Today's Topic



Illegal Immigration as
a Social Problem,
Part I

Part II

Natalia J. Garland

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Immigration reform is in the news again, second in importance only to the Iraq War. It would be wise to review the major, although often distorted, activist arguments in favor of amnesty and/or citizenship for illegal immigrants. Not only will I show certain arguments to be erroneous, questionable, or intimidating, but I will also prove that the Hispanic community is more diverse than the amnesty arguments would suggest. Rather than argue the pros and cons of amnesty/citizenship, I will pursue intellectual honesty and historical fact in my analysis of the amnesty/citizenship movement.

In Part I of today's essay, I will explain the slogans used at immigration reform protest marches. In Part II, I will comment on a speech by Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, in which he advocates for illegal immigrants. It will become clear that no matter what kind of reform legislation is passed, the attitudes of illegal immigrants toward one another and toward mainstream America might require social adjustments for generations to come.

Immigration Reform Protest Slogans

(1) We did not cross the border, the border crossed us
This slogan requires that we go back in history to the time before and during the presidency of James K. Polk. Present-day Texas was then a part of the Mexican state of Coahuila-Tejas. The Mexican government had invited settlers to that area. In 1835, the people in the northern section of Coahuila-Tejas revolted against the Mexican government and, in 1836, after winning the Battle of San Jacinto, declared themselves the Independent Republic of Texas.

Polk was president from 1845 to 1849. Polk and the Congress wanted to include Texas in the United States. In fact, Congress had made the decision to annex Texas even before Polk was sworn into office. There were various reasons for wanting Texas. (1) There was a fear or expectation that Great Britain or France would claim the territory if America did not. (2) American settlers were already moving westward by wagon trains. Some settlers, especially those in the Independent Republic of Texas, assumed they would one day be a part of the United States. (3) The concept of Manifest Destiny--that America was destined to extend from ocean to ocean--was used to justify the acquisition of more land.

Historians generally agree that Polk manipulated Mexico into war over the ownership of Texas, and that Mexico had a weaker military and a disorganized government. However, Polk had offered to purchase Texas and the present-day areas of New Mexico and California (in the manner of the Louisiana Purchase), but Mexico turned down the offer. Nobody can blame a country for defending its borders but, in trying to understand current illegal immigrant attitudes, it must be stressed that Mexico could have avoided war and loss of life.

The Mexican-American War was fought from 1846 to 1848. It ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. America obtained present-day Arizona, California, and New Mexico; as well as sections of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. And, the Texas border was extended to the Rio Grande River. These lands represented 55 percent of Mexico's territory. What seems to be overlooked by illegal immigrant advocates is that America also paid 15 million dollars to Mexico for war damages incurred by Mexico.

Another overlooked historical fact is the American acquisition of the Oregon Territory under Polk's presidency. Polk was able to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain in which present-day Oregon and Washington were brought under American jurisdiction.

Do illegal immigrants, most of whom never graduated from high school, really understand the details of the Mexican-American War? Or is this history, or some version of it, common knowledge in their culture? Or is the protest slogan being fed to them by politically astute activists and protest march organizers? What about illegal immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, or Ecuador? The United States did not conquer or purchase any lands from those countries. The border-crossed-us slogan can be applied only to Mexican illegal immigrants. This creates a political and social division between two types of illegal immigrants: Mexican and non-Mexican. Or, it cancels out the legitimacy of the slogan.

Were it not for the availability of jobs in America, probably nobody but political radicals would object to the Southwest as American territory. If this area were still desert wasteland, or if Mexico had won the Mexican-American War and this area became as poor as the rest of Mexico, nobody would want to live here legally or illegally. What makes the Southwest an attractive place to live is the fact that Americans developed it economically. What about protest marchers carrying the border-crossed-us signs in New York City or Chicago? If they are claiming the Southwest as their rightful homeland, then it follows that illegal immigration should be restricted to the Southwest only.

