John Buell

Immigrants as Threats?

Sometimes email brings startling surprises. Recently I wrote on threats to water resources posed by privatization and commercial bottled water (4/15/06 TPP). I expected notes defending private ownership of water rights or bottled water.

Instead, one respondent commented: "As with almost all stories about wages falling, overpopulation, increases in gang activity and diminishing resources, we never see the actual cause identified -- immigration. Had we stuck to a reasonable policy of only allowing in about 100,000 persons a year, we would now only have about 250 million people. Nowhere does it say in the US constitution that if the Philippines, Mexico, China or India do not treat their citizens well we will take them in. Of course, even King George realizes that by increasing the labor supply, wages go down while unemployment skyrockets."

Immigrants have become the hot-button issue of our time, perhaps superseding or becoming absorbed into the war on terrorism. There are, however, risks in this step. The contribution that mainstream values and practices make to our most pressing problems and even to the high rate of immigration itself can be lost in this rhetorical escalation.

Some environmentalists argue that immigrants unduly tax planetary resources. With their high birth rates, large numbers will soon be consuming resources at the obscene US rate. In an increasingly global economy, however, resource consumption depends on far more than location. Corporate globalization brings modern western technologies and consumer preferences to the rest of the world. World air pollution and world demand for a range of scarce commodities are heavily driven by economic expansion in China and India. Mexico City is itself a primer on traffic congestion and air pollution. Just as broadly, US and European experience suggest that as immigrants achieve relative economic security, birth rates slow.

Why do they come in the first place? When Americans aren't worried that "they hate us for what we are, not for what we do," they become equally convinced that everyone wants to live here. Yet the Mexican press has amply demonstrated that many Mexicans regard work in the United States as only a last hope to keep their families alive. They intend to return home as soon as possible. One of the paradoxes of harsh border policies is that many end up spending longer in this country than they had planned.

The most rapid increases in immigration have occurred only within the last few years. There were just 2.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in 1995. 8 million have arrived since. NAFTA plays a major role in this forced exodus. As economist Jeff Faux points out, the Mexican government had long sustained subsistence agriculture through price supports on corn and beans.

NAFTA eliminated these subsidies and hypocritically insisted on opening Mexican agriculture to competition with subsidized US agribusiness. Two million Mexican farmers were driven from their land to the growing urban centers. Thirty years ago, Mexican wages were 23% of US wages; by 2002 they had sunk to a mere 12%.

What role did Mexican peasants and factory workers have in these changes? Throughout much of the twentieth century, Mexico was ruled by a corrupt one-party system, often with the connivance and assistance of the United States. Had NAFTA been subject to a free and fair referendum in Mexico, it would surely have lost.

Yet if immigration and wage decline can be traced in part to US trade treaties, domestic policy should not be neglected. Working-class wage stagnation began a quarter-century ago. In an effort to curb late-seventies inflation, Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker pushed interest rates to crushing levels and brought the economy to a halt. Ronald Reagan began a long series of attacks on unions. Unemployment, weakening unions and a withering safety net soon traumatized many American workers.

Trauma provides fertile soil for an anti-immigrant backlash. Yet getting off the global economy -- either through protectionism or walling off Mexico -- may be no answer. Many production processes are now globalized, and labor in the developing world also deserves justice. Trade treaties that protect wage and organizing rights everywhere are the best answer to the corporate globalization that impels rapid population shifts. Here at home, giving all workers, documented or not, full labor rights is the best way to protect domestic labor. If the undocumented immigrants who pick our fruit and clean our resorts are paid a living wage, they will in turn buy other goods and services, thereby expanding the pool of good jobs for all. Just as fundamentally, such policies lay the foundation for transnational cooperation to reform trade treaties.

Such an agenda may strike some as utopian. We are far from adopting such a course. Yet expelling undocumented workers and forcing employers to accept real sanctions is both cruel and even more implausible. Earlier generations of immigrants have given us not only hard work but cultural and political vitality. I will stake my gamble on attempts to build new progressive political alliances.

John Buell ( is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News in Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2006

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