By Jesús A. Rivas
|Dr. Jesús Rivas is a research biologist in the field of behavioral ecology and conservation of large tropical reptiles of the llanos of Venezuela which is his homeland. |
For more than a year now the US has been regularly talking about the crisis over illegal immigration and the topic seems to recur in the news every now and then. Early 2006 Senartor James Sensenbrenner presented a draft for bill that made a crime simple immigration offenses. This law also proposed to make a felony to give work, help or assist in any way to an illegal immigrant. Although there was no apparent opposition to the law in the congress the day that it was going to be approved, there were extemporaneous massive demonstrations all over the country in just every large city. This demonstrations had not only many legal as well as illegal immigrants but also a considerable part of citizens from both sides of the isle that worried about the problem that the lack of immigrants could bring to their economies and ways of living. Since then we have seen in the congress considerable performance of conservatives and liberals appealing to their base capitalizing on the immigrant issue. Even a compromise position seem to have emerged that pretty much validates the status quo. I want to take a little time trying to read between the lines and the political stunts of actors in both parties and try to see the deeper implication of it.
THE PROBLEM AND ITS SOLUTION
When trying to figure out a problem it is important to disentangle the real causes from some of their consequences. This is important because unless we address the root of the problems we are bound to have little success in finding a solution for it. The United States is so enwrapped in being the greatest country in the world that for the average US citizen (here after USites to differentiate from those citizens of this continent that were born South or North of the border) it might come as a surprise that most people would not really want to come to the US if they had another choice. Most immigrants that come make that decision despite many things they hold dear; their family, culture, home town and friends, just to mention a few. So why do they come? The answer is clear, there are better economic possibilities coming to the US than in those countries.
This simple observation would dictate immediately what a simple lasting solution for the problem will be. It is not bigger and better walls, nor larger and more comprehensive guest-worker programs nor any of the solutions you hear on this debate. The only thing that can stem the flow of immigrants into the US is simply if the living conditions in those countries improved to the point at which it is not worth up rooting themselves to come to another country. I am certainly not talking about setting up maquilladoras and sweatshops as economic alternatives. I am talking about providing the would-be-immigrants with real economic choices that respect their dignity and desire of having a good status of living. Of course this is not a solution that is being discussed in the debate because it seems as if that is not in the control of the US, the USites, or US politicians. Whether this is true or not is a matter for further discussion that I will not address here.
There is, of course, another way to definitely stop the flow of immigrants into the US. If the living conditions in the US were to deteriorate to the point at which poverty and economic toil are comparable to that of those developing countries they will stop coming as well, but this is certainly not what we want to do out of choice (although it seems we could count on the neocons to try this solution). So I want to set the record straight: the only two real solutions are not things that we can do easily or want to do for our own sake. In the remaining of this essay I will review whose interests are hurt by illegal immigration, who benefits from the Sensenbrener law. This will shed some light on the origin of how this immigration issue, which has been around for several years, has taken such important position on the recent current events.
WHAT PROBLEM, WHOSE PROBLEM?
These questions may seem silly because it is clear that 11 million immigrants in the country are bound to produce problems. However, the question really is - a problem for whom? Who hurts from the immigration of all these people into the country? Different groups of the political spectrum may see different problems and have different answers.
The immigrants have less than a perfect situation when they come. For an example I will refer to the case of the Mexican immigrants as they are the most important contributors to illegal immigration but the situation is fairly similar with most other countries. They need to pay 2 or 3 thousand dollars for the coyotes to smuggle them in and this in itself can be a dangerous undertaking even for those that pay the fee, as the coyotes often take advantage of them once they are in the US. The ones that chose to chance it through the desert face clearly more dangers as evidenced by the many people that die or are found all almost dead trying to cross the border from Mexico.
Once the immigrant arrives here, his (most of them are men) life is not necessarily easy. Immigrants generally work very long hours on hard jobs, they are often underpaid, they live in crowded conditions to save money in accommodation, so they have more left to send home or for themselves when they go back. Unlike as often argued in the public media, they do not enjoy the public benefits the country offers because, this might come as a surprise to most USites, the country does not offer a whole lot of public benefits!! The few that are available such as medicare, social security, food stamps and so on are very restricted to US citizens that need to show specific identification and papers in order to receive them. Not even legal immigrants have access to them so the fallacy that illegal immigrants squander the public services of the US citizens is simply a ploy to manipulate the middle class that do not understand those issues.
Furthermore, most immigrants “purchase” a phony social security card, that gives them a fake Social Security Number for them to apply for jobs but they never see the benefits of the money they pay into social security. They have taxes and social security collected out of their pay checks but because their social security numbers are not legitimate, they will not benefit from social security and they do not have any hope of getting a tax refund at the end of the year. So instead of being a burden on the public services of the country, they improve the life of the regular USites and they do not see anything in return.
