John Buell

Immigrants as Lawbreakers?

Will the President and the new Congress be able to agree on "bipartisan" immigration reform? Any reform worth enacting will need to start from the premise that workers on both sides of the Mexican border are suffering displacement and exploitation at the hands of a corporate agenda. Mexican workers are not just like us. But neither are they singularly vicious law breakers about to rob us of our wealth. A better understanding of the circumstances propelling many immigrants to move not only to the Southwest but increasingly even to the North might help us forge the kind of ties needed to resist the worst forms of the current corporate agenda.

I am most disturbed by the attacks on immigrant lawlessness. Those casting stones would do well to take a close look at their own actions. Some immigrants break the law by sneaking across borders and accepting under-the-table jobs, but they are only aping a longstanding American tradition -- one even more deeply entrenched in our coastal economy. When I first moved to Maine and needed repairs done on my house, the very first offer was from a contractor who promised us that his under-the-table workforce could get the job done quite cheaply.

No one really knows what the size of the underground economy is in Maine or nationally, but most estimates place it at least 15% of GNP. Illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Central and South American nations have swelled that figure in recent years, but the practice was vast long before they arrived. Nor is the practice harmless. Most everyday taxpayers who work in jobs where for one reason or another income cannot be hidden and must be declared end up paying the bills for this lawlessness.

Were everyday Americans obeying the tax laws, there would be no Social Security shortfall at all and even Medicare would be stable much farther into the future.

Nonetheless, I don't want to focus this attack on the US domestic underground workers any more than on foreign workers. Our tax structure-like our political economy in general-is biased against ordinary working people.

And the political process itself gives the wealthy far more access to protest taxes and to craft elaborate escapes from the tax system. The underground economy gives some citizens a way of escaping unfair taxation, just as a porous Mexican border provides an escape to many poor and working class Mexicans.

Are the Mexican poor to be blamed for their own plight? They have even less responsibility for their plight than most poor and working-class Americans. Let's put aside for the moment the inconvenient truth that much of the Southwest part of the current US was stolen from Mexico in the 19th century. The Mexican government has never been an autonomous player in global or even domestic economic policy. Since the days of the Monroe Doctrine, the US has always claimed a right to monitor and limit the policies and agendas of nations in this hemisphere.

The Monroe Doctrine went into overdrive in the late '80s and '90s, when the US actively aided and abetted the corrupt one-party government of Mexico, the PRI, both to rob the left-leaning Cuauhtémoc Cardenas of the presidency and later to secure Mexican government ascent to a NAFTA agreement that has been as harmful to Mexican peasants as to manufacturing workers in Maine.

As Stuart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO, recently commented, the passage of NAFTA forced the Mexican government to end subsidies on the growing of corn and beans. So farmers couldn't afford to grow basic foods and workers couldn't afford to buy. And we wonder at the huge increase in immigration in the last ten years.

If trade treaties were not bad enough, world monetary policy, administered through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, institutions themselves dominated by US finance, have added to the strain. IMF and World Bank austerity policies have forced governments in South and Central America to slash pensions, unemployment, food aid and expenditures on modernized infrastructure -- all in the interests of low taxes. And the results in most cases have been near disaster -- slower growth and burgeoning inequality.

In the last quarter century, US politics has also been characterized by growing elite domination of our media, our elections, and our economic policies. Not content with extending more tax favors to corporations and the rich, corporate leadership has engaged in an unprecedented campaign of lawlessness, one far more detrimental than the actions of impoverished peasants crossing our borders. Acuff reports The National Labor Relations Board has documented that over 20,000 workers in America have been fired or victimized trying to exercise their right to form a union every year for the past 10 years.

The victims of this lawlessness include US workers, so-called illegal immigrants and employees of factories throughout South and Central America.

We don't need a fence across the Mexican border, nor do we need to turn our employers into immigration cops. It would do far more good for them to obey existing labor and occupational and wage and hour standards. Why this is so and how it might be accomplished will be the subject of a subsequent column.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2007

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.