Thursday, April 29, 2010

Do not punish the undocumented!

Do not punish undocumented immigrants!

The State of Arizona recently passed a law which allows police to stop and examine the papers of anyone and to arrest those whose papers are not in order. The law explicitly forbids racial profiling but, in actuality, makes it unavoidable. The police cannot stop everyone. They will be looking for people who might be undocumented and you know what they look like.

But what's wrong with that? The undocumented broke the law against entering the country without a visa. The job of the police is to catch lawbreakers. We should give them the tools they need to do their job.

But as so often, the world is much more complicated than we would like it to be. Breaking the law is sometimes justified.

Consider this. Your farm is thriving. Your cows are fat, giving milk generously. The branches of the trees in your orchard are hanging low with fruit. Your fields are green and promise a rich harvest. Your neighbor's farm, on the contrary, is dry. He has hardly any milk and fruit. When his food runs out and his children go hungry he goes into your storehouse to steal food for his kids. Should he be punished? Suppose that his farm is failing because you took more than your share of the irrigation water and did not leave him the share he is entitled to. Suppose, in other words, that his misery is to a significant extent your fault. What shall we say then about his theft?
Suppose the poverty that drives many Mexicans and Central Americans—the bulk of the undocumented--to literally risk their lives to get to the US, to find work and send money back to their families, is to a significant extent the fault of us North Americans and of our government. How shall we think then about the proper treatment of undocumented immigrants?

The connections between our country and Central and South America extend over several centuries and are very complex. I can only mention some aspects of those relations to suggest that, perhaps, the US is responsible for a good deal of the suffering of our Southern neighbors.

Lets begin with President Thomas Jefferson refusing to recognize the newly established Haitian republic in the early years of the 19th century because Haiti had overcome the regime of its slave owners but Jefferson himself owned slaves. The terrible history of Haiti begins with our refusal to welcome this new republic to our hemisphere.

For US investors, Central and South America have generated huge profits. The history of the United Fruit Company in Central America is an interesting example. In the 1870s Americans became interested in Central America. They built railroads, and later telegraphs and postal services. They also obtained huge tracts of land, 40% of them for free. As the largest landowners in several Central American republics, they were immensely powerful. To be sure, they created jobs, but a good deal of their sizable profits were exported to the US and invested there. The wealth produced by the banana plantations and their workers did not remain in the countries of Central America that produced them but served to raise the standard of living in the US while the people in Costa Rica, Guatemala or Colombia remained mired in poverty.

The huge profits of United Fruit were in part due to low wages, to the fact that they obtained huge landholdings for free or for very low prices, and that they paid minimal taxes. They could achieve all that because they wielded great political influence and in more than one case were instrumental in installing dictators that favored them and kept workers and their organizations terrified and powerless. United Fruit has an appalling record of installing and supporting dictators in Central America thereby entrenching traditions of political corruption, retarding the development of democratic institutions, and keeping the mass of people impoverished.

In some cases, United Fruit or later the US government invaded and occupied one or the other country in order to smooth the path of US companies. In other cases, as in Guatemala in 1954 or in Chile in 1973 the CIA supported military coups to unseat duly elected presidents who were trying to decrease power of the US companies in favor of the citizens of their country.

In recent years the US has pressured Latin American countries to open their markets to US goods. The reason given was that free markets unfettered by import duties or export controls were to everyone's benefit. But at the same time the US government continued to subsidize our farmers so that the corn we export ot Mexico, for instance, is cheaper than what small Mexican farmers can produce. In Haiti, subsidized American rice is cheaper than Haitian grown rice. In both cases US imports have put local farmers out of business, who now are forced to look for work in the big cities, but often cannot find it. At the end, in desperation, they will try to cross into the US to avert their family's starvation.

These are just a few reasons for thinking that we Americans bear a considerable responsibility for the continuing flood of undocumented immigrants. The desperation that drives people to leave home and brave the dangers of the crossing and the hostility and exploitation they experience here is in part of our making. A good portion of the wealth produced by Mexicans and Central Americans ended up in North American pockets.

Expanding police powers is a completely unsuitable reaction to this complex problem.