Now, if illegal immigrants living in the Southwest became American citizens through reform laws, would they regard the Southwest as belonging to America or to Mexico? Would they join with Mexican-American political radicals to secede the Southwest to Mexico? Would they then demand Mexican citizenship, or form an entirely different country on that portion of land? Or would they show loyalty to America and accept our geographical boundaries?

There are not any citizens of Great Britain illegally immigrating to America and attempting to claim rights to Oregon and Washington. This alone should expose the absurdity of the border-crossed-us slogan.

(2) We Are America
"We Are America" is a coalition organization whose purpose is to obtain citizenship for illegal immigrants and then register the new citizens to vote. The coalition was formed in 2006. They use protest marches as a source of power. They believe in non-violence, and wear white tee-shirts at protest marches to symbolize peace and unity. They are against a border fence.

However, illegal immigrants are not America or Americans. This is fact. They are citizens of foreign countries and they are working and living in America illegally. They carried flags of various foreign countries at the immigration reform protest marches. The American flags were added only after outrage was expressed by American citizens. Compassion for illegal immigrants should not be based on distorted or hidden truths. Any advocacy should be based on intelligent reasoning and not on inaccurate or misleading slogans.

It is possible that some illegal immigrants feel American, or merely want legalization, because they have jobs here. They have settled. They have families. They drive cars, go shopping, attend church, and even cross the border back and forth to Mexico to visit relatives. America's immigration laws have not been enforced, and employers have openly exploited them for their labor. After so many years of the don't-ask-don't-tell policy, illegal immigrants have grown accustomed to America as their permanent residence.

There seems also to be an assumption that illegal immigrants will eventually become legalized. Most reform politicians are not calling for any kind deportation. Even those who object to illegal immigration are not calling for forced and massive deportation. If the American government forcefully rounded up millions of illegal immigrants, such action would be reminiscent of the forced relocation of Native Americans and of Japanese Americans during World War II. There would be human misery, resistance through sanctuary, and probably violence and death.

Now, if illegal immigrants have permanently settled, and if there is an expectation of eventual citizenship, then they cannot criticize the westward expansion of the early settlers in America. Remember, the settlers in Texas and other parts of the Southwest expected that one day they would be part of the United States. Many of the settlers, like today's illegal immigrants, needed work and housing. This comparison should finalize the outcome of the Mexican-American War. Or, it cancels out the legitimacy of the slogan.

(3) No human is illegal
Right. There is no such thing as an illegal human. But some humans have broken America's immigration laws. This is fact. Again, if illegal immigrants, or the self-appointed leaders of the immigration reform protest movement, want compassion from American citizens, then they must present their situation honestly. They broke the law. They knew what they were doing. Admit it. Explain it. Advocates should help everyday American citizens to understand the illegal immigrant perspective, rather than to demand satisfaction. Communication is blocked because the illegal immigrant situation is presented foremost as a political demand.

There is perhaps a hyper-sensitivity to the word illegal. Illegality is not a judgment on human worth. Legalization will not necessarily increase the self-esteem of illegal immigrants or their descendants. The desire to assimilate and the process of assimilation through education and upward mobility will provide the path to overcoming this 'inferiority complex.'

(4) Citizens not criminals
Immigration laws have been broken by both illegal immigrants and their employers (the employers are both citizens and criminals). Many illegal immigrants have also committed identity theft. This slogan seems to suggest that citizenship would eliminate their illegal status and therefore the so-called necessity to commit identity theft.

The concept of criminality seems like a dramatic exaggeration of the illegal immigrant condition. Yes, they broke America's laws and should accept responsibility for this. But no one is putting them in the category of people who have criminal personalities. No one is saying they are hardcore and incorrigible scoundrels. (Of course, some of them are indeed criminals of various sorts: rapists, wife beaters, child molesters, drug dealers, etc.).

