Monday, October 25, 2010

Race and Immigration

The abusive racial dynamic inherent in U.S. relations with its peoples of color is apparent to any honest observer. U.S. territory is where human slavery was firmly institutionalized for over two centuries; where abolitionists were regarded as violent extremists by virtually all whites in the decades leading up to the civil war; where lynchings were thrilling communal celebrations for another century; and where a burgeoning incarceration gulag today holds more black Americans in bondage than ever were enslaved (in percentages far beyond their proportion of the general population).

It would be naive to expect that a racism so deeply entrenched didn't manifest itself in some way in every dimension of social policy, including immigration. However, this does not mean that Americans who object to mass illegal immigration of largely non-white populations are necessarily bigots. Those who dislike being swamped by non-English-speaking immigrants do not have to be racists to feel this way, and many are not. Competition for scarce jobs, resources, and government services is a perfectly legitimate concern that cries of "racism" do nothing to allay. In fact, they tend to drive people into permanent opposition.

The root of mass illegal immigration is not racism per se, but the uprooting of Third World and indigenous populations by capital in its relentless pursuit of profit and market share. While it is true that the beneficiaries of this exploitation are overwhelmingly white, it is not true that every white person who raises an objection to the practical consequences of mass illegal migration is guilty of racist apologetics. Immigration law is not the same as Jim Crow law, and it is far from clear that a desire to see such law fully enforced is a racist concern. (And let us recall as well that in 1999 Washington bombed a group of white Europeans - the Serbs - continuously for two-and-a-half months in a successful effort to establish a NATO protectorate over the formerly socialist Yugoslavia. Being white did not protect them).

As a practical matter, it would be far better to make it possible for Third World and indigenous populations to remain in their countries of origin than to cheer them on as they try to find a way to live in an alien culture that thrives on exploiting their cheap labor. This would also obviate the need to waste effort giving anti-racist tutorials to U.S. "nativists" whose fears of economic decline are hardly delusional. In short, since both illegal immigrants and "nativists" have reason to oppose the creation of large classes of economic refugees, why not engage the problem at its source, where capital denies democratic representation to the present and former victims of Western colonialism and imperialism. Governments that even mention the rights of these populations are routinely hounded and destroyed by Washington, which leaves illegal immigration as the only realistic option for millions of desperate people.

Many Central American and Mexican immigrants currently working in the U.S. (even those who have green cards), would return to their countries of origin if (1) there were an end to the drug violence, and (2) there were a ready supply of $2 an hour jobs to live on. It would be far better to arrange for this to happen than to declare amnesty every generation for huge groups of displaced workers migrating from Latin America to the United States, while crying "racist" at those who object to the continual flouting of the law.

The practical benefits of confronting the illegal immigration problem at its source are considerable. Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa has declared it a national tragedy that so many Ecuadoreans have been forced to migrate in search of employment. Why not teach "nativists" and immigrants alike about the popular movements in Latin America seeking to put an economic floor beneath the poor, which will make it unnecessary for them to migrate in the first place? That way, groups of workers currently pitted against each other can come to understand their mutual exploitation at the hands of capital, instead of continuing to allow themselves to be divided. Narratives of Western racism give important background information but lead nowhere in terms of solutions. (How many "reforms" of immigration law will be required to absorb all the people of color who see better prospects in the U.S. than where they currently are? Will the U.S. be better off for having "reformed"?)

Opponents of illegal immigration often declare that it is up to migrant populations to stay in their countries of origin and fight to make them decent places, not escape to the U.S. by violating established immigration laws. "What is it about illegal you don't understand?" they habitually ask. Liberals rarely answer the question directly, preferring to invoke tear-jerking testimonials about divided families and other hardships immigrants endure, which do not speak to the issue of legality. This gives right-wing demagogues the opportunity to masquerade as defenders of the law, when in fact they continually cheerlead for blatantly illegal U.S. interventions around the world.

There simply is no need to evade the legality issue. Washington and the transnational corporations headquartered in the U.S. have long engaged in appalling illegality to maintain a secure global marketplace dominated by the United States, overthrowing democratically elected governments, assassinating political opponents, and crushing popular movements calling for basic human rights for all. These policies, not coincidentally, leave many of their victims with little alternative but to migrate to the United States in search of any work they can get. The "nativist" right scores a lot of points on the legality issue only because liberals do not confront their opponents with the facts of U.S. foreign and trade policy.

If the immigration debate is focused primarily on racism and how evil and racist "nativists" are in resisting large waves of illegal immigrants, attention is diverted from the overarching criminality of Washington's international policies, as well as the fact that the governments the U.S. most strenuously opposes in Latin America (that's where most U.S. immigrants are coming from) are doing the most to make mass migration unnecessary in the first place. Aside from the principled issue (legality is a value in itself), a fair number of Americans pre-disposed to antagonism towards illegal immigrants might be induced to support social democratic and socialist movements abroad if they knew that these movements stand the best chance of drying up illegal immigration flows by establishing basic economic security for vulnerable populations prone to migrate to the U.S..

Popular education along these lines seems a more promising strategy than constantly asserting that the unaddressed grievances of downwardly mobile U.S. workers are inherently racist.