The comments of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, which stereotype undocumented immigrants as drug smugglers, have embarrassed his own Republican Party. He has also been excoriated by Democrats and by Latino and immigrant leaders and activists.
In remarks opposing the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to young undocumented immigrants brought into this country as children, King claimed that for every high school valedictorian who would get legal status that way, "there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."
The statement and a great many others like it from King, other politicians and talk show and print commentators, are so over the top that we might be tempted to mutter, "What a stupid, ignorant jerk." But we can't discount the possibility that, far from being rooted in stupidity and ignorance, these slurs are part of a clever plan.
The plan would be to convince U.S. voters that the country is endangered by a mass invasion of dangerous people, who are bringing drugs, terrorism and disease to our peaceful communities. Former CNN commentator Lou Dobbs was famous for claiming, against all evidence, that immigrants from poor countries coming to the United States were causing a "sudden" epidemic of leprosy. Public health experts quickly pointed out that Dobbs' information was totally false, noting in fact that leprosy is exceedingly uncommon in the U.S. and the numbers have been falling as immigration has been rising.
The overall impression such slanders are designed to create is that immigrants are dangerous and that the border must be "sealed" before anything else. But the border has more security under the Obama administration than it ever has had in the nation's history, with more agents, more electronic surveillance and more fences. The Senate immigration bill, which Republican politicians claim does not do enough, in fact would add hugely to this false "security" overkill.
And all these agents and gizmos don't stop drugs from coming over the border. Since the start of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on January 1, 1994, regular cross-border trade has skyrocketed. Drug smugglers quickly figured out that the best way to move drugs across the border would be not to load them onto the backs of undocumented immigrants, but to conceal the drugs in the cargos of 18-wheelers. This is done sometimes by putting a gun to the driver's head, or in more sophisticated ways such as infiltrating or taking over import-export companies.
The size of trade under NAFTA is such that border authorities cannot inspect more than a tiny fraction of the huge, heavily laden trucks that go across the border every day. And some inspectors on both sides of the border have been bribed.
There are other ways NAFTA and related U.S. policies contribute to the drug trade. Drug gangs have taken advantage of lax U.S. firearms laws to import powerful weapons into Mexico, where they allow drug mafias to outgun such local police as dare to challenge them. Then there is the fact that the United States is where vast amounts of drugs are purchased. With such a huge demand, someone will supply.
But more than anything, the impact of NAFTA on Mexican agriculture and on the Mexican rural economy in general has forced Mexican grain farmers, unable to compete with imported wheat and maize subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, to find other sources of survival. Some have left the countryside for Mexico's teeming cities, where work is hard to come by and miserably underpaid. Many have themselves become undocumented immigrants in the United States. For some, cultivating marijuana has seemed like a solution. The millions of unemployed young men in Mexico who cannot otherwise survive, because neoliberal trade policies have wiped out legitimate sources of employment, are a ready source of recruits for the Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel, la Familia Michoacana, the Templars and other criminal gangs.
The United States and Mexico have tried to deal with this by quasi-military methods. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon's idea of sending the army into the streets and the U.S. financial boondoggle of the "Merida Initiative" have both failed after costing tens of thousands of lives.
Undocumented immigrants hoping to gain the right to live and work legally in this country should not be held hostage to these "security" schemes which, at most, fill the pockets of wealthy and influential government contractors. Republicans have been the main offenders in trying to convince the people of the United States that immigrants are coming to kill us and that the only way to prevent this is by creating a hig-tech Great Wall of China on our southern border.
Democrats, including the Obama administration, have gone along with this also, getting on the "wall" bandwagon even before the 2008 elections, and now find that whenever they try to move on the legalization issue (in response to pressure from Latinos, organized labor and the immigrants' rights movement), people like Steve King pop up and say "Aha! The border isn't secure against drug smugglers with cantaloupe-sized thighs! No legalization until it is," which will be never.
To break out of this trap, the first step has to be to educate U.S. voters about the real dynamics of immigration, trade and drug smuggling. Getting our people not to use drugs would also help.
Photo: Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, speaks in front of a tea party banner, March 2011. Mark Taylor CC 2.0