by Michael K. Smith
"German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques."
-----Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony on Arizona SB 1070, which criminalizes illegal immigrants in the state
The panic signals are out again about Nazism taking over the United States. Nazism was allegedly on the verge of triumph when George W. Bush launched a frontal attack on the U.S. Constitution, when Arnold Schwarzenegger won the California recall election in 2003, and now again in the wake of Arizona passing a law that elevates illegal immigration from a civil violation to a criminal offense.
In spite of hysterical claims to the contrary, there is nothing racist in the law itself, though illegal immigrants are understandably alarmed that Arizona police are about to make their lives much more difficult. And lawyers will have a field day the first time a Hispanic professional is mistaken for a day laborer without documents. But the text of the law specifically rejects using race or ethnicity as the sole justification for a police contact.
Not that this will satisfy the open borders enthusiasts, who think being born in the U.S. shouldn't mean anything because everyone's ancestors came from somewhere else (even the Indians aren't really indigenous: their ancestors allegedly crossed the Bering Strait from Asia and therefore are immigrants, too). In other words, the U.S. as a "nation of immigrants" is obligated to honor its forebears by throwing open its borders to endless waves of immigrants, legal or not. Failure to do so is (1) racist, because today's immigrants are mostly non-white, and (2) hypocritical, because today's citizens are yesterday's immigrants, and denying to others what we insist on for ourselves is a double standard.
Of course, this is perfect nonsense. Even if Indians came from somewhere else in the remote past, they have been here for ten thousand years at least, and possibly as long as fifty thousand years, which gives them a standing newcomers can't match. Morever, letting the Europeans in unmolested is a policy they have regretted ever since. Finally, those Europeans were not immigrants, but colonists and religious fanatics, who dedicated themselves to settler colonialism, not assimilation to the norms established by North American indigenous nations, which they almost entirely wiped out. As for the "service sector" of that era, they were poor, indentured servants, convicted, criminalized, kidnapped from the working class, many of whom decided to join Indian communities. Finally, there were slaves, who arrived in chains and were not allowed to go back, which is quite a different matter from voluntarily emigrating. (Try telling black Americans today that they have been living the good life long enough and now must make room for tens of millions of illegal immigrants).
Only beginning in the 1840s, with the arrival of millions of Irish Catholics can the story of "immigration" in the U.S. be said to have begun. The Irish were despised cheap labor, not settlers. They were soon followed by millions of other poor workers from Scandinavia, Eastern and Southern Europe, more Irish, and Chinese and Japanese. Immigration laws were not passed until 1875 when the U.S. Supreme Court made immigration a federal responsibility. The Immigration Service came into being in 1891.
The rest is imperial propaganda. The landing of the Pilgrims refers to fanatical evangelicals eager to expand their persecution opportunities in the so-called New World. The spirit of the white settlers was captured well by James Fenimore Cooper's immensely popular "Last of the Mohicans," which asserted "natural rights" to indigenous lands as well as those claimed by rival European powers. The U.S. was not a refuge for humanity, but a division of the vast British empire, dedicated to profit and expansion. Thomas Jefferson called it the "new republic for empire," and his imperial designs required the conquering of what was called the "Northwest Territory," that is, the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region, which was then populated by indigenous farming communities.
Thanks to genocidal military campaigns, infectious disease, and settler colonialism, the rightful inhabitants of the land were driven south and north to seek protection in other indigenous communities. Meanwhile, the republic for empire annexed Spanish Florida, where escaped slaves and remnants of indigenous communities that had fled the Ohio butchery fought back for two decades in three major wars. In 1828, one of the generals in those wars, Andrew Jackson, forced (via the Indian Removal Act) all the indigenous farming nations of the Southeast to move to Oklahoma territory that had been gained from the "Louisiana Purchase" from France.
In the South, slaveowners seized the indigenous farmlands for use as plantations. Many moved into the Mexican province of Texas. The U.S. invaded Mexico in 1846, seizing Mexico City and forcing Mexico to surrender its northern half via the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Texas were opened up to "legal" Anglo settlement, while those who had earlier settled illegally were retrospectively legalized. The indigenous and poor Mexican communities resisted colonization for the next four decades, just as they had resisted the Spaniards.
These are the tragic consequences of the indigenous nations' failure to establish firm boundaries. While the present day U.S. is in no danger of being destroyed by illegal immigration, it does have a legitimate interest in legally controlling who comes in and out of the country and on what terms. In Arizona, drug trafficking and the violent crimes associated with it are a serious concern, especially kidnapping. It is understandable that it seeks a policy of tough border security and enforcement of established immigration law.
But getting this across to "globalization" enthusiasts can be a challenge. For example, Jorge Ramos, cheerleader for "the Latino wave" (the title of one of his books) on the Spanish language Univision network, is quick to accuse others of racism if they show the slightest misgiving about mass illegal immigration, even as he evidences palpable contempt for mixed-race Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, and Indian Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia. These men are dedicated to putting an economic floor beneath the poor that will make it unnecessary for them to migrate thousands of miles from their homes in search of a menial job, but Ramos and other corporate globalization enthusiasts are harshly critical of just such efforts. Hypocrisy? You bet.
