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Thursday, February 09, 2006

more misdirection

Was anyone else bothered by Wednesday's opinion piece in the Crimson trumpeting the right of the U.S., as a sovereign nation, to crack down on illegal immigration by building a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border? The main objection I had was that the author places the blame solely on Mexican immigrants, inveighing against them for "flaunting our laws" without also recognizing U.S. companies' role in actively recruiting undocumented labor.

This 2001 article from the New York Times, "Meatpackers' Profits Hinge On Pool of Immigrant Labor," explains a situation with which most of us are familiar, but which today's editorialist failed to even mention: the dependency of key U.S. industries on (often illegal) immigrant workers:
Of course, because of the widespread use of counterfeit documents, no one knows for sure how many [immigrants] are working illegally. But industry and government officials say that, for better or worse, foreign-born workers are now one of the most vital elements in the American food and agriculture system.

About one million farm laborers are on the job at any one time, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And a government study estimated that nearly 40 percent are illegal. A few years ago, the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that about 25 percent of meatpacking workers in the Midwest were probably illegal.
Given agribusiness's inclination to use illegal labor in order to drive down wages, perhaps our major beef ought to be with companies like Tyson Foods that flaunt U.S. laws by actually importing undocumented Mexican workers to their midwestern meatpacking plants: (more in expanded post)

The indictment of Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest meat processor, on charges that it conspired to smuggle illegal immigrants to work at its plants, is a sign of how dependent the American food and agriculture system has become on foreign-born workers, many of them here illegally.

Because of this heavy reliance, agriculture experts say, a major effort to crack down on the hiring of illegal workers could disrupt the nation's food industry.

"This would really cripple the system," said William Heffernan, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri who has studied immigrant labor. "In the communities where these plants are located there isn't an alternative work force. They'd have to raise wages and improve the conditions."

Until 15 or 20 years ago, meatpacking plants in the United States were staffed by highly paid, unionized employees who earned about $18 an hour, adjusted for inflation. Today, the processing and packing plants are largely staffed by low-paid non-union workers from places like Mexico and Guatemala. Many of them start at $6 an hour.

The shift in the economics of the food and agriculture industry has made such jobs unappealing to Americans, but highly enticing to immigrants.

Companies like Tyson, Smithfield Foods and Conagra have profited from paying low wages, pushing production lines faster and hiring workers who are much more willing to endure the hazardous conditions of a meat-processing plant, industry experts say.
In addition to letting U.S. companies off the hook, the editorial also breezily dismisses concerns about the proposed border wall, noting that unlike the Berlin wall, this one would block immigration, not emigration. Yes...but do we really want to make our country into one giant gated community? Will building a barricade really stem the tide of immigration, or will its primary effect be diverting attention from the extreme economic disparities that lead to most illegal immigration in the first place, including the U.S.'s role in alleviating and/or exacerbating those disparities through things like NAFTA?

The Dems open list is already abuzz with some commentary on the article; people may post more of their thoughts on Demapples soon, so keep your eye on that gorgeous site, too. I'm sure some of you readers are well-versed on U.S. immigration policy issues, so please share some wisdom and help school the rest of us!


At 2:41 PM, Blogger kyledeb said...

It's funny how many ideas get thrown around about illegal immigration demapples says we have to decrease the need for cheap labor, the freshman crimson editorialist says we have to close the border, and katie says its the fault of companies who are hiring them. Why make something so complicated when in reality it is so simple. Katie hit on it towards the end of her post.

"Will building a barricade really stem the tide of immigration, or will its primary effect be diverting attention from the extreme economic disparities that lead to most illegal immigration in the first place, including the U.S.'s role in alleviating and/or exacerbating those disparities through things like NAFTA?"

I also posted a blog entry on the subject, and immigration is going to become a huge part of my blog pretty soon. Before I get into what needs to be done, I'm going to speak of immigration from the point of view that you never hear. Very often it is portrayed as a U.S. problem. Hopefully by portraying it from the perspective of the entire region it will be easier to understand this problem.