However, bad as the situation of the immigrants is, they are not the ones who started the whole problem. Their involvement in public demonstrations were rather a reaction to the proposed resolution by senator James Sensenbrenner.
Average Joe (and Jane)
As seen, the immigrants are not complaining for the hardships they need to endure. How about the common USite?. Do immigrants harm the livelihood of the regular citizens and people that live in the US? The answer seems to be that they do not as suggested by the large amount of people (including a large number of USites) that joined demonstrations when they happened. In fact the large numbers of immigrants that live in the US provide their work force for a lot less money than it is worth. This cheaper labor reflects in cheaper prices for the commodities they work on whether it is construction, picking produce, landscaping, domestic labor, services and so on.
So the regular USite actually benefits from the availability of cheap labor the illegal immigrant provides. This is on top of that already mentioned fact that citizens benefit from the portion of taxes and contribution that many immigrants have removed from their paychecks and never benefit from. This applies whether you are a liberal or a conservative. So, what demographic benefits with the Sensenbrenner resolution?
Mexico (or country of origin)
Neither the people of the US or the immigrants have any problem. Does the country of origin have a problem with the illegal immigration? The answer is also: no. The immigrants live in the US with very little money so they can send substantial amount of money to their country of origin. Remittances by their nationals is the second largest source of income for Mexico and the largest income for several other Latin American countries (notably El Salvador). So the countries of origin actually see quite a burst in their economy thanks to the fact that their nationals are working in the US.
The US government and Corporate USA
I will discuss these two together because, unfortunately, they are very close to each other and their interests are for most part, very similar. As mentioned before the illegal workers pay taxes that they never collect or benefit from so all that money goes untouched for the federal reserves. The corporations that can hire extra cheap labor clearly benefit from having illegal immigrants that would work for lower wages than what they would have to pay for legal workers. Furthermore, thanks to the larger income that people in Mexico experience due to remittances they have more capacity to acquire US made commodities. So thanks to the free trade areas the US companies have experienced a lot of benefits from having wealthier Mexicans that can buy their commodities. So the presence of illegal immigrants means economic benefits through and through; for anybody and for every body. Who is complaining? Who does not benefit from all this flow of illegal immigrants?
There is a group of people that actually hurts with illegal immigrants. The lower class of USites. The poorest, with lowest education, the ones that would obtain those jobs that are taken by the illegal immigrants. The working class of the US is competing with unfairly low wages paid to the immigrants. Clearly, the companies will never want to pay good wages for farm labor so long as there are people willing to do it for little money. The working classes of USites clearly suffer from having fewer jobs and having companies willing to pay less money for the different jobs they are qualified to do. Now, was it the reason all this trouble got started? Is that the demographic that senator Sensenbrenner had in mind when he drafted his resolution? The extreme right wing of the Republican Party seems hardly the place where we would expect concern for the working classes. We just need to keep in mind that among the right wing conservatives we have the classical conservatives and the Neoconservatives that are indeed, very different at heart. We may be inclined to think that this debate comes out of racism and bigotry, but we would be distracted by this and not look at the real motive of the law. It is true that you need to be pretty racist to make illegal immigration a crime, and it seems like a strong deterrent intended to keep illegal immigrants out of the country using excessive force against them. However, most immigrants hardly know there is a difference between a crime and a smaller offense under current US law. The illegal immigrants are scared to death of being caught anyway, and they try as hard as they can not to be caught. The threat of jail will add little deterrent for those that are willing to risk their lives challenging the desert to come to the US illegally.
ALTERNATIVES THAT WE HEAR ABOUT
There are basically three positions on a continuum that goes from most liberal to most conservative. In one end we have some radical positions that want to stop immigrants from coming all together. This is the position of the most self-righteous USite that feels that they do not need anybody coming here, the classical conservative. However, closing the border will hurt the economic benefits that we all receive from the immigrant's labor. We also have the position of the most liberal people who believed that the immigrants should be given a path to citizenship in acknowledgment for their services to the country. This position, amnesty, although much fairer, has also its caveats, for the economy and even for the immigrants. When the illegal workers become legal they will start expecting better payments, their labor will become more expensive for the employers and it will no longer be attractive.
Once the illegal worker is a resident they will want to bring along the rest of the family and children so the crowded apartment where they used to stay with other workers as an illegal immigrant will not suffice. They will will have to rent a regular apartment for their family; this family that had plenty with the remittances that they sent when they lived in Mexico, will start needing more money for their US lives. In short the money that the former illegal immigrant will have less acquisitive value than it used to have. The illegal immigrant will join the working classes in the US, the poorest of the poorest, and will not necessarily be better off than he is now.
