Every holiday season, middle and upper-class Americans pour across the border to lie on the beaches of Mexico. They do not have to walk across deserts, pay smugglers, or risk their lives to get there. Once they return home to the U.S., many of these very same Americans pay their undocumented Latino housekeepers, lawn-mowers, nannies, and painters wages far below the legal minimum. They buy cheap clothes and televisions at Walmart that were made by under-paid Mexican citizens in maquiladora factories just over the border. They cook with fruits and vegetables grown and picked by Latino migrants. They buy meat and oil that have been processed by Latinos working in dangerous conditions.
The resounding message is that the U.S. wants the economic benefits of goods and labor from Latin America but does not want responsibility for the humans who make those benefits possible. Because it is not economically advantageous for Americans to take responsibility for poor migrant workers’ human and civil rights, we criminalize these immigrants so that we don’t have to.
The percentage of immigrants coming to the U.S. has not changed over the past century (hovering between 10-15% of total U.S. population, according to the PEW Research Hispanic Trends Project). Instead it is the percentage of immigrants that the U.S. government defines as illegal that has changed. Prior to the Hart-Celler Bill of 1965, there was no numerical restriction on immigrants from the Western hemisphere. Currently, “per-country ceilings” (or quotas) ensure that immigrants from one particular country can comprise no more than 7% of the total immigrants to the U.S. (according to the American Immigration Council). And overall numeric restrictions keep the number of legal immigrants at a fraction of the total of actual immigrants. Because over 50% of all immigrants to the U.S. are Latino, these policy changes impact Latin Americans more than anyone else in the world. Poor Latino immigrants feel the heaviest burden since priority is given to those who have the resources, bank accounts, and education to qualify them for legal entry. With its restrictive changes to legislation since the 1960’s, the U.S. government has created this so-called crisis of illegal immigration, resulting in a new “criminal” underclass.
What are the consequences of labeling a large number of already poor and vulnerable people as illegal? As Joseph Nevins, renowned immigration scholar at Vassar College, points out, the issue becomes framed in terms of “law and order” instead of human rights. Nevins argues that the right to migrate is an essential human right, because if people have no ability to leave difficult circumstances, all other human rights become meaningless. If people are entitled to human rights (e.g. life, liberty, justice, education, freedom of expression, etc.) but exist in a space where any of these are not possible, they ought to be able to migrate. However, the U.S. has reframed the human right of migration as a criminal act.
Not only does this reframing potentially violate human rights, it also turns the justice system and public opinion directly against “illegal” immigrants. Most people break laws at some point in their lives (e.g. not wearing a seatbelt, jaywalking, drinking underage). However, few have to face extreme consequences such as racial profiling, the lack of a fair trial, or being deported for a misdemeanor (the classification for a first-time border crossing). The “illegal” label further disadvantages migrants by denying them access to documentation such as government-issued driver’s licenses and social security numbers. To live in the U.S., many migrants eventually drive without a license or use a false identity in order to be able to work and support their families. Since they cannot vote, they have no ability to change the very policies that keep them criminalized. This voiceless workforce provides cheap goods and labor, yet their humanity goes unrecognized because they are criminals, and criminals don’t “deserve” the human rights and civil liberties that the rest of us do.
So what about President Obama’s most recent executive action on immigration? Unfortunately, his plan does little to change the precedent that has been set over the past fifty years. As he said in his speech on November 20, 2014:
“Now here’s the thing: We expect people who live in this country to play by the rules. We expect that those who cut the line will not be unfairly rewarded. So we’re going to offer the following deal: If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes — you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation…We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children.”
President Obama’s reform really only offers a certain portion of undocumented immigrants relief from deportation and work permits for the next two years. It does not offer a path to citizenship or a right to stay longterm. For many who came here without official sanction, merely existing and working in the U.S. has created a criminal record that would not pass a background check. Additionally, it may seem too risky to come forward and gain the short-term benefits when there is no long-term plan towards enhancing human and civil rights. While at first glance, President Obama’s rhetoric seems “family-friendly” and celebratory of the humanity of immigrants, his speech does not recognize that U.S. law has directly cast many poor Latino families and children as felons and criminals. The president’s gesture is not enough.
Even if Congress does the unthinkable and pulls together to pass more comprehensive reform, it is unlikely that human rights for poor immigrants will ever be at the center of the debate. Corporate business interests and consumer demand remain the driving forces for immigration reform. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and agriculture based industry want their low-wage laborers; Facebook, Microsoft and tech industries want access to high-skilled laborers from abroad. High-skilled immigrants have more leverage in terms of gaining access to resources, but the bulk of low-wage laborers will most likely be left out. It seems that immigration reform is not about the immigrants but about what they provide.
As Americans, we like our goods and labor cheap — but there are other costs. Financial interest makes employers and consumers see immigrants as commodities and criminals, and keeps us from seeing them as humans. Until the per-country ceilings and numeric restrictions are changed and poor immigrants’ humanity is made a priority, immigration reform will not be sufficient. We ought to reshape our single-minded policies. It is imperative to give these human beings legal, civil, and human rights. The U.S. and Latin America are much more than trading partners and it’s time we recognized that.
(Below are photos I took a few years ago on a trip to Tucson, Nogales, Agua Prieta on the U.S.-Mexico border)