First of all, it is completely contradictory and unfair to suggest a complete boycott of all latin americans, while the U.S. has its present policy towards Cuba. Because Cuban's are leaving oppression, their immigration is condoned if they touch U.S. soil. I personally agree with the policy, but I do not feel that it is fair to imply that the oppression other latin americans leave is any worse, nor is their journey any less perilous. If you're for closing off the border, then you're for closing it off to cubans as well and I dare you to go to Miami and take it up with them.

Second of all this not really illegal status is extremely hurtful for the countries from which they emigrate as well. It means that they can never return to their families to their home countries, allowing very little to be reinvested in the region (I'll get to the money later). The people who do get returned, are criminals, resulting in massive gang problems. Guatemala, where I was raised and find myself currently, is finding violence equal to its civil war levels due to the gang violence, a problem exported from the United States. So the result of the U.S. not really illegal policy is to keep the hard, well-behaved workers, but to export the law breakers who know no other life but crime. Well then, we should keep all of them out, some of you say, first, see above, second, good luck.

There is the matter of the amount of money that is getting exported to latin america, $40 billion dollars in total. That has the potential to be a rejuvinating force in latin america, well making up for the U.S.s botched aid policies in the region. But you know where most of that money is going, to exporting more illegal immigrants, and to the massive increase in the price for a coyote $5,500 dollars from here. The result is an exponential increase in the export of individuals, leading to someone like my father actually having trouble finding people to work for him. The phenomena is similar to the rural urban divide in China, and you better believe that it's the U.S.s only answer to its rise. Isolationism might satisfy short-term needs, but it will lead to long-term downfall (yes SOTU), which is why I actually am in favor of CAFTA, despite seeing all the maquilas, all the oppression that it causes on a day to day basis, something most people can't relate to. I have another long defense of that but I'll stick to immigration on this one.

To all these problems, there are two solutions, complete isolationism (closing off the borders so to speak), or an increased legitimacy for the practice. First of all, I think people are right. If the U.S. wanted to, it could throw out every single illegal immigrant, and close off the border. The policy would be disastrous for U.S. prosperity, and it would also be a humanitarian disaster. Even methods like preventing immigrants from working is goin to create a massive U.S. underclass, which is already there basically. To emphasize how hard it would be though, I put forth another, very related problem actually--drugs. All of the drugs and money involved in it goes to appease U.S. supply, much like with immigration, and it corrupts the entire region as well. If you really want to be righteous and help both the U.S. and the region, stop the flow of drugs. I don't see it as possible, and I think legalizing them would be a great help to the world, again another long argument. I'm guessing few see this connection, but I guess what I'm saying is that if you believe you can stop immigration, but not drugs, you better think things through.

The last argument is security, but don't tell me that because my family comes from michigan, and border security along the U.S. Canada border is non existant. Why the hell is an individual meaning to do the U.S. harm going to cross a desert for five days if he can take a few minute swim accross the river. Even then, they let me through Canadian customs with nothing but my Guatemalan driver's license, indicative of both racism with this immigration policy, and just the ease with which to cross that border.

This entire problem can be solved, all of the arguments I put forth, and all of the complications associated with them can be totally eradicated, if the resources are diverted from wasteful efforts to secure the border, towards giving people opportunity in the regions which they come from. If you were to target the poorest regions in latin america and attempt to give people a way to live honorably, you would be attacking the immigration problem at its heart. That won't be done, though, because despite all politicians efforts to put the blame for their bad efforts on immigrants, I garauntee you that the public money the U.S. spends on immigrants, is far outweighed by their economic benefit. I cannot imagine a Californian or Floridian agricultural economy without immigrants, meatpacking, janitors, you name it. Imagine your life, especially harvard students, without all the things immigrants provide, taxi drivers, janitors, dining hall workers, etc. if your willing to give all that up, or better yet take the job yourself. then you can argue for closing the border.

I apologize for being sporadic with this entry, its just something I feel so strongly about, and something where an entire spectrum seems to be missing from the debate.


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