Archive for the ‘Bracero’ Category

Presidents on Immigration – Past, Present, Future

February 17, 2008

    On this President’s Day, let us recall our long and storied past Presidential stances on immigration. The Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, which codified national citizenship policy for “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” has allowed many immigrant children to live with rights for which their parents must win the “lottery” (quota system). Countless children I teach each day have the Fourteenth Amendment to thank for their status in Brownsville, Texas. President Andrew Johnson dragged his heels against this and all the other Civil Rights Bills, much to his Republican party’s dismay; however, the bills were passed and continue to stand as some of the most important immigration legislation today.

    The literacy test, which was first introduced in 1895 by Henry Cabot Lodge and which took twenty-two years to finally pass, was vetoed by a myriad of presidents such as Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and William Howard Taft. Cleveland’s reason for the veto was that the terrific growth of the United States up until 1897 was “largely due to the assimilation and thrift of millions of sturdy and patriotic adopted citizens” (Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277) He also declared that immigrants of the not-so-distant past were some of the nation’s best citizens. In his steadfast veto, Cleveland addresses the issue of citizenship requirements and ends with a conclusion that may be very insightful to our nation’s current preoccupation with national security and terrorism. Cleveland said,

It is infinitely more safe to admit a hundred thousand immigrants who, though unable to read and write, seek among us only a home and an opportunity to work than to admit one of those unruly agitators and enemies of governmental control who can not only read and write, but delights in arousing by unruly speech the illiterate and peacefully inclined to discontent and tumult” ( Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277).

Perhaps our country’s leadership could come up with smart background checks which do not discriminate so much on nationality but criminality and past employment.

    Taft’s relentless veto was based solely on the economic necessity for a large and constant immigrant base. His reasoning echoes the reasoning of the Bracero Program, worker visa programs, and short-term migrant labor initiatives. Taft’s rationale was that, “the natives are not willing to do the work which the aliens come over to do” ( Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277). The beauty of immigration is that few immigrant families stay in these entry-level positions – the steady influx of immigrants who are upwardly mobile is a dynamic, short-term phenomenon for new immigrant families.

    Woodrow Wilson, in 1915, spoke out on the ethical the cause of immigrants. His veto to the literacy test rested on the fact that the bill would reject new immigrants “unless they have already had one of the chief of the opportunities they seek, the opportunity of education” ( Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277). Again, this same argument holds true and needs to be taken up by so many groups opposed to a physical border wall. One step into a school on la frontera will reinforce the fact that so many immigrants come to these United States seeking a better education for their families. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), which has failed to pass in several bills both in 2006 and 2007, would ensure that all schoolchildren who are high-achievers in our nation’s classrooms would have the opportunity, regardless of income or citizenship, to study at institutions of higher education and apply themselves to becoming skilled workers. Had he lived another 93 years, Woodrow Wilson would be one of the staunchest advocates of the DREAM Act, which could have proved one of the most empowering and inspiring legislations of the second Bush administration.

    The literacy test passed in 1917, and was soon followed by Calvin Coolidge’s Immigration Act of 1924 which set the first nation-based quota system for all incoming immigrants (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 only applied to “sojourners” from the largest country in the world). This Act also marked the beginning of the first official Border Patrol.

    Arguably the last President to be extremely pro-immigrant died with a couple bullets in 1963. His dream was to revamp immigration legislation to “base admission on the immigrant’s possession of skills our country needs and on the humanitarian grounds of reuniting families” (John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants, 80). JFK firmly believed that the quota system was discriminatory at a time when Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement were also making strides toward a Civil Rights Bill. Kennedy goes on to write that,

The use of a national origins system is without basis in either logic or reason if neither satisfies a national need nor accomplishes an international purpose. In an age of interdependence [read “globalization”] any nation with such a system is an anachronism, for it discriminates among applicants for admission into the U.S. on the basis of accident of birth (John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants,75).

 

Had he lived longer than 46 years, perhaps the United States of America would not still have a quota system which permits only 24,000 people from any country to migrate to our land, regardless of whether their sending nation has a population of China’s 1.3 billion or Monaco’s 32,000.

