Friday, November 04, 2005

"Oh no. Look. A Mexican!" 

Congress is grumbling about immigration again, specifically illegal immigration and the border. As in "let's build a big ol' wall along the (Mexican, not Canadian) border and keep all them wetbacks out." On top of that, House Republicans are talking about removing the right of automatic citizenship to anyone born in this country.

My only response whenever the Jingo-Nazis start screeching about immigration is to point out how totally racist they're being. Note above that Canada never enters into the discussion of border fences, but also blows up their rationalization that this is a national security issue -- a bomber intent on attacking LAX around 2000 came into the US from Vancouver. If it were a national security issue, we'd be concerned with all the borders.

What it really is is this: rich old white men deathly afraid that brown people are going to move into their neighborhoods. Or, in other words, racist assholes.

It's the same argument that anti-segregationists made in the 50s -- "You don't want an integrated neighborhood, because the black man will come in and rape your daughters." (I'm not making that logic up folks, I'm just reporting it.) The modern version of that one is, "You don't want Mexican undocumented aliens coming in, because they're going to steal all your jobs." Ah -- you mean all those engineering jobs that require advanced degrees? Or all those minimum wage shitjobs that the native born and well-to-do don't want?

Again, hypocrisy -- these are the same people who have no problem saving money by "outsourcing" jobs to India, hence creating exactly the same conditions they decry when it isn't benefiting big biz. Then again, they never have to really deal with the brown people when they outsource long-distance.

Anyway, illegal immigrants help big business by providing a large pool of people who will work for shit salaries, not demand benefits and just shut up and never complain, lest they be turned in and deported. And contrary to popular belief, they pay their share of taxes without sucking up their share of benefits. I've known a good number of illegals in my day; kind of hard not to, living in LA. They tend to be hard workers, keep to themselves, and avoid government offices at all costs -- as in, they aren't going to be heading downtown to apply for welfare benefits any time soon.

Generally, they're here for one reason: to make more money than they can in Mexico (or other points south), and help take care of their families back home. I'm not saying there are no bad apples in the bunch. No moreso than any other random, homogeneous group. But I do think that all the nightmare scenarios drawn by the anti-immigrants are complete bullshit; rare or unique incidents drummed up into trends that don't exist. Have they caught Mexican criminals who were here illegally? Hell yes. Just like the Mexican authorities have caught American criminals who were there illegally.

And let's not forget the matter of "here" and "there." If you're ever in LA, hop on the Red Line and get off at the Universal City station. There, you'll find murals telling the story of the Campo de Cahuenga (roughly what you're standing under), and the war between the Republic of California and the country of Mexico which pushed the border back to Tijuana. And had you been standing there a hundred and sixty years ago, you'd be standing in Mexico. My point being that, from a certain point of view, illegal immigrants from Mexico are merely the returning descendents of refugees.

[Side note, and very LA: when I first saw the murals in that station, I started reading them. Now, one side of the wall is in English and the other is in Spanish. I read the Spanish side. About halfway through, I realized that, out of all the people in the station reading the thing (a lot), all the Anglos were reading the Spanish side and all the Hispanics were reading the English side. Funny, but absolutely true.]

The ultimate joke, of course, is that everything from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego is a single, contiguous landmass that didn't even have any divisions into territories or countries (other than indigenous settlements) prior to the 17th Century. And then, those divisions became arbitray as England, France, Spain and Portugal bickered over territories. We could just as easily have a French-Speaking US, a Spanish-Speaking Canada (with English minority) and a Portugese-Speaking Mexico. All of North American cultural and race relations could be more like Brazil, or Venezuela could have wound up as the world's English language super-power.

But every country mentioned in that last paragraph has one thing in common. The vast majority of their populations are descended from immigrants, and those descendants can only trace their roots in the Western Hemisphere back less than four hundred years -- the vast majority of them, less than two hundred years.

Every major ethnic or national group in the US was, at one time, the pariah immigrant, legal or not. The Irish started out as despised and shunned. By now, there aren't a lot of Americans (including African Americans) who don't have some Irish blood in their veins. The Italians have been in the same spot, and so have the Germans, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, etc., etc. The groups that are here long enough assimilate, while often still maintaining their own culture. Every time you go to your favorite ethnic restaurant, be thankful for that one. Otherwise, you'd be dining on Shepherd's Pie, Bangers and Mash, shoe-leather beef and other delicacies never meant for human consumption.

