An Enlightening Exchange on Invasions and Immigration

At 08:06 PM 5/17/2006, Dan M wrote:

I really have to wonder sometimes about some of the remarks expressed here. It seems as though, some don't think early Americans had the right to just "move in", because the indigenous people as they like to refer to them, did not invite them in or want them here. But, they think the illegals, who cross our borders should be welcomed without scrutiny. Could anyone explain this?


I confess that I have not been following in detail the discussion up until now, but your question is rather straight forward so I'll take a stab at it. In a debate that has been reduced to cartoon-like simplicity it is a challenge to explain complex realities. I will do my best. I understand that some of my premises will not be familiar or acceptable to you, but if you bear with me you will at least understand how it is that reasonable people may take a view that runs counter to "what part of illegal don't you understand?"

The differences in context between the European settlement and conquest are significant and they explain the difference in attitude toward the two movements. In the first case the settlers came looking for a number of opportunities, minerals, land and labor in the southern parts of the hemisphere and primarily land in the north. They were pushed from Europe by factors internal to Europe--economic competition and population pressure on the land. To a large extent they were welcomed by the mostly agrarian societies that they encountered here. Conflict became a regular feature of the relationship as the Europeans and their descendants made clear that they would settle for nothing less than the cleansing from the land of the existing populations and their replacement with Europeans. We know that this was carried out over approximately two centuries through the burning of villages, the enslavement and export of communities, the introduction of disease (this is aside from the inadvertent introduction of pathogens for which the new-comers can not be criticized), destruction of crops and game, forced relocation, and attacks on both civilians and warriors.

The current situation is different in a number of significant ways. I'd like to illustrate two of them. The first has to do with the mechanics of the current wave of immigration and the second with the history and intent of U.S. immigration laws.

1) In the first instance we have to highlight the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexico. This package of measures has greatly reduced the barriers and inconveniences faced by (especially U.S.-based ) corporations thus allowing them to gain significant advantage in relation to both Mexican producers and workers. The effects have been particularly hard on urban workers with the incomes of salaried workers dropping by 25% and those of the self-employed dropping by 40%. The middle-sized Mexican companies who were supposed to have benefitted from the treaty have not, in fact, done so. Even the limited goal of having Mexican companies be suppliers to the U.S.-owned maquiladora factories on the border has not materialized. The conditions of employment in the maquiladoras are particularly onerous and workers face a brutal response when they attempt to address these conditions through organizing. The downward trend in living standards since the treaty can be seen throughout the country and across a wide range of job categories. The number of people leaving the country to seek better wags has increased accordingly. Anyone familiar with Mexico will realize that there is a fierce cultural loyalty in Mexico not so much to the nation as a whole to a person's region of origin, it's communities, culture and particular traditions. Leaving that to go to the U.S. is not a choice undertaken frivolously.

When a food source for any living creature becomes scarce, it goes in search of food. In this case it is as though we were to begin cutting down and exporting the foliage in the northern part of Minnesota while erecting a fence to prevent the deer from following their food source. In this case the wealth is moving north but the people are prevented any means to follow. This serves two functions. First it means that wages plummet in Mexico as people become willing to settle for a fraction of their former income in order to feed their families as best they can. In addition it sends people through the pressure valve of the border. This creates a huge body of insecure workers who can be, and are, forced to accept conditions and/or rates of pay that citizens of the U.S. would not tolerate. Hotel owners on the west coast are quoted as saying that they will hire undocumented immigrants in preference over African Americans because Black folk have become "too much like Whites." That is to say that Black workers have come to believe that they are entitled to certain rights and standards as workers that immigrants are in no position to demand. (So that there is no confusion that this has to do with inherent abilities, in Chicago Temp services report that employers request Latino workers but ask that Puerto Ricans and Chicanos--both groups with citizenship rights--be excluded.) This is a major pillar of contemporary U.S. economics, which is why employers are fighting to ensure that there be a bracero program that will import workers but exempt them from legal protections. The combination of "Free Trade" and restricted legal immigration is a great combo if we want to ensure a desperate work force on both sides of the border. The pressure-cooker atmosphere in Mexico guarantees that the waves of illegal immigration will continue, even with the temporary-fix strategies of the current legislative proposals. They simply will not work.

2) On the second issue I'll point out that immigration law has always been based on a racial filter. From slavery to the Chinese exclusion act to current policy, there has always been a distinction between two kinds of immigrants: those who will be assimilated as White and can achieve the rights of citizenship, and those who will be assimilated on the dark side of the line and will live on the wrong side of the billy club. There have been frequent debates in the courts over which side of the line to send particular groups to (Finns were initially determined by the courts to Black, not White, due to their obvious inferiority). The current situation is better compared to the fugitive slave act than to the initial European influx. The law was clearly repressive legislation intended to control a labor market and maintain a legal and economic structure that had existed as long as the nation itself. It coexisted with measures to deny credit to Black entrepreneurs and to prevent free Black workers from taking the jobs that were seen as rightfully belonging to citizens. Many thousands of people defied the law and supported the workers escaping the position they had been assigned in the U.S. democracy. The slogan might have been "what part of unjust law don't you understand?"

I hope this at least addresses the question you raised. Concentration camp escapees and cocaine smugglers both sneak across borders and violate laws in order to do so. The similarity, however, is a superficial one and should not prevent us from looking at the wider human and economic forces at play. In one case we may be compelled to defy the law, in the other to uphold it. If we wish to reduce the pressure on the border we should cease to enforce the untenable Trade regime (the corporate bill of rights) that makes life unlivable for so many Mexican families. Note that efforts to impose such treaties in other parts of Latin America have caused massive insurgent movements among those who do not wish to live the Mexican experience. If such agreements are imposed we can expect to see an inflow of equally desperate people from those lands.

I should mention here that I do not have a great amount of leisure time to participate in on-line discussions at this time. This means that if anyone responds to this post and you don't hear from me for awhile, be assured that no disrespect is intended.

Ricardo Levins Morales

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