Time for New & Decent Border Policy

I recently read how workers from Mexico and Central America were brought into the Gulf States region to help clean up the mess and rebuild much of the damage from Hurricane Katrina. They were going to get very little pay, but they came. I also read how many of these workers were being shafted—employers leaving town just before payday, that kind of thing.

This has happened for decades to Mexican and other workers from poor and war-torn countries—there is real despicable and thieving exploitation going on in this country. It’s about time it was seen for what it was and rooted out.

Mexicans and Central Americans face what I call a “maddening ambivalence.” Jobs on this side of the border, truly what no American worker would do (or any worker should do), have been enticing millions to risk their homes, their families, and their lives. Thousands have already lost their lives on the border over the past twenty years just trying to get here (one of the most dangerous border regions in the world).

The vast majority don’t want to leave their beautiful lands and pueblos. But there are no jobs or agriculture left. They have to. Here are a few facts to ponder: Los Angeles has a GNP greater than all of Mexico. And the ten million Mexican Nationals working in the United States (undocumented as well as those with papers) make more money than the close to 100 million people still in Mexico.

Here’s another fact: Besides keeping many US communities strong (by their labor, but also their high levels of participation in local economies), they send billions of dollars to Mexico to build roads, schools, hospitals, farms, and housing to improve things for the families left behind.

Yet, these people are constantly under attack—by racists, the migra/police, as well as street thugs. They are often put down, humiliated, and yelled at. They are often beaten, robbed, and killed.

A few years ago in the Northeast San Fernando Valley (where I now live), an American woman ran over a Mexican national several times, cursing him for being in the street, and then taking off (she was later arrested, declared mentally ill, and let go). I sat in on one court case where a US-born gang member shot two undocumented teenagers, killing a 15-year-old girl and crippling a 16-year-old boy. I befriended the boy who was paralyzed from the neck down. Officials tried to deport him even as he lay in a hospital bed, unable to move, drink, or eat on his own. If they’d taken him to the border he would have died (considering that Mexico does not have the level of care he needed). I wrote about this case and soon a Catholic relief group and others took it upon themselves to help the kid—including convincing authorities to keep him in this country, and to provide the extraordinary care he needed (he was going to have a terribly diminished life as it was).

I remember another case in Illinois, where an American man kicked the life out of a Mexican national teenager who had just crashed into his car. The man was uninjured, but the boy was on the ground bleeding. The boy died.

These are some dramatic examples of stories I’ve heard all over the country—Mexicans and Central Americans (and Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other Latinos) are now everywhere; over the past 20 years, they have spread out across most states. They are not just relegated to the US Southwest or Northeast regions. I’ve been to places like Georgia, Idaho, and Nebraska with growing Latino populations. I spent ten weeks in North Carolina in early 2000 following a 600 percent rise in the Latino population there (working in highly toxic and difficult conditions in poultry farms, tobacco fields, sweat shops, and domestic labor).

I once talked to some 300 mostly Mayan Guatemalan migrants at a church in Delaware (I remember washing clothes at a nearby Laundromat and hearing the beautiful lilt of a Mayan tongue).

These people are at the bottom of the labor rungs. They are entering our schools and filling our jails. They are now under scrutiny by Minutemen-like groups on the border and by right-wing newscasters like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly.

A maddening ambivalence—an economy that needs such workers for jobs that don’t pay enough to survive on, then treating them as if they were dirt once they get here.

It would be one thing if this was just a matter of white people. I was once on a TV talk show in LA. In the green room was a Chinese immigrant woman with a strong accent who had come to talk about why we need to get rid of the “Mexican illegals.” Another time, for a story I was researching, I interviewed a number of Chicano heavily tattooed and unemployed gang members in one of East LA’s large housing projects. Most of their families were on welfare and they were living among some of the poorest residents in LA County. However, when asked what the number one problem they faced, one of them said forcibly, “it’s the damn Mexicans—we need to get rid of them!”

A maddening ambivalence—we know that recently arrived Mexicans have the lowest crime rates (in places where the majority is recent arrivals), pay taxes (sales and even work taxes), and work long hours without complaint. In cities like LA, where there are too many sterile and uninviting neighborhoods, they still walk the streets, sell their food and fruit bars in carts, fix up homes, and clean up streets. An Anglo man who recently contacted me said he loved living in his East LA apartment (probably the only white person on the block) because of the life, laughter, and joy the Mexicans exude (again, unlike the self-contained suburban housing developments, gated communities, and gentrified homes that growing numbers of Americans are occupying).

Yet, Mexicans and other Latinos are now the target of some of the most hateful racist speech and actions I’ve ever seen. Officially, the government has terrorized immigrant communities in raids, including against so-called immigrant street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, Sur Trese, Latin Kings, and others (these, by the way, were created in the United States—they did not originate in Mexico or Central America).

A new electronically-enhanced fence is being proposed along the US-Mexico border. And more US vigilantes (even California Governor Swarzenegger has invited them) are making plans to continue their anti-immigrant vigils on the border.

This is wrong. It’s divisive. And it’s against the best of this country’s ideals and values.

Because of the border—a contrived and man-made construct with a history in conquest, slavery, and exploitation—people are losing the sense God gave them.

Since I moved back to LA five years ago, I’ve been told four times to “go back to where I came from” (I was born in the United States of Mexican parents). This was mostly from whites who as a people have only been on this continent 500 years. My brown skin and those of many Mexicans and Central Americans indicate our indigenous roots—we’ve been on these lands for tens of thousands of years. But look how the border has turned things on its head—the brown-red people are now the “foreigners, aliens, and illegals.”

I’ve even been to Native American conferences (my native roots are Mexika and Raramuri) where I looked more native than most of the people in attendance. Although Native Americans are generally inviting to me, I’ve also been told (mostly by blue-eyed Indians) that I didn’t belong there. The border comes along and now Mexicans are not native? We have the largest traditional and full-blooded native populations in all of the Americas (there are 240 native languages still in existence there). And most Mexicans who don’t know their tribal roots because of conquest and colonialism have more indigenous blood than most US natives (not to discount the large numbers of Africans or Asians that have also been brought to Mexico).

In the LA area, there are now an estimated two million Mayans (who don’t even speak good Spanish, let alone English) from Mexico and Guatemala. This is slightly less than the two-and-a-half million Native Americans that exist in the United States (most of them mixed blood). And this does not count the millions of Mixtecos, Zapotecas, Yaquis, Purepechas, Huicholes, Raramuris, Coras, Pipils, and other tribes who have made the long trek from their ancient traditional lands.

Don’t tell me they are “immigrants.” They don’t even fit in any census box (they’re not Hispanics—neither are most of us with roots in Mexico and Central America).

We need to imagine a better immigration and border policy, one that is humane, decent, and not detrimental to Americans or Mexicans. Somehow, politicians don’t seem able to reach such imaginative levels. It’s about the vast resources and abundance inherent in the land, the people, and in a highly technolized economy.

But too often all we see is scarcity, competition, and our own narrow interests. This is only inherent in capitalism. It’s time we imagined another way to go.

The present alternative—hate, cheap pay, corporations pitting one set of workers against another, lives hurt and lost—is totally unacceptable. It’s also costlier in lives, money, and our own human integrity. I know we can do better.

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