The root causes of undocumented immigration

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New plans for "sealing" the border between Mexico and the U.S., insisted on by Republicans as a condition for their support of immigration reform, do nothing to deal with the root causes of undocumented immigration and are doomed to fail, while increasing suffering and deaths at the border.

The right has portrayed undocumented immigration as an "invasion" of revolutionaries and criminals, orchestrated by the Mexican government; this is nonsense.

The reasons behind labor immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean are eloquently presented by Puerto Rican journalist and historian Juan Gonzalez in his book "Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (Revised edition 2011, Penguin)," and in other studies.

Successive U.S. military interventions in Latin America have had a major influence in stimulating mass immigration to the U.S. The 1954 overthrow of the progressive elected government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz by the Eisenhower administration, motivated by a desire to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company, led to a civil war that lasted until the 1990s and killed more than 200,000 people, most at the hands of the U.S. allied military and right-wing death squads.

Thousands fled across the border into Mexico and some ended up in the U.S. The continuing social instability created by the war combines with economic factors to stimulate current Guatemalan immigration.

The Contra War in Nicaragua, in which the U.S. teamed up with right-wing death squads to overthrow the left-wing Sandinista government, forced many to leave. In El Salvador, U.S. allied troops and paramilitaries created another bloodbath. Ironically, there was really nowhere for people to go except to the U.S. itself. U.S. support for the Salvadoran ultra-right, including vicious death squads, also meant that there was no way that Salvadorans refugees could get legally recognized as such. So like the others, they came in "undocumented."

In the Dominican Republic, the U.S. supported dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo for many years. When he was finally overthrown (with CIA help), the U.S. worked to prevent the coming to power of a left-wing government. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson sent troops to squash a left-wing uprising from restoring the legally elected president, Juan Bosch, who had been overthrown by the military. The return of repressive right-wing rule led to increased emigration of Dominicans, mostly to New York.

In Haiti, the U.S. supported right-wing, repressive governments for many years. In 1994 the Clinton administration helped to restore the legally elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, to power. However, this came with a price: Aristide had to agree to unfavorable trade arrangements which enriched the U.S. rice industry while undercutting Haitian rice growers. In 2004, the Bush administration connived with France, Canada, and the Haitian elites to overthrow Aristide again, after he had called for France to pay reparations for harm to the Haitian economy in the 19th century. Again people fled, many to the U.S.

Accompanying all of these interventions is the factor of unequal trade relations.

Starting from before the initiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada in 1994, and the subsequent Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) all the countries of the region except Cuba were squeezed into trade deals that highly favor transnational corporations and undercut the position of workers, small farmers and small scale businesses.

In Mexico, several million grain farmers have been driven off the land by unfair competition from U.S. and Canadian agribusiness. Jobs that were supposed to materialize in other areas of the Mexican economy have not. Claims in the U.S. media that immigration from Mexico is down because Mexico is no longer poor should be taken with a grain of salt. In many villages and small towns in Mexico, there are virtually no young men left who could migrate, and remaining inhabitants live on the $24 billion which Mexican immigrants in the U.S. send back to them every year.

There are increases in undocumented immigration from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in spite of publicity about the fact that drug trafficking gangs are now waylaying immigrants on their way through Mexico to the United States, kidnapping them for ransom and sometimes murdering them.

People who are willing to risk these depredations are not going to be deterred by a wall, especially if they already have spouses and children in the U.S. to whom they are trying to return. They will rely even more on immigrant smugglers, increasingly controlled by the criminal gangs, to bring them through even more dangerous border areas, where more and more immigrants are dying every year.

Nor will they respond to losing their jobs because of E-verify; they will end up working for less money under worse conditions, for cash under the table.

The U.S. should recognize its own role in undocumented immigration, and make available sufficient numbers of legal immigrant visas (green cards, not temporary worker visas) to eliminate the "illegal" part. If it does not want this mass labor immigration at all, it should radically change its relationship with neighboring countries. This would mean no more C.I.A., no more subsidies to right-wing political groups, and no more efforts to protect U.S. corporate interests at the expense of millions of ordinary people in Latin America and the Caribbean.

