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Immigration debate needs less heat, more light


It’s not difficult to see why Republicans – with more than a few Democratic supporters – are trying to turn immigration reform into this year’s gay marriage.

With Bush’s numbers at an all-time low, contempt for Congress at an all-time high, the war in Iraq still going badly and gas prices heading for the stratosphere, one doesn’t need to be Karl Rove to appreciate the temptations of the politics of resentment and fear.

Today’s conservativism is all about creating controversy and divisiveness – hence its dependence on talk radio and cable television news – the idea being that massive tax cuts for the wealthy and American hegemony worldwide are more easily pursued when the electorate is busy arguing about what language the national anthem should be sung in.

This is not to suggest that the United States doesn’t need a more humane policy for economic refugees. It badly does. But proposals offered so far have appealed to base desires rather than focusing on fixing what has become a truly dangerous situation at the border.

For example, the Sensenbrenner Bill (House Bill 4437) sought to turn

disenfranchised workers into instant felons, criminalize attempts to “knowingly aid or assist” them – yes, even your church’s charitable donations would have been subject to prosecution – and fund the construction of a rather hubristic and expensive wall along the U.S./Mexico border.

Even worse was the bill proposed by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), an ambitious politico whose propensity for xenophobic paranoia seems matched only by his desire to establish a World’s Longest Acronym record. His “Rewarding Employers that Abide by the Law and Guaranteeing Uniform Enforcement to Stop Terrorism Act” (H.R. 3333) – the REAL GUEST Act, get it? – would have felonized the “unlawful presence” of economic refugees and used the U.S. Army and Air Force as border patrols.

Less extreme proposals have also been circulated, for

example, the McCain/Kennedy “Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act” of 2005. SAOIA featured an “earned legalization” initiative that would have granted citizenship to disenfranchised workers while streamlining America’s temporary visa program. It wasn’t a perfect bill by any stretch, although the National Immigrant Law Center did call it “a ray of hope.”

Unfortunately, now that the president has given the go-ahead to legislation that would not only assign thousands of National Guardsmen to border patrol but also make English the “national language,” public debate has once again shifted to fearful talk about “enforcement” and the building of walls.

New walls? Military patrols? “Enforcement”? One wonders if conservatives possess any memory of their hero, Ronald Reagan, famously shouting in a 1987 speech in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

In those not-so-old days, the communist world’s walls symbolized an affront to the freedom and openness of the democratic West. And those military border patrols marching around Checkpoint Charlie personified the reasons why, as the poet Robert Frost famously wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Americans don’t really want more walls and soldiers to patrol them. They don’t want America to become a gated community.

What Americans want is to live in a free land where all honest, law-abiding and hard-working people are treated decently, equally and in full recognition of their basic human rights. They want a sensible and humane economic refugee policy.

No policy should be based on false premises, and to date every single immigration proposal has done exactly that. Liberals and conservatives alike have started policy-

making from the inaccurate assumption that workers come to this country because their homelands suffer from a self-inflicted poverty.

That assumption is wrong.

Fact is, most people do not want to leave their countries of origin. People typically like their homelands, cultures, friends and relatives. And who really wants to be a new immigrant anywhere? It’s a hard life.

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Studies show that overall levels of permanent migration are usually not that large, most migrants tend to return and circulate, and migrations usually stabilize and decline over time. Why? Because when people migrate, they do so for one primary reason: work.

The central fact that policy-makers should acknowledge is this: The economic motive to migrate today is the predictable result of our newly globalized economy.

When international trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement are signed, life changes on both sides of the border. Manufacturing jobs head south, leaving the north with a new imperative to develop a service economy. On the south side of things, traditional economies (like small-scale family farming) are destroyed, and with them an entire way of life.

In this context it makes perfect sense that southerners, whose traditional economy is now gone, would head north to work in service professions – like picking your produce, sewing your clothes or, for that matter, building your walls.

Further, through globalization, new linkages emerge that did not exist before. A conduit is created between north and south: a manager hires a nanny and brings her north, a cousin gets a job and sends for you, children are born, and so on. New neighborhoods are brought into existence and with them new stories and new

possibilities. These linkages are as much a product of globalization as anything else.

At the same time – and this is something Native people will easily recall – the old way of life has been obliterated. What the reservation era of the 19th century did to Indian people – when traditional Native economies were destroyed and reservation borders were militarized and patrolled – globalization is now doing to people in the south.

Yesterday’s “renegades” are now called “wetbacks.”

Because of globalization, one no longer inherits the family farm, because the family farm no longer exists. The new factory does, but it can’t possibly hire everyone. So one follows a linkage north. This decision is not made out of whim, but for actual survival.

This is why all of the immigration policies proposed

so far would ultimately fail. Punitive measures taken against employers and disenfranchised workers, stepped-up surveillance and increased enforcement of the border – itself already made more porous through trade agreements

like NAFTA – would not

curb the migration of economic refugees.

It would only make their already desperate journey deadlier.

A realistic, humane policy must start by recognizing

the historical fact that

globalization – that thing in which America has played such a central role – created the problem we currently face: namely, masses of

economic refugees.

That means taking responsibility and showing compassion instead of blaming victims for purely political purposes. It also means remembering the very good reasons why human beings, whatever their countries of origin, have never loved a wall.

Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, teaches writing and Native American studies at Syracuse University.