Likewise, Ramos and his ilk do not praise Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who has declared it a national tragedy that so many Ecuadorians can't find work at home and must migrate to Europe and America. Apparently, socialist presidents are beneath contempt, even though their efforts to create a decent life for all by abolishing poverty would appear to be the ideal solution to mass illegal immigration. After all, who would choose to travel thousands of miles and walk through a scorching desert for days with no food in order to find a job in a foreign land if he had food, housing, and medical care at home? But, as noted, Ramos is dedicated to denouncing Chavez and other advocates of "21st Century socialism" as "demagogues" for seeking to provide their people with precisely such an economic foundation.
In any case, antagonism to mass illegal immigration appears to be universal. Polls taken in Latin America show that negative attitudes about uncontrolled immigration are hardly confined to "racist" or "nativist" North Americans. Mexicans don't like the flood of Guatemalans in their midst, Chileans resent Peruvians sneaking in, and Costa Ricans have long been sick of Nicaraguans fleeing the wreckage the U.S. made of the Sandinista revolution. Just like in the U.S., opponents of unrestrained immigration in these countries are not, by and large, racist, they simply want immigration law to be respected.
Furthermore, in the wake of over three decades of stagnation or decline in average real wages for roughly eighty percent of the U.S. population, it is not really surprising that many Americans react with antagonism to the mass influx of Third World peoples pursuing the American Dream at the very moment the profit system can no longer sustain it. For those who are in a position to avail themselves of the cheap labor this influx provides (often while living in exclusive neighborhoods that leave the social costs of mass migration to fall on other people), this is a good deal. But for those of modest means who have been encouraged to "work hard and play by the rules," it is grating to see the rules set aside in order to accommodate a cheap labor force while their own living standards are in decline.
Having said that, there is no justification for treating illegal immigrants badly. As the government of Nicaragua said four days ago, immigrants are induced to flee to the United States because of "the difficult economic situation that the countries of the South are suffering," which is itself a product of the "prevailing unjust economic model."
Most discussions of immigration overlook this dimension of the problem altogether, saying nothing about how transnational finance capital impacts development and non-development around the world, and how this uproots hundreds of millions of people from their countries of origin.
One of the biggest factors in producing the mass exodus of Central Americans and Mexicans from their native countries are the "free trade" treaties that keep wages low and jobs scarce south of the border. NAFTA alone displaced about 1.4 million rural Mexican workers by undercutting Mexican corn and beans. Thanks in no small measure to much larger agricultural subsidies in the U.S., the American price of corn in 1994 was $95 a ton, whereas in Mexico it was $205 a ton. In the Zapatistas' first Declaration of the Zacandon Jungle they denounced NAFTA as "the death certificate for the ethnic people of Mexico," warning that privatization would destroy communal agriculture, while the flood of heavily subsidized U.S. corn would wipe out Indian farmers. When this prediction turned out to be correct, millions of rural Mexicans made their way to the United States.
Fulfilling the just demands of the Zapatistas could have spared us the last several waves of desperate illegal immigrants: "work, land, shelter, bread, health, education, democracy, liberty, peace, independence, and justice." If we don't strive to make life decent in the countries illegal immigrants are coming from, we shouldn't be too surprised to find ourselves swamped in economic refugees fleeing the neo-liberal disasters promoted by the U.S. government and U.S.-based transnational corporations.
Many illegal immigrants (and even some permanent residents and naturalized U.S. citizens) would return to Mexico and Central America immediately if there were an end to the violence in the region and an investment program to create employment opportunities. Arranging for this to be possible makes a lot more sense than declaring amnesty once a generation, which is not a policy but a capitulation. As a Honduran grandmother pointed out to journalist Sonia Nazario almost a decade ago, the mass exodus from her country is hardly inevitable. Asked what it would take to stop it, she said:
"There would have to be jobs. Jobs that pay okay. That's all."
But that's apparently asking the impossible of capitalism.
"Cardinal Mahony Criticizes Arizona Immigration Bill," Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2010
"The Legalization of Racism," Univision Online, April 27, 2010
"Who Left the Door Open?" Time Magazine, May 20, 2006
"Latin America Against SB 1070," Univision Online, April 30, 2010
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, "Comforting Lies of the Colonizers - Stop Saying This Is a Nation of Immigrants!" Counterpunch, May 31, 2006
"Nafta Should Have Stopped Illegal Immigration, Right?" New York Times, February 18, 2007
Henry K. Liu, "Militarism and the War on Drugs," Asia Times, May 18, 2005
Jorge Ramos, "The Latino Wave," (Harper Collins, 2005)
Sonia Nazario, "Enrique's Journey," (Random House, 2006)
--------Michael K. Smith is the author of "The Madness of King George," and "Portraits of Empire," both from Common Courage Press