The concept of criminality is also possibly a reaction to the attempt to make illegal immigration a felony crime rather than a misdemeanor. Since the immigration laws are so seldom enforced, it does not seem that illegal immigrants would have been in peril. Again, as with the improbability of forced and massive deportation as a solution, it is also unlikely that the American court or prison systems could accommodate millions of new felons. If felony arrest were a real concern, an alternative would be not to enter or stay in America illegally but to abide by immigration laws.

(5) Today we march, tomorrow we vote
The Hispanic vote has the potential to affect election outcomes. According to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights: "...there are 14.25 million potential voters among legal immigrants who are currently eligible to naturalize and the 16 - 24 year old U.S. born children of immigrants. This includes 12.4 million potential new voters who can be eligible to participate in the 2008 elections."

This slogan feels like intimidation. There is an assumption, or warning, that all Hispanics will vote according to one criterion only: whether or not the candidate or the political party supported citizenship for illegal immigrants. Many politicians also seem to assume that Hispanics will vote as a bloc and not as freethinking individuals.

There are different political opinions among Hispanics in America. Cuban Americans, for example, are very different from Mexican immigrants. Cubans fled to America to escape a dictatorship government. Although many continue to live within Cuban American communities in Florida, they seem not to be politically isolated or manipulated. They tend to have an older population than the Mexican immigrants, and they appreciate America. In contrast, some Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans seem to maintain nationalistic Mexican preferences as evidenced by the territorial claim to the Southwest and a refusal to speak English.

Politicians should also keep in mind that some Hispanics do not favor illegal immigration. The protest marchers are the most vocal group but not necessarily representative of the majority of Hispanics in America. It really cannot be predicted how legalized immigrants would vote, because not all are identified with activist politics. The voting power of Hispanics would depend on various factors. (1) Voter registration. (2) Voter motivation to go to the polls. (3) Voting for Democrats would probably require a perpetual underclass of working poor who view Republicans as anti-immigrant and racist. (4) Conversion to evangelical religions (a current reality in America and also in Latin America) could give a large slice of the voter pie to the Republicans. (5) Extremist Mexican factions could usurp the Democratic Party in localities with large immigrant populations. (6) Extremist Mexican factions could form their own political party or parties. (7) Mainstream Americans could vote as a bloc and counteract an immigrant swing vote. (8) Successful middle-class Hispanics would be more likely than protest-marching illegal immigrants to vote conservative.

(6) Our families, our America, our vote
Although I tried to research this slogan, I could not find its origins. So, I will offer my interpretation. The reality is: their families, their vote, and their political version of America. This is an extremist view of multiculturalism. It means that illegal immigrants are not expected to adopt American values. Citizenship would legalize their presence in America and give them the right to vote. But extremist factions could continue to express hatred of America and re-arrange America to reflect Mexican nationalism. America, however, cannot belong exclusively to any particular ethno-political or racial group. America is a democracy with a constitution.

As for our families, illegal immigrants send approximately 17 billion dollars annually back to their families in Mexico. This money greatly boosts the economy of Mexico. An overlooked fact is that the upper class in Mexico is white, while the poor people who flee to America are dark-skinned. Which country is racist?

(7) Americans by choice, not by chance
This slogan implies that citizenship by naturalization is better than citizenship by birth. The slogan is obviously flawed, since many Hispanics are citizens by birth. The child of an illegal immigrant, for example, is automatically an American citizen because the child was born in America. According to this slogan, César Chávez was a citizen by chance. Personally, I regard myself as a citizen by choice. I could leave America if I so chose. I choose to stay.

(8) ¡ Sí, Se Puede!
This slogan (Yes, We Can!) was adopted from the farm workers' movement led by César Chávez in the 1960's - 1970's. Chávez was born in 1927 and died in 1993. He was a third-generation American citizen (of Mexican-Basque descent) and a U.S. Navy veteran. He was a proponent of non-violence and an admirer of St. Francis and Mahatma Gandhi. Chávez organized the United Farm Workers union, and conducted strikes and boycotts to obtain higher wages for grape and lettuce workers and to eliminate the use of harmful pesticides.