Unlike most of the other countries on these two continents, America has absorbed rather than buried other cultures, and that's what has made us stronger and better over the years. In 1840, no upstanding New Yorker of British/American descent would ever have dreamed of celebrating St. Patrick's Day. Now, it's practically a national holiday. In some places, like California, Cinco de Mayo has achieved the same status (although el 16 de septiembre never will). And don't forget Oktoberfest, Columbus Day, or May Day; or that the 4th of July is a variation of how they celebrate Guy Fawkes's day in England (which is tomorrow, November 5th, by the way). Don't forget that most of our Hallowe'en traditions came from Ireland; most of our Christmas traditions from England and Germany. Even such apparently indigenous things as jazz and rock and roll came from Africa and the Caribbean, and even that most seemingly American thing called Blue Grass music came from, yet again, Ireland.

To grow, any culture needs new ideas, new traditions and new art forms. It needs new blood and new people. America was built by immigrants, successive tiers of arrivals from other countries who started out (collectively) as a despised underclass who took the shit jobs (Irish coal miners, Chinese railroad workers) and eventually worked their way up and assimilated or adapted as part of the higher classes. It happens over and over, and the only resistance to the process comes from the bigotry of the ones who got here first, forget where they came from, and try to shut the door after they've gotten to the party.

Now, I'm not saying that I think everyone should come streaming over the borders into the country illegally. But I do think that we would benefit from a guest-worker program, whereby Mexican citizens would be allowed to come and work in the US without being given citizenship; they'd be eligible for provisional drivers' licenses and SSNs, pay taxes, and be ineligible for benefits except those (like unemployment and social security) that they pay for directly. (Taxes that go into a general fund wouldn't be considered direct payment, so no State or Federal benefits available, except Social Security.) I'd say toss in free but mandatory ESL classes and the chance to apply for permanent status after a certain number of incident-free years.

That's really an everyone wins all the way around deal. By limiting the kinds of jobs that the permits are good for, we remove the wingnut argument that "they're stealing our jobs." By removing the threat of deportation, we make them less susceptible to things like blackmail or slavery, since the worker wouldn't have to fear exposing themself in order to report the crime. We'd also be increasing tax revenue by creating a method for all those extra wages to be tracked -- and remove them from the cash economy by having the permit only valid as long as the worker is contributing payroll taxes at a certain (high) percentage of the agreed-upon wage.

Anyway, is a wall around the border the answer? No. And it certainly isn't the symbol we want to present to the world, The Great Wall of America. Besides, building it would just create a false sense of security, because it would be physically impossible to monitor every single inch of the thing, and those that didn't find a way over would probably start going by boat, avoiding the wall entirely. The problem would just move elsewhere without the real issues behind it being addressed.

Mexico's economy must be built up, and its corrupt political institutions removed. There's no reason they can't be a first world country like the US. They've certainly got the oil wealth to do it. This would take away the incentive for people to leave there in the first place.

Secondly, we have to create a viable program for people to use when they don't necessarily want to stay in the US, but want to take advantage of its better wages and conditions -- one that tells them they don't have to risk their lives to sneak in across a river or under barbed wire.

Sanity and humanity, not fear and hate. That's the solution to the problem.

Is the actual border across Texas et. al. the Rio Grande? And if so, which side of the river would the wall be built? And what of the border cities that rely on the river for trade and transportation? They would be more or less cut off. Those who would make that decision in America would surely want the wall on the Mexican side, but, surely they can't just build a wall on Mexican soil. If they do build their silly wall, it should be rather comical to see the physical politics of it play out.
A good question, and perhaps the deal-breaker -- because the "wall" would have to be on the American side, but I can't see officials in New Mexico and Texas standing for the Federal Government basically cutting off the Rio Grande; just as, like you point out, I can't imagine Mexico ever agreeing to us building the wall on their side of the river, short of major infusions of cash that the US (thanks to W) can't afford.

And, in any case, a border wall is really a joke. I remember the last time I went to Tijuana (pre-9/11). On the trip back, I walked past the US government guy at his desk. He asked, "Country of origin?" Tall white guy that I am, I said "US." He didn't even ask for ID and waved me through. Hell, the friend who was with me (whose father is Mexican, mother Irish) gave the same answer and, despite his darker skin, black curly hair and brown eyes, got the same response. Go on ahead.

And that's the advice I have for Mexicans who want to get into the US, wall or not. Buy some dialect tapes, learn the Southern California drawl, and then just walk on over. When the guy at the gate asks you, "Country of origin?", just mutter "Yooo-essss" in your best Valley girl tones, and they won't even stop you. Apparently.

Weakest link in any security system? The human element. Strongest link in any security system? The human element. Totally exploitable security system? One with no human element at all.

A border wall across the southern US, as noted in my original post, is no security at all...
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