population), the ruling elites in this country get an ultra-low-paid work force that they can use to undercut prevailing wages — and whom they can get deported if they try to organize into unions or do anything else to stand up for their rights. At the same time, the ruling elites also get an all-purpose scapegoat that — especially in times of general economic hardship, like now — they can use to blame America’s economic problems on and keep America’s working class focused on imaginary “enemies” below them in the class structure instead of their real enemies above.

And certainly the rhetoric of the anti-immigration crowd is incessantly ugly. Just listen to Roger Hedgecock or any other anti-immigrant talk-radio host rant against “illegals” and do a thought experiment. Every time they say “illegals,” substitute the word “Jews.” All of a sudden they’ll sound like Hitler and Goebbels — which doesn’t necessarily make them Nazis or fascists, but it does illustrate how unvarying the rhetoric of racists really is. There’s a proven recipe for demonizing people by portraying them as a somehow dangerous “other” that Hitler used in Nazi Germany; that Lenin, Stalin and Mao used to sustain Communist governments; that Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Franco Tudjman in Croatia used to get people who’d been living peacefully with each other for centuries to hate and kill each other; that the government of Israel and its apologists, especially in the U.S., have used to demonize the Palestinians (as the 19th century German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine said, “Those to whom evil has been done do evil in return”); and as the American Right has been doing to a whole series of all-purpose scapegoats (“illegal” immigrants, people of color, Queers and counter-culturalists of all sorts) since the late 1960’s to boost their popularity, support and votes.

A solution to the issues raised by so-called “illegal” immigration will require a massive campaign on all fronts. It will mean boycotts not only against Arizona and any other states that pass repressive, hateful, fascistic “let me see your PAPERS!” laws like SB 1070 but also against the merchants of hate on talk radio and TV news and the corporations that sustain those shows by advertising on them. It will take unprecedented mobilization by labor advocates both within and outside the existing structure of the union movement. Ultimately it will take building a realization that wealth and poverty cannot exist side by side — not between countries like the U.S. and Mexico, and not within a single country either — without destroying the souls of the haves as well as the have-nots. Gross extremes of wealth and poverty, along with the disappearance of virtually anything in between, produce a desperate underclass that will do literally ANYTHING to survive and a clueless overclass that will run their country into the ground with the insane extravagance and foreign adventurism of pre-1789 France.

That parallel came to my mind some years ago when I attended a long San Diego City Council hearing to discuss a proposed living-wage ordinance. The arguments of the opponents were so desperate — particularly the one who said we shouldn’t apply living-wage standards to jobs at fast-food restaurants because these were “fun jobs” worked by students seeking a little extra income — I couldn’t help but think of the similarly transparent euphemisms used by the defenders of clueless royalty in the 18th and 19th centuries. I even coined a phrase afterwards, the “Marie Antoinettization of America,” to describe how clueless our ruling class has become, to the point where they can no longer even do capitalism right — how they’ve poured the money they’ve got from outright subsidies and favorable tax treatment not into investments that actually produce jobs and useful goods and services, but on the ever-more abstruse financial speculations — credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, synthetic collateralized debt obligations and all the other ill-understood “derivatives” which recently came close to crashing our economy totally — that make them richer and decimate the productive economy.

Finding a solution to immigration — like finding a solution to financial regulation, health care and the other domestic issues that bedevil us today — is easy compared to finding the political will to implement it and the backbone to take on the corporate octopus that is strangling the American economy and politics. Through a system of legalized bribery euphemistically referred to as “campaign contributions,” American corporations go to legislatures, governors and presidents and order self-serving policies with the same certainty as a McDonald’s customer orders lunch. As long as millions of Americans fall for the lies and propaganda tales of the corporate media — that private companies are always more “efficient” than government or public agencies; that the interests of giant corporations are the public interests and all others are “special interests”; that their economic and social status is being destroyed by those below them (so-called “illegal” immigrants and people of color) rather than those above them (the giant corporations that are systematically and effectively destroying the American middle class in pursuit of short-term profits; and that there’s no such thing as global warming and there are huge remaining supplies of fossil fuels we can keep drilling, baby, drilling, without fear of running out or trashing the environment in the process — we will remain vulnerable to propaganda setting up an unending succession of scapegoats and we will keep electing politicians who enthusiastically support the policies that are destroying us.