As a first generation American, I have benefited from the hard work and sacrifice of my mother and father, both legal immigrants from Mexico and England respectfully. Growing up in what was once a mostly white working class neighborhood of east San Diego, I experienced first-hand the ugliness of the discrimination and racial epitaphs that sadly are still very pervasive in our country today particularly in recent days. Being singled out as a “beaner” in elementary school and being prevented from playing with the kids next door because their mom said I was a “spick” and a “wetback” proved powerful incentives to accelerate my cultural assimilation into America’s great melting pot.
Like so many immigrant children of Mexican descent, my first spoken tongue was Spanish but because of the repeated name calling, I grew afraid and ashamed to speak the language. Yet, unlike other Mexican immigrant children, my integration proved much easier than most given my mixed Anglo-Mexican upbringing, which beyond the exposure to the English language at home, instilled in me a dual appreciation for both Latino and Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultural values which today make me uniquely qualified to reflect on America’s current debate over immigration reform.
Beyond the merits of greater enforcement, fraud-proof identifications, a guest worker program, or the logic of building a triple fence across our 2,000 mile southern border, the current immigration debate raging across this country is about our values, principles and, for better or for worse, the preservation of the Anglo-Protestant heritage that pervades America’s own “cherry tree” mythology.
As proud as we Americans are to embrace our own values and traditions, it is important to appreciate that they are riddled with hypocrisy and inconsistencies that are, more often than not, overlooked in the name of political expediency, good business, or national security interests. In the case of the current immigration reform package presently under consideration by Congress, the devil is in the details.
For those that advocate stronger enforcement and deportation for illegal immigrants in the name of preserving the rule of law, we should be reminded that this country has, over the years, grown and prospered because of the exploitation of legal, illegal and indentured migrant workers paid low wages for back-breaking work beginning with slaves from Africa and continuing with guest workers from China and later Mexico.
Today America has 11 million to 12 million, mostly Mexican undocumented immigrants living in the shadows, poor, marginalized and on the run in what amounts to a de facto amnesty not because of the absence of border fencing but because it has been in our country’s economic self interest to permit their easy entry.
Whether we wish to admit it or not, the businesses big and small, American consumers and two-income households, reliant on Mexican nannies and housekeepers to keep their livelihoods and checkbooks afloat, continue to benefit greatly from the current dysfunctional status quo, all in a vain attempt to pursue and preserve the proverbial American dream.
While adding 6,000 national guards on the border along with miles of triple fencing may placate those Americans wishing to secure our borders, will these actions really make our country safer? Could these actions do more harm than good?
It is worth noting that the last three miles of planned triple fencing to the Pacific will cause irreparable environmental damage to the Tijuana River Estuary, a trans-boundary coastal estuary and watershed which was recently designated for international protection under the United Nation’s Ramsar Convention on Wetlands Protection. As Americans we need to ask ourselves what will protect us more, building a triple fence or upholding a binding international treaty which the United States is a signatory of and which ironically was enacted in Ramsar, Iran?
Can America selectively pick and choose which international treaties we wish to adhere to? What moral authority does America have to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran if a treaty that was enacted on their soil and later ratified by the United States and 150 other nations, including Mexico, is not adhered to or respected? Instead of making us feel safer, the triple fence may, in the end, become a symbol of our own hypocrisy, fueling anti-American sentiments and resentment among not just our southern neighbors but other nations well beyond our immediate borders.
If a guest-worker program is introduced as currently proposed, what assurances will be given that U.S. employers will take responsibility for their own actions and provide healthcare benefits that, all too often, most migrant workers currently do not have, can not afford or must access free through emergency care in our already over burdened hospitals across this country? Without strong and meaningful workplace enforcement that truly forces companies to comply with the law, will America end up with an expanded two-tier system of both legal and illegal immigrants that will again in a few years time disproportionately favor the hiring of lower cost undocumented labor for entry level, unskilled work?
If America truly values the promotion of democratic principles and economic self determination beyond our borders, what steps will our country take to ensure the success of the North American Free Trade Agreement in neighboring Mexico? While clearly both the United States and Mexico have benefited from this historic trade accord, not enough attention has ever been placed by either country to address the economic dislocations that have occurred in rural communities across Mexico where over half of its people are substance farmers living on less than $2 a day. Because NAFTA was negotiated on the cheap with little or no attention among elected officials in both countries to how per capita incomes in Mexico’s most economically isolated micro-regions would survive in the midst of expanded global competition, what we got instead was an unprecedented level of human migration.
Instead of exporting goods, thanks to NAFTA, Mexico ended up exporting people.
In light of NAFTA’s shortcomings, what efforts will our country take to help Mexico regain its own economic competitiveness? Is our answer further promoting America as a convenient “escape valve” for Mexico’s unemployed and poor because Mexico’s elite do not have the political willpower or the inclination to enact meaningful economic, fiscal and political reforms that are absolutely critical if their country is ever to going to get ahead? Are remittances the answer?
Sadly, the over $20 billion dollars in remittances flows that Mexico receives to date has had mixed results. While per-capita income in those communities from which migrants originate has risen, so too has the number of broken families and child abandonment due to the separation that cross-migration has caused.
As America’s immigration reform debate approaches the end game, it is important for us all to recognize that the complexity of the issue is due, in large part, to our nation’s inability to reconcile the hypocrisies and inconsistencies related to the use and exploitation of migrant labor that have, over the years, compromised our own core values and principles. In one way or the other, directly or indirectly, we are all complicit whether or not we have made Zoe Baird-like missteps.
Given America’s ongoing dependence on cheap illegal immigrants, the trade-offs and socioeconomic costs of meaningful immigration reform will be very real. Fruits and vegetables will become more expensive. Profits in the service sector could suffer. Nannies and housekeepers will also become more costly or out of reach, forcing some two parent households to downsize in order to afford their own American dream.
In the end, however, what we will give up in our pocket book we will re-gain in the restoration of our fundamental principles and values that have, over the years, made this country great and have attracted the best, brightest and most hardworking legal immigrants to pursue their respective American dreams.
Richard Kiy is president and CEO of San Diego-based International Community Foundation. He is the co-author of two books: “The Ties that Bind Us: Mexican Migrants in San Diego County” and “Environmental Management Along North America’s Borders.”