The wilder spirits in our anti-immigrant circles portray undocumented immigration to the United States in terms of conspiracy theory. One such theory is that the government of Mexico is conspiring to take back its territories lost to the United States in the 19th century by swamping the United States with Mexican “illegals” and “anchor babies”.
But mass labor immigration, documented and undocumented, is a large scale international phenomenon which involves many poor and rich countries as senders and receivers of immigrants. Though the United States hosts the largest number of undocumented workers, there are many other countries in which the immigrant portion of the population is much higher.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has published a concise summary of the situation: International Labour Migration, A Rights Based Approach. Geneva 2010, International Labour Organization.
This study tells us that there are at least 214 million people living outside their countries of origin, either as naturalized citizens, legal noncitizens, temporary workers or undocumented. At least 100 million of these are in the labor force.
What is driving mass labor migration right now is corporate globalization.
As poor countries try to fund their development by increasing exports, they typically shift from growing food crops for the home market, to growing other crops for international trade. In the process, many farmers are displaced and the economies of the poor countries cannot absorb them in other employment, so they have little choice but to emigrate. As the ILO report puts it “globalization has led to disparities in employment opportunities, incomes and living standards, and human security across the globe…Expanded trade has benefited only a limited group of countries”.
Rules of international lending agencies force poorer countries to cancel subsidies to their own farmers, while rich countries continue to subsidize their own agricultural exports. Again, the ILO report: The massive flight of farmers from the land in poor countries “..is partly because public policies in many countries have been shaped by structural adjustment packages that have required ‘modernization’ of agricultural production to make it more export-oriented”. Driven off the land by these policies, and unable to find work in the cities of their own homelands, rural people emigrate, as do urban workers whose wages are pulled down by the exodus from the farms, or whose employers can not compete in the world market.
This is what has driven Mexican, Central American, Haitian and other immigration to the United States. It is what has driven African, Asian and Middle Eastern immigration to Europe. The former requires crossing the Sonora Desert or the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The latter requires crossing the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. People die in both efforts, but the economics of the situation has made them desperate enough to keep coming.
Emigration is encouraged by the countries of origin partly because their citizens working abroad send home large amounts of cash (remittances). In Mexico, for example, remittances had reached $25 billion per year by 2008, challenging oil and tourism for first place (due to the world financial crisis, this is now about $20 billion).
Many wealthier countries welcome only people with high skill and training levels as legal immigrants, contributing to a horrendous brain drain in their countries of origin. Often, immigrants are channeled into guest worker programs rather than being allowed to settle permanently. Their rich-country employers to gain maximum profits from their labor, while the poor sending country foots the bill for their schooling and for taking care of them when they are old.
Millions come in undocumented because there is no way for most poorly educated poor farmers and factory workers to get legal resident visas.
Immigrants are supposed to be protected by International Convention for the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families, which guarantees their right to join unions, among other things. But not one single wealthy country that receives immigrants has signed it, including the United States.
And it is not only in the United States that immigrants are kicked around as political footballs. Recently right wing, anti-immigrant parties have made advances all over the world: In the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Italy, Hungary, Greece and other European countries. The Royal Navy of Thailand recently covered itself with glory by towing a barge loaded with impoverished Burmese refugees out to sea and cutting it loose.
The real conspiracies are those hatched in the corporate boardrooms and government offices, to keep the world perpetually unequal in the name of profit. To fight this requires international labor and all people’s solidarity, and the recognition that immigrants are workers and human beings.
Anti-immigrant prejudice plays the enemy’s game.