The third position is something pretty much of the likes of the status quo with a work program where the workers can still come under some restrictions and do pretty much what they do now, but legally. Notice that this position has been found as a compromise when the immigrants and their sympathizers took to the streets demonstrating against the Sensenbrenner law but it was nobody's original position. This would keep just about everybody happy except from the working classes that will then face a more fierce competition because at least with the current system some jobs are not available for the illegal immigrants. Once they have a guest working program, the lower classes of USites will really be facing a completely unfair competition at every level.
In view of this analysis the question remains What was the demographic that the Sensenbrenner law was trying to cater to? It is true that some conservative politicians had the opportunity to rally their base by attacking immigrants but this is only a pre-election stunt and not a real matter of policy since even the conservative politicians benefit from cheap labor and their consequences. Many of my fellow liberals would probably answer that it is because of the reign of bigots and racists that are controlling the country now-a-days. But I need to warn my fellow liberals not to be distracted since racism, bigotry are insults for people that think like us but not for the extreme conservatives or neocons. In order to keep the eyes on the ball we need to think of who is ruling the country and what they care about.
THE MIND OF A NEOCON
The only thing that Sensenbrenner law will accomplish is to incarcerate the immigrant and to keep them in jail. A regular conservative of the like of, say Pat Buchanan, would argue that this is not in the best interest of the country because of the bureaucracy and expenses of keeping people in jail. But we need to remember that the country is not being run by conservative people. We are in the talons of the neoconservatives. We may be inclined to think that the neocons are moved by despicable feelings such as bigotry, elitist exclusion, religious fundamentalism, other forms of racisms or xenophobias and although these are all regularly accurate adjectives for neocons they are never the reasons that move their acts.
Neocons never let their feelings (racism, bigotry, supremacy, etc) get in the way of their money; they would not move a finger unless there is a lot of it involved. Their racism, xenophobia and so on are also present and that is the reason they do not stop at the racist aspect of certain actions but it is never the reason that moves the neocons (for more details on the mind of neocons see Rivas 2006). Stopping illegal immigration would satisfy their bigotry but it would hurt their pockets. So, How would keeping the immigrant in jail help the agenda of the neocons?
THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
Many USites are not aware of the existence and functioning of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Many prisons are actually run by private companies. The government pays some private enterprise to manage the prisons. These enterprises then may have the inmates work on several activities. In theory, having the inmates work while they were in jail provides them with a blue print to be reinserted in society by the time they get out. However we have come a long way from that well meaning scenario.
As the country spins into a more intensive capitalistic agenda, the system has been spun such that labor of the inmates has became an important source of capital and now many prisons are big time sources for free/cheap labor for the corporations that manage them. There is a broad range of activities that are conducted by inmates while they are in jail. The use of the labor or prisoners goes from building highways, picking up garbage, crop collection, data entry, telephone reservations, animal husbandry, factory workers or any other way in which we can use cheap labor. So the prisons are outsourced to private companies that receive money from the tax payers to run them and in exchange use the labor of the inmates to the best convenience of the prison manager. This is a perfect investment as the tax payers pick up the bill of supporting the jails and the manager benefits from the labor of the inmates. The ideal dream for a neocon!! (see Davis 2003 for more details of the prison industrial complex).
ANOTHER LOOK AT THE SENSENBRENNER LAW
Think what the Sensenbrenner law means under this light. There are about 11 million illegal immigrant workers that can be incarcerated if the Sensenbrenner law is approved. It is 11 million good hard workers whose labor can be appropriated with the stroke of a pen. This is the perfect kind of non-violent "offender", that the PIC wants. One that works hard, that can endure hardships, that has no rights or anybody who cares about them among the influential elites of the country; and with the added benefit that they are not criminals at all so they are safe to handle out of the jails, in the field or wherever their labor is needed.
Think of all the money that the immigrants are sending home with their remittance adding up to billions of dollars a year. The Sensenbrenner law would make it possible for the PIC to pocket a substantial part of it. The working of the society would not change much, as the cheap labor of the workers will still be there to be hired for crop picking, for landscaping and for just about every other service. Except that this time the money goes to the neocon that manages the prison and not to the families of the workers over seas. In these terms the average Joe does not suffer higher prices of lack of labor so long as the labor from the immigrant is still available from the prisons. The immigrants would be restrained and out of everybody's life, only ready to serve when they are needed. What I am talking about is a new way of revisiting slavery in the 21rst century.
Just as neoliberalism is giving an opportunity to re-colonize countries that had attained their freedom by making them give away their sovereignty and decision making about the policies of their own countries (this is what free trade really means, Perkins 2004), this is the other side of the coin. The free trade agreements are a way to sequester the productive force of their citizens when they are over seas in maquilladoras and sweatshops. The Sensenbrenner law is a way to highjack the work force of the people that come to the US (escaping the maquilladoras) and make them work without paying for their labor.
