AFTER PRESIDENT Obama’s executive announcement, the US-Mexican border dilemma filled our TV screens and newspaper headlines. But if you think that a border is confined to a mere line, think again: the southern border with Mexico is a culminating points of centuries of political realities.
A lot of confusion and especially fear surrounds the US-Mexican border. We’ve heard about the north-bound trains carrying Central American refugees on their dangerous backs, or the illegal river crossing in southeast Texas. According to El Paso immigrations lawyers, however, the Juarez regions turns out to be a gateway for the world: not only Latin American migrants, but nationals from around the world head toward the border region, looking to cross the bridge into the ‘American Dream’ – a dream many Americans feel they woke up from long ago.
My three semesters studying immigration policy and multiple research trips to border regions still couldn’t do what growing up as an immigrant did: make clear the struggle, but also the beauty, of belonging nowhere and everywhere. By the words of former US President FDR: “Remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
1. Free trade isn’t free – or fair.
What looks like a North American Free Trade Agreement from US perspective looks more like a North American Unfair Trade Agreement from Mexico. The 1994 agreement moved many US factories into northern Mexico. If you think this to be good for Mexican employment, think again: under the agreement, the US factories, or maquiladoras, operate under Mexican workplace wage and safety regulations without having to pay an international tax. The result is a slim and selective economic benefit. While families in Juarez, Mexico earn their $45 per week, the American factories make big bucks selling their cheaply-made ‘North American’ products to US consumers at full price. Ca-ching! The best part is, under the same agreement, the northern Mexican sells products at the same US price. In other words, the maquiladoras pay bare bones wages in Mexico, and milk in Juarez is still $5 per gallon. Americans may not have heard this saying, but our southern neighbors certainly have: “Povre Mexico: so far from God, so close to the United States.”
2. “American” jobs are being given, not taken away.
That’s when the debate around south-north immigration gets hotter than red chile. Are Latin American immigrants really taking US jobs? If “US” jobs are the black market exploitations open to workers without papers, then yes, undocumented immigrants are showing up for those 10-plus hour days and getting paid half a wage or less. If they complain, the US employer, knowing the worker to be undocumented, will simply call ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and have them deported. In the meantime, the US administration expanded and extended visas for Chinese business partners and students.
3. The economy can’t be “drained” by those who can’t access it.
Even if undocumented immigrants could access the US welfare system (or even a soup kitchen) without an ID, they wouldn’t drain it: according to Washington, D.C.’s CATO Institute, immigrants and their children ‘out-benefit’ their societal ‘cost’ quicker than US citizens. Perhaps if those exploited workers were given legal status, the US could collect taxes from their work and they could send their children to college to become employment lawyers.
4. Human rights depend on citizenship status.
But wait, aren’t all the “illegal” immigrants criminals? While Border Patrol, or the Migra, may have ‘sophisticated’ ways of tracking down fence-jumpers — such as matching the work boot-footprints in the border sand to the only pair of work boots walking through town — the agents don’t always process recognizable coyote drug-runners separately from refugees. According to an El Paso border patrol agent, group apprehensions of women, children, and drug-runners lump all immigrants into the drug-related criminal category. Thanks to the Real ID Act of 2005, those border agents, self-reportedly ill-trained in recognizing mental illness, humanitarian exceptions, or any of the other internationally recognized barriers to removal, have the authority to sign a deportation authorization on the spot. Why clog US courts with due process of law?
5. Legal entry is a long time coming.
For every time an immigrant hears the question: “why don’t they just come in legally?” another Latin American asylum-seeker is turned down by the United States. According to lawyers in the border region, a Mexican applicant has less than 1% chance of winning their case in an El Paso immigration court. Of course, immigrants can apply for a visa under certain family-related conditions; they can then check the US-government website, updated every month, to check the status of their application. As of December 2014, the US is currently processing visa applications for Mexican nationals from 1994! Chances look good that immigrant entry may be approved before the end of the century.
6. Border security and human security are two different things.
As violence in Central America remains a brilliant motivator to head north, President Obama’s recently announced plan, while granting some immigrants access to human rights, would also bolster border “security” — meaning a stark increase in border patrol. So, as the US beefs up on the Migra, the southwestern US is still barely able to keep up with the demand for immigration court judges and houses of refuge for weary families.
Following the example of countries such as Canada and Australia, whose regionally-empowering visa programs have led to more successful immigration policies in the areas of immigrant labor and rights access, US state-level lawmakers have proposed reform that makes sense both economically and humanely. In the meantime, furthering economic and political policies that increase poverty and insecurity, while building a fence and jailing anyone who scales it, is not the answer; neither is building detention facilities for families and children and then denying media and legal access to them.