Crossing the line

Want to solve the immigration ‘problem’? Follow the money.

Fatima Castenada and Victor Rivera helped organize the local May Day protests.

Fatima Castenada and Victor Rivera helped organize the local May Day protests.

Photo By Larry Dalton

On June 1, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he would be sending 1,000 National Guard troops to patrol the border between California and Mexico. The deployment is in accordance with the Bush administration’s plan to beef up border enforcement to stem the growing number of undocumented Latino immigrants entering the country, a concern that’s become the hot-button issue of the current political season.

Politicians hope to have their cake and eat it, too. By stationing the guard at the border, they throw red meat to those elements of the electorate who view the increasing number of brown people in their midst as the nation’s most dire threat. At the same time, a political consensus is growing that “guest worker” status should be granted to at least some immigrants—a sop to business interests who rely on low-wage labor.

Attacking immigrants is a time-honored tradition in American politics that dates back at least to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Whenever the economy heads south, or public sentiment turns against, say, the latest unpopular military adventure, the focus shifts to immigrants, who are often the poorest and most defenseless members of society.

However, the powers that be may have bitten off more than they can chew this time. Last December, when House Republicans passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (House Resolution 4437), they probably had no idea they were firing a shot that would ring out through the nation’s immigrant community. This past April and May, in cities and towns across the United States, millions of protesters flocked into the streets to protest the bill, the largest demonstrations seen here since the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement in the 1960s.

Fear drove many immigrants to voice opposition to H.R. 4437. Among other things, the bill transformed undocumented workers into felons who can immediately be detained, incarcerated and deported.

“They were attacking us,” said Fatima Castenada, a local member of the Campaign Against Unjust Immigration Laws (CAUIL), one of the coalition of groups that helped organize the protests. “They expected us to sit and pray that it wouldn’t pass. It’s always been difficult to organize the immigrant community on a large level. Their attacks really helped facilitate it.”

Born in Mexico City in 1984, Castenada followed her parents to Sacramento. Although they went through the seven-year process to become full citizens, she elected not to pursue full citizenship and currently maintains green-card status. She became politically aware in 1994, when Californians approved Proposition 187, the ballot initiative that denied undocumented workers social services such as health care and public education. Although Proposition 187 later was overturned by a federal court, its impact wasn’t lost on Castenada.

“What really got me involved was the fear caused by the government and the media telling me I didn’t belong,” she said.

Like Castenada, Victor Rivera was born in Mexico, immigrated to Sacramento, and currently maintains green-card status. He also helped organize local immigrant demonstrations and belongs to CAUIL as well as the Zapatista Solidarity Coalition. The latter embraces the values espoused by Mexico’s Zapatista movement, the uprising of indigenous peasants that began January 1, 1994—the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect.

“For me, H.R. 4437 was the extension of the war in Iraq but now, here in the United States,” Rivera said. “The target is the weakest people, the immigrant people. It was so outrageous. It compares us to criminals, narco-traffickers, terrorists. It’s not even hidden.”

California State University sociology professor Manuel Barajas specializes in labor migration and believes U.S. policies such as NAFTA—which dramatically lowered the standard of living for much of Mexico’s population—account for the recent influx of Latino immigrants. Yet, as far as American politicians are concerned, NAFTA is not on the table for discussion.

“Much of the debate is misguided,” Barajas said. “Basically, it’s exploiting people’s fear of difference. There’s more people in the streets because this affects everybody. People say this is not about race, but it is. People who look Native American or indigenous have been construed as immigrants. Over time, I think people have developed an idea of what an American looks like, and it is not a brown person.”

Bay Area-based journalist David Bacon has covered migrant-worker issues for nearly two decades and has become a recognized expert on the subject. He believes the widespread protests demonstrate that the issue has become truly national in scope.

“The changing demographic of our country is not just happening in California,” said Bacon, who recently concluded an investigation into the conditions of migrant workers in the Midwest. “The whole meatpacking industry is completely dependent on immigrant workers. On May Day, they shut down the entire meatpacking industry in Omaha.”

The May Day protest—dubbed “A Day Without an Immigrant” because protesters refused to go to work or school for one day—was different from the earlier demonstrations for two important reasons, Bacon said. First, immigrants were emphasizing the importance of their role in the overall economy, and second, they were demanding full equality, not just guest-worker status.

“This was not propagated by some organization in Washington,” he said. “This came from way down below. I got the feeling that people all over the place were talking about this.”

The protests forced the Senate to back off on some of the more draconian elements in H.R. 4437. The Senate’s version of immigration reform, the Hagel-Martinez compromise, S. 2611, passed on May 25. It rescinds the felony status for undocumented workers and creates several new categories of guest workers, permitting immigrants who would be deported under current law to stay if they meet certain criteria. It has been presented as a reasonable compromise by mainstream media, but immigrants and their advocates disagree.

“The United States doesn’t have any comprehensive program to solve the immigration issue,” Rivera said. “The amnesty that this bill offers is a slap in the face. Anyone who enters the United States with false documents is illegal, anyone convicted of a crime, even a DUI, doesn’t qualify.”

With some exceptions, the bill would still deport immigrants who have been in the country less than two years—potentially millions of people—shredding the fabric of migrant family life.

“These are the parents of over 2 million American citizens,” Rivera said. “We’re talking about mass deportations. We’re talking about mass repatriation. They’re going to build prisons, just like concentration camps.”

In fact, in January, Halliburton announced that its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root had been granted a $385 million government contract to provide “temporary detention and process capabilities” to the Department of Homeland Security. Some immigrant advocates suspect these facilities, to be built in as-yet-undisclosed locations, may be used to house undocumented workers before deporting them.

Castenada finds the guest-worker components of S. 2611 equally repugnant.

“Conservative politicians exploit the idea of undocumented workers stealing jobs, yet they’re going to create a guest-worker program to do the same thing,” she said. “That goes back to paying back the corporations and big business; they’re going to create slave-like conditions for them. Business owners will ask, ‘How about working some extra hours? How about cutting your pay? How about sleeping in the shack behind the barn?’”

Such poor conditions are tolerated because the economic situation in Mexico is even worse.

“In Tijuana, a gallon of milk costs more than it does in San Diego,” Bacon said. “A woman has to work an entire day to buy a gallon of milk for her children. That creates pressure to leave.”

Many migrants send money back to family members who stay behind, a total of $20 billion a year. But even that plays against the poor thanks to the forced economic austerity policies foisted on Mexico by the United States.

“The Mexican government is cutting taxes,” Bacon continued. “Mexico has a national health-care system, unlike the United States. The government is basically starving that whole system. The NAFTA regime is basically forcing Mexico to service its debt [to the United States].”

In fact, NAFTA has created a raft of problems that sound remarkably similar to those in the United States.

“Big corporations are destroying small businesses,” Castenada said. “Before, we didn’t have big supermarkets; we shopped at the corner store. Now we have McDonald’s and Burger King and Pizza Hut.”

And fewer jobs. For example, Barajas noted that Mexico’s corn farmers have been decimated thanks to the removal of tariffs on corn imports from the United States. But again, such issues are now the status quo and not subject to debate by U.S. politicians.

“Congress is completely disconnected with what is going on out there,” Bacon said. “They have no idea. Their solutions are for big corporations, not people, and the people don’t like that.”

It’s the people who will ultimately decide the issue, Castenada and Rivera believe. Until the economic conditions on both sides of the border are addressed, the immigration problem will remain, no matter how much enforcement is stepped up.

“Believe me, they’d have to have the whole Army to stop us, and even that wouldn’t work,” Rivera said. “Things in Mexico aren’t getting any better.”