This is a slightly more inebriated post than usual... bear with me.
Tonight I attended a presentation called “An Inconvenient Truth About Immigration” where the presenter laid out a case for reform of immigration laws and a reconsideration of the narrative of America’s history as the melting pot. One of the first points she made was that African slaves were not the only involuntary immigrants to the United States; hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were annexed when the U.S. annexed half of Mexico as a result of the 1848 war, and Puerto Rico and its inhabitants became “immigrants” later when the U.S. acquired the territory from a war with Spain. Interesting to think about, for sure.
To the rest of her presentation: Her focus was on Mexican immigrants, but she framed the issue of “illegal” Mexican immigration through the historical background of immigration policy in the U.S.: Chinese immigrants were first welcomed when cheap labor was needed during the western expansion in the mid-19th century (and expanding slavery was not possible) and then barred from citizenship for forty years while white Europeans immigrated in record numbers during the same time period; Japanese immigrants were welcomed when Hawaii was a fledgling territory and (again) when labor was needed in the west, and then deemed “enemy aliens” during World War II; and so on. Import labor when needed; deport when not.
As I understand it, from the fifties through the early nineties, de facto U.S. policy on Mexican immigration was one of a “revolving door”. It was understood that most Mexican immigrants were temporary – particularly, seasonal – workers, who would work for a short time and return to Mexico with their earnings. The political climate shift in the mid-nineties brought a fear of Mexican immigration and forced former President Clinton into pushing restrictive measures against their entry into the country. The effect was to make immigration more dangerous and more expensive; of which, the effect was to cause Mexican immigrants to stay in the U.S. for fear of not being able to come back, and thus to bring their families with them, thus opening a huge can of worms for the ethics and economic issues relating to Mexican immigration.
So, in thinking about this, I kept coming back to the singular objection to unfettered immigration from Mexico: they’ll take our jobs/depress wages/ruin small business/etc. This objection comes politically from the left and the right (even though the right usually claims to believe in economic libertarianism). This may be the Delirium talking, but I feel like this objection boils down to a basic fear of the poor – that their poverty is contagious. A sort of: “There must be a reason the country they come from has a lower standard of living: they must not want a higher one.” I’m not sure I’m explaining this well… but, oh well. Hopefully you can read through the drunken lines.
It seems to me that there are three ways to get rich: 1) get lucky, 2) work very hard and with a lot of skill, and 3) have people work for you for less than their labor is worth (and any combination of the three). Applied to entire countries, I feel that 3) is the dominant factor, and certainly has been for much of the history of the U.S., including the present day. What is cheap is cheap because the labor is cheap; the labor is cheap because standards of living are different. Also, completely unrelated and completely related: the economics. Can anyone explain to me how we had near full employment when the economy was humming along in the late 90s, and yet illegal immigration from Mexico taking jobs away from U.S. citizens somehow suddenly caused the economy to crash after the September 11th attacks, and later, during the financial crisis and banking meltdowns of very recent history? What the hell did Mexican immigrants working for low wages have to do with any of that? Am I just drunk, or I am remembering correctly that nobody was complaining about “depressed wages” during an economic expansionary period?
One other weird thing I’ve seen in the immigration debate (I’m not sure which political windbag it came from, nor if it’s just some meme started anonymously on the internet): “I don’t want to deport them, I want to encourage self-deportation”. AKA, “Mexican immigrants only come here because we subsidize them and the schooling of their children”. Um, really? Say whaaa?
Harkening back to that huge can of worms, the DREAM Act is awesome and should be supported. Write your congresspersons.