We can find the mark of the neocons all over as we examine the Sensenbrenner law. Not only the potential for making an obscene amount of money, there also is the effect of blatant inconsideration of the immigrant who may be imprisoned without committing any crime; there is also the element of fear, such a common tool used by the neocons, in that provision that makes a crime also to provide help or hiring any immigrant. This is clearly to put pressure on the USites to use the services of the PCI over that of illegal immigrants that dare to stay in the country after the law is passed. So in one swift move the Sensenbrenner law provides the labor and the customer for the PIC; a master plan.
BUT IT WAS REPEAL!
Of course thanks to the massive demonstrations the congress had to stop on the last minute the proposed law but this does not mean that the law, or the intention of the law, was defeated. Since the Sensenbrenner law was repealed there have been new adjustments to the system in order to still attain its goal. With the lack of habeas corpus and the patriot act that removes any right of immigrants to a fair trial or prison limits, the stage is still set up for the PIC to benefit from their labor as if the law had been approved. Even if some guest working program was approved, so long as the immigrants can be imprisoned without cause, there is nothing preventing the neocons to continue their plans.
This policy of no tolerance towards immigration also has many benefits for the war mongering that the neocons rely on. With continuous drops in recruitments for a voluntary army and the obvious problems for USites if there were to be a new draft, the immigrants come again as to supply the labor that USites would not. With the threat of prison and enslavement, it would be easier for the military to recruit immigrants that are willing to pay the price of going to war in exchange of citizenship. These programs are already in place and we should expect them to increase in importance and support from the administration. From 11 million immigrants it should not be difficult to recruit at least the half a million soldiers needed to, say, invade Iran or any other needs of imperial expansion.
It is true that you need to have a high dose of bigotry to concoct a plan such as the one described but bigotry is not enough, neither is it the driving force. You need to have the drive for the money and disregard for any values that you only find in a neocon. So long as we only get outraged by the implicit racism in the moves of the neocons we stop there and do not take it any further. We need to see beyond the smoke screen in order to stop the neocons from advancing their agenda. Screaming bigot does not help protect the immigrants from slavery. Denouncing their plan and blowing the whistle on their agenda shows the true nature of their actions and it is more likely to produce the mayoritary support needed for effective action. The followers of the neocons certainly relishes racist and fundamentalis positions but that is not the force that move the neocons. The real leaders of the pack have a much better thought out plan and until we uncover it we will not defeat them.
Davis, A. Y. 2003. Are prisons obsolete? Seven Stories Press, New York.
Perkins, J. 2004. Confessions of an economic hit man. Berret-Koehler Publisher Inc., San Francisco.
Rivas, J. A. 2006. Understanding the minds of the neocons: Oil wars, attacks on the Venezuelan revolution and the corruption of US democracy. Vheadlines
© Copyright 2007 by AxisofLogic.com
Jesús A. Rivas is a biologist from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. His research interests include natural history, ethology, and conservation. He has been working for a number of years in the study of behavioral ecology and conservation of large tropical reptiles of the llanos of Venezuela which is his homeland. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee (Laboratory of Reptile Ethology). He taught for one year at Boston University, made TV documentaries for National Geographic Television as a field correspondent and continues to make independent film documentaries. He is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Math and Natural Sciences at Somerset Community College in Somerset, KY. He is also a prolific writer on social and political matters. His essays are frequently published in Spanish at www.aporrea.org.
Read more about his interesting background at: http://pages.prodigy.net/anaconda/.
He can be reached at: email@example.com. Visit his website at: http://www.anacondas.org
Other articles by Jesús A. Rivas
Environmental Conservation and Socialism. A Conservationist Manifesto for the Venezuela's revolution
Jesús A. Rivas , -Axis of Logic
WHAT IS THE PATH TO SOCIALISM: REVOLUTION OR EVOLUTION?
Jesús A. Rivas , -Axis of Logic (Original in Spanish at Apporea)
Rivas, J. A. 2007a. Demografía y conservación: ¿Cuantos somos, cuantos necesitamos y cuantos cabemos? Aporrea http://www.aporrea.org/ideologia/a35808.html.
Rivas, J. A. 2007b. La conservación ambiental y el Socialismo: ensayo para un manifiesto conservacionista. Encontrarte 55:1-20 disponible en http://www.aporrea.org/actualidad/a29018.html
Rivas, J. A. 2007c. La diferencia entre el socialismo y el capitalismo: mas allá de las relaciones de producción. Aporrea http://www.aporrea.org/ideologia/a32936.html.
Rivas, J. A., and R. Lavieri. 2007. El manejo social del Latifundio y la conservación del medio ambiente. Aporrea http://www.aporrea.org/endogeno/a34633.html
Contact Jesús Rivas: firstname.lastname@example.org