Don't Pity the Poor Immigrants Fight Alongside Them

I don't want to go on being just a root in the shadows,
vacillating, extended, shivering with dream,
down in the damp bowels of earth,
absorbing it, thinking it, eating it every day.

-Pablo Neruda from 'Walking Around'

Border issues in the news...

Reviewed: David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 261 pages, $25.95, hardcover.

In this compelling and useful book, David Bacon lays to rest the anti-immigration arguments of the xenophobes and racists who bombard us every day in the press, on television, and on radio talk shows with the vicious assertion that immigrants, mainly those from Latin America, are the cause of all our economic and social problems.

I will get to Bacon’s arguments shortly, but what makes the book especially good is its interweaving of analysis and individual immigrant biographies. When CNN’s premier immigrant basher, Lou Dobbs, refers every evening to “illegal aliens,” he intentionally depersonalizes them and makes it easier for his audience to accept his demonization of what are, as Bacon indelibly shows us, ordinary and often heroic human beings. Consider these immigrants whose stories Bacon reveals:

Luz Dominguez is a Mexican woman. She came to the United States because she couldn’t support her family in Mexico City. She does backbreaking work cleaning rooms in a California hotel. Her father, after a lifetime of construction labor in Mexico, has come to live with her. She sends money back home so her daughter can attend college. She is undocumented, not through choice but because it is not possible for a person such as herself, an unskilled Mexican woman, to obtain the necessary documents. The United States imposes strict and extremely meager quotas on such potential immigrants. She has been a good citizen in the United States. She works hard, pays her bills, pays taxes, even puts money in a social security account from which she will never be able to withdraw money. The fact that she has a Social Security number but is an undocumented immigrant constitutes, according to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “identity fraud.” She could be deported or sent to prison for this. But as Bacon tells us, “There is no evidence to suggest that the genuine holder of a Social Security number is harmed when someone else uses that number on the job. After all, an employer will be depositing extra money into the true cardholder’s account, and the worker using the incorrect number will never be able to collect the benefits those earnings accrue.” If the number does not belong to anyone, the money deposited in this new account will just go into the Social Security fund. So, ironically, undocumented immigrants are subsidizing the social security system, to the benefit of all of us, including Lou Dobbs.

Juan Gonzalez was a copper miner in Cananea, just seventy miles south of Arizona. Copper mining has a long history in Mexico. The first mines were owned by U.S. companies, but the Mexican government took majority control in the early 1970s. Like all mining, copper production is dangerous work, and the miners struggled long and hard to form unions to protect themselves and secure higher wages. They faced extreme repression, but often in concert with miners in the United States (many of whom are Mexican), they managed to secure some victories. As one miner put it, “When we have problems, there are no borders. We all have to work to survive.”

However, when neoliberalism raised its ugly head in the late 1980s, Mexico’s national industries were placed on the chopping block, sold to wealthy private interests at bargain basement prices. The new owners were Mexican, but they had deep connections with large U.S. corporations, and it was the U.S. government, in league with these same businesses, that had pressured Mexico and scores of other poor countries to introduce the “free market” reforms that are the hallmarks of neoliberalism: cut government social spending, slash employment, privatize national enterprises and public services, attract foreign capital with tax and other concessions, make unionization difficult, and so forth.

Continue reading this review by Michael D. Yates at Monthly Review.