    One of the last substantial pieces of immigration legislation was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Signed by Ronald Reagan, this has since been decried as an act which only worsened problems and which amounted to scotch-free amnesty. While neither of these are the case, IRCA did not ultimately address the true problem. By treating the symptom of illegal immigrants rather than the immigration legislation which criminalized them, Reagan departed from Kennedy’s lead and opted for the easy, immediate solution. While IRCA did make a substantive difference in the lives of 2.7 million people, it did not address the real problem which finds our country with 12 million residents on the wrong side of current immigration laws.

    The final “immigration law” on the books is one which physically, socially, economically, and ethically affects our nation’s immigrants, citizens, and borderlands. The Secure Fence Act of 2006, supported by President Bush and, sadly, both Democratic candidates Obama and Clinton, paved the way for a 700-mile fence along our 2,000-mile southern border. This “secure fence” would reroute extralegal immigrants to the most dangerous desert sections of our border; it would be an affront to American immigrants past, present, and future; it would be a tremendous waste what some estimate to be $5 billion while border communities such as Brownsville and Hidalgo County continue to be the poorest in the nation; it would serve as a severe distraction from the necessity for comprehensive, compassionate immigration reform; it would strand extralegal residents on this side of the border; it would separate loved ones; it would cripple border economies which thrive on the influx of international business; it would destroy precious and rare ecosystems and wildlife which cannot be found anywhere else; and it would cause our young nation of immigrants to wall ourselves off from our neighbors and the globalizing world at large.

    Let’s pray that true immigration reform will come with the next Presidency. If protest is prayer in action, then please join your prayers with ours, put your feet to the street, and join the Border Ambassadors and concerned citizens in the March Against the Wall as we walk 120 miles from Roma to Brownsville, Texas, this March 8-16.

The Power of Nomenclature

January 20, 2008

Willacy County Processing Center

Driving north on Highway 77 from the Rio Grande Valley, one passes through the town of Ramondville. Its motto is “City with a Smile,” but just to the east of the highway is visible the nation’s largest immigrant detention center. For this town of 10,000 people, the 2,000 detained immigrants would constitute 1/5 of their population and currently provides many jobs for their economy. This Willacy County Processing Center extends for miles – miles of barbed wire twisted against the horizon, miles of fences, miles of spotlights and long prison warehouses.

Currently, the United States has eight Service Processing Centers, offering no other service but that of detaining people who prayed the American dream was real. The U.S. also uses seven other contract detention facilities. These centers are a large part of the $1 billion budget of ICE, a large portion of the detention of some 27,500 immigrants each year. (http://www.bordc.org/threats/detention.php)

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These 27,500 extralegal residents are seen as not having any inherent rights. There can be no justice when one party has no rights; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Because of nomenclature, though, these Americalmosts are detained anywhere from a month to several years with little hope of political or judicial recourse.

The game of nomenclature has been around for centuries. During the long fight for civil rights, African-Americans had to overcome names such as “slave” and “stock” in order to demand equal rights; the same fight continues today with the “N” word. In terms of immigration, nomenclature has always been used by nativists as a means of keeping new immigrants voiceless and without rights. When the first Chinese immigrants came to these United States, they were met by the Naturalization Act of 1870 which naturalized only “white persons and persons of African descent” and left them as Asians and their brother Latinos without rights or hope of change for almost eight decades (Coming to America p.271). Throughout the years, people have used the rhetoric of sojourner to mean someone uninterested in assimilating but rather intent on sending all their money to their home country (a fact that is born more out of restrictive immigration policies than a desire to “milk” this country’s resources). The concept of guest worker has officially been around in the U.S. since the Bracero Programs of the 1950s, and since that time guest workers have been granted scant rights because they are seen as diametrically different than permanent citizens. Refugees and asylum seekers now account for a large portion of the annual immigration outside of the quota system; these immigrant hopefuls are taken on a case-by-case basis because our immigration laws have not been substantively overhauled since Kennedy. Even now, Somalis wait for years in Kenyan refugee camps, patiently waiting until their refugee card is called.

The idea of nomenclature granting or denying rights has a long, sad history in these United States. Now, the rhetoric has shifted to aliens, undesirables, and illegals. None of these names connote the human they seek to identify. With well over 12 million extralegal residents, we are terrifyingly complacent with the idea of so many living within our borders without basic human rights. Admittedly, a system which creates 12 million lawbreakers (and millions more who aid them) is a broken system. The United States must re-imagine its immigration laws so as not to ignore this pocket of people greater than the population of New York City. We must honestly confront our failed quota system and draft new immigration laws which behoove both our nation and those seeking to become citizens.