None of the Republican politicians, and only a few of Democrats, are even able to grasp this. Therefore, those who want to see progressive immigration reform without undesirable "trade-offs" and concessions have to also work for a change in U.S. international policy.

I'm not saying that will be easy.

Photo: "Undocumented and Unafraid," reads a sign held by demonstrators rallying for immigration reform. M. Spencer Green/AP

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  • thanks for writing this piece, I agree with you 100%
    I came here in 1989 at age 13 from the Dominican republic, legally with my mother. My mom had no choice but to come here, over there she had no job or anyway to get one. we were really poor. I think things would have been different if the US had not interfered in the 1960s after Juan Bosch was elected. My mom locked education which was one thing he promised to give everyone for free. The US supported president Balaguer who went on to murder some people and pursue a rightwing economic agenda. The country is just now overcoming all those years of interference by the US. I think my mom would have never come here if she had some kind of way to support us over there. coming here and setting up here is not an easy thing to do but it is easier then starving to death.

    Posted by cisco, 06/14/2014 11:24pm (4 months ago)

  • Yes, Emile Schepers does show root causes of undocumented immigration.

    To use a simple equation: U.S. imperialism + local right-wing/neoliberal elites + private monopoly + militarism = poverty + economic desperation + immigrating, legal or illegal, to live in stable conditions + right-wing/neoliberal failures = the need for real, permanent ideological change, once and for all.

    Posted by revolution123, 07/25/2013 4:10pm (1 year ago)

  • Emile sums it up well, The U.S long ago moved away from the "good neighbor" Pan-American policy of the 1930s, with all of its limitations a major advance from what preceded and followed it, back to recycled versions of gunboat diplomacy and dollar diplomacy in Latin America.
    NAFTA of course was bad for everyone, American workers and the rural poor of Mexico and Central America, who began to be pushed out of their enclaves in the their economies, in ways similar to the rural poor of Eastern and Southern Europe, especially Russian Empire Poland and Southern Italy-Sicily, which saw a huge immigration to the U.S. and other countries by the dislocated rural poor with the rise of Industrial Capitalism in Western Europe and North America. That immigration though was until the 1920s legal, even though reactionaries used it to divide workers on the basis of "natives" and immigrants, adding ethnic religious to the mix.
    The working class advanced when it integrated those immigrants through unions and social legislation into the larger economy which benefitted all working people. Integrating undocumented workers through similar policies today is the only answer to both the right and to economic stagnation
    Norman Markowitz

    Posted by norman markowitz, 07/25/2013 10:44am (1 year ago)

  • This excellent article reveals that the Latino element in South, Central and North America, is indivisible. It is indivisible with the geo-political Atlantic civilizations, but also with the peoples of these civilizations, which markedly show that African civilization, in line with the revelations and discoveries of anthropologist Ivan van Sertima, putting Africa in the Americas, one thousand years before Christopher Columbus.
    All America belongs to Latinos, as much as it belongs to indigenous Native American Indians, Northern Europeans, Africans and Asians. All these peoples have combined in billions of configurations to make one labor, recreating themselves in their own image.
    Bolivar, Marti' and L'ouverture and their likes have made this indelible image, all are bound to honor and respect.
    That the political dinosaurs of both the Republican and Democratic Parties of Congress seek to "seal"off American Civilization with chasms, guns, steel, maddened dogs, and barbarism, is a sin and an atrocity. They do so with no regard to the peace, jobs, education, and bread that is necessary to correct the problems rooted in oppression, repression, tyranny and genocide of colonialism, imperialism and boundless, demonstrated corporate agri-business greed and mass murder of war.
    They do so disregarding the fact that the working people of the Americas, along with the varied Latino peoples, have given boundless peace, education, bread and labor to these Americas, and will reap what they have selflessly sown.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 07/25/2013 10:13am (1 year ago)

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