The Immigration Debate: What’s At Stake?

Flickr / Elvert Barnes
Flickr / Elvert Barnes

It would be very interesting to consider what would actually happen if we deport 11 million immigrants. I mean, if it were actually possible to do that, in the first place. After all the money that would need to be spent on all the effort—in addition to the unavoidable abuses of power and increased racial profiling that would inevitably take place—how would that work, exactly?

The conversation about immigration in this country needs to change to become a more inclusive and respectful discourse — especially when it comes to immigrants from Mexico. It is interesting to note the differences in many people’s attitudes between the immigration issues in Europe between different groups of people: namely, refugees from South Sudan and other parts of Africa, as opposed to refugees from Syria. In general, the attitude toward Syrians has been reluctant acceptance, whereas refugees from Africa are greeted with marked ambivalence and sometimes clear distrust.

It is tempting to draw parallels between those attitudes prevalent in Europe and the situation in the United States at the moment — over the last 20-plus years, in fact. This differentiation — whether immigrants are facing life-or-death situations or they are seeking greater economic opportunity — is an interesting sticking point, one that I believe deserves careful consideration. The constant that exists in many of these countries is lack of economic opportunity—usually connected to random or not-so-random acts of violence.

In countries in Central and North America — Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, specifically — the threat of sexual assault for female immigrants has become so great that women are taking birth control shots or obtaining birth control pills before their quest north. Unlike the stereotype so prevalent in the media, as of late, the majority of immigrants from Mexico are, in fact, women — by 51 percent. One question that must be posed, then, is why are we so quick to assume that officially-declared war and genocide are the only markers for deciding that a country is uninhabitable? In Mexico, the economy and widespread corruption on the part of government officials and law enforcement have made it so that there is a veritable war on women, regardless of whether it is officially recognized. Very often, the police reports from victims of assault and abuse are ignored, making it necessary for women to take justice into their own hands.

This widespread impunity — along with economic and social instability — are enough of a reason for Mexican women to risk rape or other consequences to cross the border to the north. The day-to-day existence of those interested in trying their hand at relative economic stability are not fortunate enough to have the time to plan ideal ways to generate capital for their small business. (This is not to say that micro-loan programs have not proved successful, however.) It’s the day-to-day existence that is flawed, so much so that the prospect of migrating north is more attractive than staying at home.

The focus on official national borders, then, should be redirected so as to lend weight to the role of unofficial barriers to economic vitality and a safe, sane existence. This is especially true considering the fact that the focus on borders and geopolitics has tended to bring mostly warfare and instability, rather than peace and economic prosperity, to a given region. This is a huge issue — one that can’t be adequately dealt with here. However, much of the difficulty in making ends meet begs the following question: what does it take to convince people that immigration is justified? Falling bombs? Apparently packs of vigilante troopers, widespread injustice, and shanty towns are not enough for many. There is the ever-present temptation to bury our heads in the proverbial sand. That is the easier thing to do—though not, of course, the best thing for all concerned.

Lack of economic opportunity, I believe, is on par with the threat of violence, since destitution puts people at greater risk for attack: women are routinely attacked, robbed, assaulted, raped, and generally put in a position of vulnerability when they are not economically or geographically stable. Immigrant stories of economic desperation in which young people come to the U.S. with their parents seeking greater opportunities than what is offered in their countries of origin are the norm, rather than the exception. It is troubling that the very factor that immigrants have in common — economics, or lack thereof — is also the thing that divides more assimilated Mexican-Americans from those more recently immigrated here.

The recent kerfuffle in the media-centered exchange between Jorge Ramos and Donald Trump is interesting in light of the socio-economic politics beneath the exchange — this subtle subtext may not be immediately apparent to those not familiar with the internal social politics among Mexican-Americans of different backgrounds. For Trump to tell Ramos to “Go back to Univision,” he was purposely attempting to evoke ire by putting Ramos on par with recent immigrants, a status that Ramos rightfully rejected. The first and obvious reason why the interaction was problematic was because it was clearly disrespectful. However, Trump also might have been aware of the fact that, historically, many more assimilated Mexican-Americans purposely distance themselves from more recent immigrants.

It would be foolish to underestimate the political power of recent immigrants, who are voting in greater numbers every year. What is at stake in the current immigration debate? Valuable resources, first of all, in the form of necessary sources of labor for agriculture and many other sectors of the economy, such as law enforcement — think Spanish-speaking skills and knowledge of the intricacies of the U.S.-Mexico border, for example. Politicization of the issue brings focus to the wrong aspects of the issue: by focusing on what’s at stake for the United States, the realities of life for immigrants are not generally made known.

Because of the overly simplistic nature of the vast majority of news coverage in this country, the issue is reduced to an either/or set of U.S. policy positions as opposed to educating U.S. citizens on the realities of life under duress in an unevenly first-world country such as Mexico—that first-world status is more reflective of the national GDP than the livelihoods of the majority of Mexico’s citizens. So geopolitical awareness and critical thinking, then, is also at stake. Of course, the issue of mobility in Mexico is complicated, with the middle class not nonexistent but precarious due to the relative absence of business loan financing and other benefits to business owners that are taken for granted in the United States.

The story of immigration to the United States from Mexico has also evolved quite a bit, so that that majority of immigrants are now more blue-collar than used to be the case in the seventies, when my mother came to California in the seventies, for example. Hence the hitting-where-it-hurts exchange between Trump and Ramos, and why comparing Ramos to recent immigrants tapped into the latent classicism of the Mexican-American middle class. Sadly, the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality of many Trump supporters extends to some in the Mexican-American community, as well as public policy that criminalizes immigrants for crossing the border because they want the same thing we all want: an opportunity to succeed. Hence the third thing that’s at stake: our unity.

So goes the story of assimilation in the U.S., however: you’re one of them until you’re one of us. Then again, the lines have never been clear. The idea of class and race lines—as with the idea of borders—is something that exists largely in our imaginations, rather than reality. TC mark

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