Everyone has her own point of view on immigration reform. Indeed it is a policy area fraught with emotion and sentiment. Both sides debate migrant workers’ effect on low skilled jobs, but research has not shown natives to be harmed by low skilled immigrant labor.
We also debate whether social services are used disproportionately used by migrant workers. Again, evidence suggests that immigrants pay more into the social security system than they will receive, and their taxes cover on net the social services they usually don’t even use. Migrant workers pump an estimated $7 billion into the United States economy and have made an enormous cultural contribution to American society. Thus, it is hard to believe that a proposed solution actually taken into account by a sizeable portion of the American public involves building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico spanning four states.
I think that we need to think about immigration in context instead of in a vacuum. It is unrealistic to view the issue as if the United States had not played an important role in creating some of the very conditions that have resulted in migration North. The reality is that as long as there are ever widening economic disparities between the United States and the third world, it is unlikely that undocumented immigration can be curbed.
It is hard to make an argument against immigration without it sounding like a somewhat racist one. The United States has grown economically through immigration since its founding. When Latinos come to the US to work they often end up filling new jobs that are created for them, when they integrate into Latino businesses that spring up to serve the needs of the growing community. These jobs do not necessarily belong to natives, without immigration they would likely not exist.
But arguing about whether or not undocumented peoples take jobs (supposedly “natives” jobs) is beside the point to me. How can we complain when the United States has intervened on so many occasions around the world and helped to create the kind of social conditions that have inevitably lead to increased migration away from the Global South towards the North. This is especially the case in Latin America where the US has a long history of using its economic leverage to pass trade agreements skewed in its favor, according to some estimates, NAFTA drove 19 million Mexicans into poverty. Mentioning US illegal meddling in Latin America in the 80’s is further argument.
Are we blaming immigration for our own failure to take care of the worst off Americans? Americans claim that those who are most down and out are those most hurt by the competition of undocumented persons, but years of cuts in social spending has made them vulnerable in the first place. We often talk about migrants using U.S. social services as though the United States had a solid welfare system that really provided for people. While people bicker about questions of entitlement, the fundamental problem of the US’s failed social safety net goes ignored. Why should government take the blame when it can be passed on to undocumented migrants?
Perhaps now, as the Bush Administration pushes the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) we should consider what impact it may have on US borders. The conditions under which we pass these agreements are important. Fairness and the relative bargaining power of the parties to the agreement are important. In the US free trade may mean new opportunities for export goods, but for campesino farmers in Central America, it can mean (and has meant in the past) the loss of a livelihood, and this will affect immigration. We should think about the immigration debate in context before building walls.