By James C. Harrington
Director, Texas Civil Rights Project
President George W. Bush noticeably stiffened his stance on immigration issues during his recent speaking foray along the border with Mexico. As is his current custom, Bush appeared in non-public forums – a military base in Arizona and with border patrol officials in El Paso, wearing a green agent’s jacket.
Bush talked about “hardening” the border and imprisoning people who enter the country illegally. He shifted away from his earlier talk of regularizing illegal immigration with a guest worker plan. Bush’s trip occurred two weeks after it came to light that soldiers from Ft. Bliss were patrolling the border in Arizona and New Mexico, assisting immigration agents. They dodged the issue of using American military for internal law enforcement by claiming they were gathering intelligence, not arresting anyone – and learning lessons to apply in Iraq.
Bush’s visit also played into the agenda of the Minutemen, who, amid considerable fanfare, have deployed themselves along the same areas visited by the president. The Minutemen want to seal off the border, either with armed presence or an impenetrable 1800-mile fence along the border. Some in Congress support this unworkable idea.
Bush’s change of pace doesn’t help a bit. No matter how much the border is “hardened,” people will continue to cross because their economic need is so great. People simply cannot survive in Mexico. Mexicans receive $1 billion/year from people working in the United States. This is Mexico’s largest source of income – even greater than from its oil and petroleum industry. It’s also easier on Mexico to have some ten million of its people working in the United States, than face possible upheaval there in they were unable to migrate.
The other part of the equation is that the American economy is dependent of inexpensive labor – construction, agriculture, and the service industry, in particular.
The immigration problem will not be resolved until the severe economic dislocation between the United States and Mexico is lessened. All that “hardening” the border does is increase the peril for undocumented people coming into this country, forcing them to walk through the desert’s extreme heat by day and freezing temperatures at night, without water. This year alone, some 500 persons will perish during the trek.
President Bush’s recent pronouncements dodge the phenomenal problems at the heart of illegal immigration. They do nothing to move the United States and Mexico toward really tackling perhaps the greatest economic crises facing the northern hemisphere, made worse by NAFTA. They reflect a lack of political will.
Playing to the anti-immigration and nativist forces in this country doesn’t help. Nor does it help if the president is simply trying to distract attention from other issues, such as Iraq and rapidly declining public support. It would be extremely difficult for Bush to convince his business and political allies to undertake the kind of dramatic economic re-structuring without which there can never be meaningful immigration reform.
Politicians are short-term and short-vision leaders. Their survival generally motivates them, not necessarily the long-term good of the country. Added to this mix is the fact undocumented immigrants don’t form a political constituency since they cannot vote. This makes it easy to scapegoat them.
This country needs to commit itself to real economic structural reform and address illegal immigration in that context. We don’t need political grandstanding and beating up on people whose only crime is to try to survive.
The Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation, promotes civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas.
[Received via email Dec. 8, 2005, posted by permission–gm]