Until that day, every citizen of these United States is living with inflated rights. This past year our housing market plummeted because the sub-prime mortgage market was drastically inflated. What will happen when we and the rest of the world realize that our democratic rights are inflated as well, that they only apply to some of us, that some Americans are “more equal than others?”

Ellis Island is the symbol of immigration in the United States. Up until 1932, it was truly an “island of hope,” ushering in 12 million new citizens to America. After 1932, though, this island’s open hand of welcome became a closed fist as it morphed into a detention center and an “island of tears.” During WWII, it was even briefly used as an internment center for enemy aliens (Coming to America p.273). It is high time the United States sought to change the image of Ellis Island once more. By allowing every resident within our borders an honest chance at receiving rights through the all-powerful and elusive nomenclature of citizen (call it earned amnesty or gradual naturalization), Ellis Island can once again welcome the globalizing world to our shores.

Raymondville Detention Center

 

 

Duty Free

January 14, 2008

        The border is a fascinating anomaly. Here, pesos and dollars can be spent on either side of the Rio Grande. Spanish and English are accepted at most places of business, and the schools teach countless students who cross a bridge every day for their education. Everyone knows medicines are cheaper in Mexico, and just a 90-cent toll to walk across. Animals cross in broad daylight unhindered by la migra.

Which brings us to the singular case of duty-free goods. A host of duty-free shops on either side of the border sell discounted liquor and tobacco products. The buyer gets a claims ticket, walks to the bridge, and as they are passing through the turnstile, their product is then handed to them. All that is left is to walk across to Matamoros, then turn around and head back through U.S. Customs. The very idea seems ludicrous, laughable, and yet thousands of people do it a week.

Duty-free stores highlight the absurdity of our current, unresponsive, dehumanized borders. They are set up to be impermeable for people (think the 2006 Secure Fence Act), and yet goods and products are encouraged to cross the border many times. When the United States moved many of its automobile and textile manufacturers over to Mexico, this free movement of products was surely brokered into the deal. Why then are people viewed so differently by the current immigration laws?

America’s immigration laws are being disobeyed covertly nationwide. Some 12 million illegal immigrants currently work and reside in the United States. The problem, is, that those businesses which lured them to the United States do not want to “declare them” to customs or fight for a real path to their citizenship. No, instead, American capitalism is content to keep them illegal (read exploitable).

In his publication Young India, Mohandas Gandhi worded it in the following way.

We have too long been mentally disobedient to the laws of the State and have too often surreptitiously evaded them, to be fit all of a sudden for civil disobedience. Disobedience to be civil has to be open and non-violent. (emphasis mine)

Gandhi clearly saw that the rules were being bent freely. He decried this form of evasive disobedience, though, because it merely bends the law and encourages lawlessness. The world is a different place because men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. chose not to bend bad laws but instead break them, openly and fully intending to accept the state’s punishment. Only then can true change happen.

Starting with the Bracero Programs in 1942 which sponsored about 4.5 million migrant workers, the United States has uneasily bent its laws concerning immigrants it deems it needs economically but does not want socially. Countless restaurants and fields and factories across these United States currently employ Mexicans and other illegal immigrants at substandard wages and without benefits. This “duty-free” work force is capitalistic cowardice.

If we truly welcome immigrant labor, our immigration laws must be reformed immediately. For too many years, government policy has been “hard” on immigration and soft on enforcement. This sort of double-speak, this mental disobedience embodied by the border has allayed the conscience of Capitol Hill, has freed it of its duty to its citizens, those Americalmost immigrants, and those businesses valuing an economic edge above social welfare.

However, we are never free of our duty to any resident of these United States. Pretending that 12 million living and breathing and loving and working people are negligible simply because of they lack a classification that came to many of us freely at birth is to ignore our duty. For Americans, our borders have been “duty-free” places for decades. Our modern wars abroad do not touch us anymore with rationing, peace-gardens, and can drives and so cease to be real; in the same way, Americans are granted an international bill of rights at birth which enables them almost carte blanche access to the rest of the world. How different it is just a few hundred feet across a river!

There is no such thing as “duty-free” living, and it is our duty to speak out against border policies and immigration laws which are unjust and limit residents’ rights. As Gandhi famously wrote, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”