Immigration: what questions aren't being asked?

In the last six months the issue of ‘illegal’ immigration has returned to the news. As law makers and media spin jockeys talk about dealing with the ‘crisis’ and people across the country have conversations, choose sides, and take action in the emerging debate it is important to look at how that debate is being shaped.

The US House of Representatives bill, H.R. 4437, which proposes to make undocumented workers and those who assist them felons and construct a 700 mile fence along the US/Mexico border, has sparked months of protests leading up the massive demonstrations on May 1. As we go to press, the Senate has passed a supposedly more immigrant friendly bill and the media is focusing on whether the hard-line bill passed by the House can be mixed with the Senate bill to produce a compromise that can be signed into law.

The framing of the debate between the supposedly “immigrant-friendly” Senate bill and the hard-line House bill is intended to appease Latinos — the fastest growing block of voters — while maintaining a two-tier structure that pits native workers against immigrants. The real winners in this system, however, are not immigrants or native born workers, but their bosses. The Senate bill caters to business interests who depend on cheap immigrant labor by creating a guest worker program and a road to citizenship for some people who immigrated to the US illegally. It is on this basis that the Senate bill is being hailed as pro-immigrant.

The reality, however, is that the Senate bill also heavily panders to anti-immigrant partisans. It proposes hiring fifteen thousand additional border guards over the next few years, install new surveillance equipment on the border, construct five hundred miles of border fencing, and provide for the deportation of all undocumented workers who have been in the US for less than two years — potentially millions of people. The bill also requires that those immigrants who are eligible to apply for citizenship learn English, pay a fine and back taxes, and, in the words of Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa) “go to the back of the line”. Specter’s condescending tone is the norm on both sides of the ‘debate’ and demonstrates the underlying assumption in the mainstream discourse that undocumented workers must atone for their wrong doing, and are in fact less important human beings than US citizens.

So what is framed by the mainstream media as an immigration debate is actually a debate between business interests looking to continue benefiting from a cheap labor supply, and cultural conservatives seeking to preserve their white, WASPy vision of US culture.

What this means is that folks who could otherwise be united against corporate interests and racist nationalism are divided against each other. Many working-class citizens who have been most harmed by the effects of globalization are encouraged to vent their frustration at immigrant workers, rather than at the larger system that keeps both groups engaged in a struggle to survive. Political progressives are encouraged to choose the Senate bill as the “lesser of two evils” even though it would keep immigrants as second class citizens and only really benefits the business interests that rely on cheap labor. In fact, any law eventually signed will surely be somewhere between the House and Senate bill, i.e. worse than the current Senate bill.

On May Day, thousands of people left their posts to demonstrate the power of their numbers to their employers and the state. In the weeks since, not much has happened. It is always questionable how effective mass popular demonstrations are in a political system that seems to have inoculated itself against them. This is especially true if they are a flash in the pan, and not accompanied by discussions and analysis that question the systems which frame the debate.

Neither side asks why thousands of people risk their lives to come to the US every year. The provincial belief that everyone wants to be an ‘American’ is too strong to ask this question. If anyone did, they might have to acknowledge that people do not go through the physical and psychic pain of being separated from the people and culture they know in order to live a fear filled life in the shadows of US society simply for the honor of waving the US flag and cleaning up after the wealthy. The reason people come to the United States illegally is because the economic policies of the US and other rich nations and the corporations that craft those policies are impoverishing vast regions of the world, striping economies and ecosystems bare, in order to create and concentrate enormous wealth.

In order to maintain the global economic system, states like the US need both large corporate interests that do the work of extracting resources and thus ‘creating’ wealth, and the rabid and arrogant nationalism that protects the idea of the state at all costs. The balance achieved through mainstream politics is often just a balance between the forces necessary to keep the established order in place without any genuine regard for life or freedom.

What this all means is that once again a complex issue that has human suffering at its core is redefined and simplified into a forced choice that is actually no choice at all. What if instead of having the same old conversation, people began to complicate and analyze their understanding of the world, questioning the systems that lead to increased immigration, starting from the assumption that where someone was born and the language that they learned to speak first does not make them any more or less valuable, or their pain any more or less real, than anybody else’s.