South of the Border: Another View on Immigration

Cross-posted at dKos.

“We are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants,” Barack Obama has frequently said on the campaign trail and in debates. I could not agree more.  However, listening to the debate in Austin the other night through my ex-pat lenses, I found myself mildly frustrated with the discussion of the immigration issue. Solving the legal and security issues is important, but what about the larger issue of why the United States continues to have such a serious illegal immigration problem in the first place?

After 10 years of increases in border patrols, partial walls, higher budgets, and more advanced sensor technology, shouldn’t we have seen some better results? Maybe we would have, if the security measures were actually the answer to the root cause of immigration. But they aren’t.

According to the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Law Foundation(AILF), in the 1990s

,”the U.S. government implemented a “prevention through deterrence” approach to immigration control that has resulted in the militarization of the border and a quintupling of border-enforcement expenditures. However, the new border barriers, fortified checkpoints, high-tech forms of surveillance, and thousands of additional Border Patrol agents…have not decreased the number of unauthorized migrants crossing into the United States. Rather, the new strategy has closed off major urban points of unauthorized migration in Texas and California and funneled hundreds of thousands of unauthorized migrants through southern Arizona’s remote and notoriously inhospitable deserts and mountains.3

To be more specific,

“After the existing triple-fencing was constructed in San Diego, apprehensions in that sector of the border did fall from 450,152 in FY 1994 to 100,000 in FY 2002. >{2} However, during the same period, apprehensions in the Tucson sector to the east soared some 342 percent.”

So what is the root cause driving this continued illegal immigration? Perhaps one answer can be found on the Op-Ed page of La Prensa, one of 2 principal dailies here in Managua.

“A Estados Unidos se ha llamado…”el país de las mil oportunidades”, “el sueño americano”, etc., con relación al trabajo y al nivel de vida que tienen los norteamericanos y los afortunados extranjeros que radican en ese país. ¿No es natural entonces, que todos queramos irnos a vivir allá? [The US has been the called the ‘land of a thousand opportunities, the American dream, etc, in relation to work and the standard of living that north Americans and the fortunate foreigners who inhabit that country. Isn’t it natural, then, that we all want to go live there?]

Yes, the American Dream and everything it represents is still alive down here in Central America. And it retains its power in large part because the poor economic and social conditions in this part of the world remain seemingly insurmountable.

“La pobreza, la miseria, la falta de trabajo, en que la gente vive en la mayoría de los países subdesarrollados, es el factor principal de la emigración al vecino país del Norte. Nadie puede negarle a los ciudadanos del planeta Tierra a aspirar a algo mejor…a trabajar duro y honradamente para mantener a su familia, etc. y es natural que al no poder hacerlo en el paupérrimo país,…el ciudadano, por simple “instinto de conservación”, tiene forzosamente que emigrar para sobrevivir, haciendo grandes sacrificios económicos y de toda índole, exponiéndose a grandes peligros y avatares, incluyendo la misma muerte….” [Poverty, misery, lack of work, the situation in which the majority of people in underdeveloped countries live…is the principal factor causing their immigration to the north. No one can deny the citizens of planet Earth the aspiration of something better, to want to work hard and honorably to provide for their family…so it is natural that if that can’t be done in their own poor country, citizens, by survival instinct, decide to immigrate, making great economic sacrifices, putting themselves in grace danger, even death.”

Here in Nicaragua (like other Latin American countries), many people already have family in the USA, and start by following the required visa process to try to go to join them. But, unfortunately, after paying their $120 of fees, they wait months or years, only to be denied and then not reimbursed a dime.

Fixing the legal immigration system will help with that issue, but that’s not enough. There has to be an intense focus on changing the conditions that lead people to feel like there is no opportunity for them within their own country. Both Barack and Hillary made brief mention of working to create more jobs in Mexico and in other countries south of the border last night, but neither explained how exactly they would do that, nor did they fully address the foreign policies they would change to make that happen. (And to be fair, none of the moderators asked them to.)

Specifically, in the area of trade policy, I would argue that NAFTA and CAFTA have actually had a negative impact in relation to immigration policy, because they have had little impact on the serious economic disparity between the U.S. and the rest of the region. The AILF observes, for example, in relation to Mexico (but could be extrapolated to all of Central America):

“The current border policy fails to address the economic and social forces that continue, at least in the short and medium-term, to underpin a steady flow of immigrants from Mexico to the Untied States in excess of existing legal limits. These forces include the significant economic disparity that exists between Mexico and the United States. In addition, development needs in Mexico tend to encourage migration because workers send billions of dollars of critical remittances back to their home communities each year. Moreover, NAFTA created an economic system that chiefly serves the interests of large U.S.-based multinational firms such as agribusinesses. Such interests tend to favor the existence of illegal immigration because labor is generally cheaper when it is undocumented.”

What’s sad to me as a current resident of Nicaragua is how unwilling or unable many of my government leaders are to admit to these realities when I see them every day living on the other side of the border.

Cuban immigrant Miguel de La Torre, Associate Professor of Social Ethics and Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Peace at Denver University, echoed sentiments here in Nicaragua when he described the immigration debate this way:

“La ironia del actual debate migratorio, una paradoja convenientemente ignorada por los políticos y desconocida por el publico en general es que las políticas internacionales de Los Estados Unidos son directamente responsables por la presencia de los inmigrantes hispanos en este país.[The irony of the current immigration debate, a paradox conveniently ignored by politicians and unknown by the general public, is that the international policies of the USA are directly responsible for the presence of Hispanic immigrants in this country.”

These realities about immigration are being conveniently ignored at our peril, for a large majority of violence, instability, and yes, even global terrorism, can be linked to the desperation created by extreme poverty. And until we have a foreign policy that understands that diplomacy and foreign aid and fair trade agreements will win over many more of our “enemies” than walls and threats and bombs, we will not get very far in resolving the immigration issue, nor many others.  


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  1. thanks for reading.

  2. You are absolutely right that we must deal with the root causes when it comes to immigration reform.

    Don’t know if you have read Duke1676 — his blog “Migra Matters” which is on our blogroll, deals with many of these issues.

    Thank you so much for posting this here … great debut!

    (p.s.:  I edited your essay just to make it a little easier to read — more spaces between paragraphs)

  3. I’ve written about this a few times here and here.    These essays were also picked up by Migra Matters.

    There is absolutely no question in my mind that a major reason for immigration to the US from Mexico (where I spend time and am headed tomorrow for a couple weeks) is primarily that US policy (including NAFTA) impoverishes people in Latin America and leaves them little choice but to seek work in the US.  If this were the intention of US policy, it couldn’t do a better more thorough job of it.

    Do US politicians make the connection between US economic policy and immigration?  Not really.  They’d rather talk about  “illegal immigration” as if it occurred without US inducement.  Does the current Mexican government make the connection?  Hardly.  As long as there are remittances from the US and an outlet in the US for people who seek a better life but cannot achieve it in Mexico because of economic forces, Mexico’s neoliberal government is content.

    Thanks for your diary.  I hope there can be a lot more attention to Latin American issues here.  

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