09 May, 2006

Immigration Marches in the US

So I thought I'd give it a week or so before posting on the pro-immigration marches that took place in Chicago and accross the country last week. I myself did not attend the march, mostly for personal, economic reasons (I needed the money from my part-time job). While I had planned to show up and lend my support after work, upon turning on the TV I discovered that marchers were simply unwilling to sit around once at Grant Park, their final destination, to listen to politicians and activists blabber on about politics. Indeed, an important aspect of these marches, and particularly the one in Chicago, is their sheer size and composition. In fact, most of the marchers were immigrants, and businesses were apparently quite cooperative as many lent their support to the marchers by giving many of them the day off. The point I'm trying to make is that this all points to a very salient aspect of these marches--ie, that the people that comprise them form a burgeoning source of political power in search of representation, in search of a voice that will defend them and forward their cause. Now, while this aspect of the marches is rather apparent, what isn't yet clear is how these movements will come to define themselves. So, with that, I would like to offer a couple of things for your consideration:

Sepoy, over at ChapatiMystery, points out correctly that amnesty or deportation are not the only sides to this complex issue. Immigration reform is certainly needed. Moreover, the common quip that one of the main problems with illegal immigrantion (and not illegal immigrants: only acts can transgress the body of the law, not people) is the unfairness of their "mischief" to those people that go through the lengthy legal process to get into the country with papers is, well, unfair. After all, getting in legally does not only mean applying year after year for a visa, but also finding legal counsel, translating all the necessary documents into english, paying all the necessary fees for the application, and then holding your breath for a decision that often ends in disappointment. Therefore, not only is crossing the border sans papier a more effective, but albeit dangerous if not fatal, course of action, it may be easier to sell to the friends or family that will be supporting a person's immigration to the US. In fact, while most people cover their journey up to the Mexican border, either personally or with the help of a family member, once over, their family and/or friends in the US will usually finance the overwhelming costs of the last leg of the journey (this being the most burdensome part of the trip, both financially and logistically, especially as desert crossings through Arizona have become the most popular undocumented trajectory of late). I'm not sure the same family would be willing to support another family member, much less a friend, in applying for a visa they may never get. In the end, these migrants are expected to reimburse the costs of their trip to the sponsoring friends or family members once in the US.

As we can already see, then, immigration reform would need to tackle the challenging question of how to address the very real migration needs of would-be undocumented immigrants. One way to do this is to somehow make the border less porous, via fences, predator drones and more considerable manned surveillance, only to continue with our current immigration policies. The problem with this heavy-handed response is that as a country with an economy based on the power of the everyday consumer, we have become dependent on the cheap work these migrants carry out. Moreover, migrants such as those from Mexico, SE Asia, China and elsewhere are familiar with the cheap labor practices of their own countries, particular the massive exportation of such forms of labor, as well as the American and European contracts that seek out these sources of labor. They understand that the US, and the rest of the global market system, depends on their cheap labor. This can be weaned, for example, from the now too frequent newspaper headlines in Mexico and elsewhere pitting the cheap work of that country against the even cheaper and vaster resources of China. Indeed, most undocumented workers that come to this country do not make their decision to migrate in a vacuum, much less without some form of impulse. They often leave their rural communities for work in a larger city, where they meet other people in their situation and are exposed to newspapers, cybercafes, global corporations and the labor needs of the service industry. In fact, for many of these rural migrants the move to the city is becoming less and less a stepping stone to migration abroad. This is because many people that leave their communities to go abroad return, investing in local community projects and bestowing gifts on their friends and families bought cheaply in the American market. Then again, some people choose to flow back and forth, between their home communities in Mexico and their seasonal places of employment in America. Of course, this form of seasonal migration is not so accessible for other people from more distant places. Ultimately, though, the inter-connectedness and omnipresence of the global economy naturalizes undocumented immigration flows based on factors such as geographic proximity, financial feasibility and economic promise. That's why it is up to legal bodies to mediate the relationship between immigration and the global market, and not simply to stem it, much less ignore it.

Another thing that is easy to forget and dismiss within this discussion of global immigration is the human rights side of the debate. Indeed, the issue of worker's rights and human dignity are central to this topic. While I agree that these organic movements that seek rights for undocumented immigrants may have the potential for a movement akin to the Civil Rights movement, this time around the emphasis may be more on the class experience (and less so race) of not only those immigrants that come to this country mostly undocumented, but also of the thousands of workers the world over that make possible places like Wal-Mart, Target, Old Navy, the Gap, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Albertson's, Jewel-Osco and countless other businesses that are central to the American consumer's lifestyle. These people deserve our respect and our support. They deserve to be recognized for their hardships and their critics, especially the more vituperative ones, should acknowledge their difficult situation for what it is instead of belittling it or neglecting the reality of the undocumented immigrant's experience. Given our country's real need for hard-working immigrants and their dreams for a better economic situation, the reasons and justifications for their presence here should by now be quite obvious. Ultimately, then, the challenge of undocumented immigration is not why they are here, but rather how their presence is perceived and manipulated.

So, this post is a long and perhaps overly ambitious. I'll leave you now with a few links to posts by fellow bloggers and their personal pictures of the march in Chicago. For Sepoy's post, go here. His excellent pictures can be found here. Moacir's got a great post on undocumented Lithuanians within undocumented immigration here. And Raver's chimed in with his views as well. His pictures can be found here. Finally, pdcs post is here.

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