Chávez was against illegal immigration. He understood the economic dynamics of supply and demand. An excessive supply of workers means a reduction in wages. When farm owners tried to use illegal workers as strike-breakers, Chávez would report the illegal workers to the I.N.S. Chávez protested the hiring of illegal workers, and was joined by Senator Walter Mondale (also vice president under Jimmy Carter) and by Ralph Abernathy (successor to Martin Luther King, Jr.). In addition, Chávez' brother and U.F.W. members actually patrolled the border to prevent illegal workers from crossing.

An overlooked fact about Chávez' non-violent perspective is that he was a vegetarian. He believed that animals should be protected and not used for food, clothing, or scientific experimentation. He was also against rodeos and bullfighting.

Just as it is questionable whether illegal immigrants really understand the details of the Mexican-American War, it is also questionable if they know the details of the life of César Chávez. Apparently, they believe that if Chávez were alive today, his sense of compassion would extend to the current illegal immigrant situation. Although the amnesty/citizenship movement has adopted Chávez as their role-model, they do not adhere to all of Chávez' ideals. As an animal rights advocate, it is doubtful that Chávez would approve of illegal immigrants working for meat-packing companies.

(9)There are some jobs Americans won't do
According to an article by Thom Hartmann (author of What Would Jefferson Do?), the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are currently 7.6 unemployed Americans--not including 1.5 million who are considered long-term unemployed. There are many other Americans, perhaps 5 to 10 million, who are employed part-time or are under-employed. It appears factual that illegal immigrants work for lower wages, for more than 40 hours per week, and longer than 5 days per week. Are Americans less willing than illegal immigrants to accept this kind of employer exploitation?

Americans probably would not do agricultural work. It appears a fact, however, that illegal employees have driven down wages in jobs such as construction, meat-packing, and in the hospitality industry. The real question is: if Americans are refusing to work for low wages, how are they surviving? Have they made career changes? Are they among the unemployed? Are they eligible for welfare? Are family members supporting them? How does anyone remain unemployed on a long-term basis? Although I accept as fact that illegal immigrants have driven down wages, there needs to be a study to prove that this is correlated with unemployment rates.

Perhaps of greater importance is the future of America's middle class. Let's say that American meat-packers used to make $17.00 per hour, whereas illegal immigrants are willing to work for $9.00 per hour. The profit is passed on to the company executives, and the consumer benefits very little, if at all, in terms of the price of meat in the supermarket. It takes only a basic knowledge of arithmetic to see what is happening here: a greater gap between the rich and the working poor.

If illegal immigrants become American citizens, will they continue to work for $9.00 per hour? Will there children have opportunity for upward mobility? Or will an underclass of working poor be stuck in low-wage jobs? If there are more workers than jobs, then employers will not raise wages. If there are more jobs than workers, then the flow of immigrants, legal or illegal, will continue across the border and employers will not raise wages. Will portions of America start to look like Mexico?

Conclusion to Part I

None of the above slogans can stand up to scrutiny. None express love of America. This observation should alarm American citizens, the American government, and any illegal immigrants who want to assimilate into American society. The amnesty/citizenship movement seems to want to portray itself as deserving compassion for its plight, yet as a powerful force capable of making demands. The movement also seems to want to give the impression that all Hispanics are unified under the cause of amnesty.

Is the amnesty/citizenship movement a workers' movement or a political movement? Their slogans are aggressive. There is an emphasis on the power of the vote, and the potential to use that vote to reject any political candidate who does not agree with their cause. Is this democracy, or threat of a coup? The slogans distort historic events and persons. Is this done in ignorance, or with the intention to sway? How much of this is done by illegal immigrants, and how much by political activists who are seeking potential voters for their own ambitions? The mere distortion of facts and meanings, as boldly displayed by the slogans, is enough in itself to arouse suspicion regarding the ultimate purpose of the amnesty/citizenship movement. (Written 05/30/07: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2007 Natalia J. Garland