The ultra-right inundates us with racist propaganda about undocumented immigrants, making them sound like hordes of barbarians who are invading this country and bringing crime, disease and terror with them.

The more progressive politicians try to refute these lies. But there are certain things that neither the right nor the liberal center is willing to say about undocumented immigration.

The right won’t say these things because to do so would break up their divide-and-conquer game. But for the most part, the Democratic Party politicians and other liberal or centrist forces won’t say them either, either because they don’t understand them themselves, or because they are afraid of being painted as disloyal if they do.

Yet they are things that must be said, because without them, the entire question of undocumented immigration becomes inexplicable. So we must say them.

These are the major points that are not being made on the floor of the Senate and House, or in the corporate media:

* What is the cause of undocumented immigration? Not “lax enforcement” or “contempt for our laws” or a Mexican plot to “re-conquer” the southwestern United States for Mexico. It is caused by the extreme disruption and impoverishment of the lives of millions of people in the poorer countries that result from the actions of imperialism and corporate globalization.

In Mexico, for example, the level of undocumented immigration to the United States shot up starting in 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement kicked in and Mexico was forced to speed up its implementation as a condition of the famous Clinton-Rubin bailout loan. Massive imports of inexpensive U.S. grain led to the ruin of up to 1.5 million Mexican subsistence farmers, and the exodus of upwards of 6 million Mexicans from the rural economy by 2000.

Similar things happened in other sectors of the economy, and these displaced millions had nowhere to go except to the United States. The main beneficiaries of this situation were Wall Street and U.S. agribusiness. The same sort of thing has happened all over the world, leading to an unprecedentedly huge displacement of workers and farmers in the poorer countries, with nowhere to go but across the border to the nearest wealthier country.

Washington has backed up these free trade policies with the threat of military force and other kinds of pressure. So undocumented immigration to the United States is in fact being caused by the policies of our own government and the activities of our own corporations.

* So, why don’t these people go and get proper visas to come here legally? These displaced people come to the United States illegally because they can’t stay where they are, there is nowhere else to go, and there is no way for them to come legally.
The U.S. government simply does not issue visas for displaced corn farmers with fifth-grade educations and their families. In 2005, only 5,000 permanent resident visas (green cards) were given to people in the job categories most undocumented immigrants fill. More have been able to come in legally through the “family unity” category of permanent resident visas, but there are efforts now in Congress to cut off this safety valve also.

So the rhetoric about “waiting their turn in line” or “not jumping the line” is nonsense also. The very people who are forced to migrate because of our own corporate and government policies are pushed to the back of the line for legal immigration by our own immigration policies, to the point that if they waited their turn they would in many cases be too old to work by the time their visa was issued.

* Are undocumented workers basically “job thieves”? No, but likewise nonsensical is the claim that undocumented workers “take jobs that nobody wants.” Though it is not necessarily the case that if every undocumented worker were deported, a U.S. citizen or legal resident would immediately snap up his or her vacated job, it is also true that in certain industries especially, employers utilize undocumented workers because they know that these worker’s immigration status can be used to intimidate them and prevent them from unionizing or demanding better wages and safer working conditions.

On the other hand, at a national level, there is no real evidence that immigrant workers bring down wages in general. This paradox, which is very poorly understood, has to do with the fact that immigrant workers and their families do not relate to the economy only by taking jobs that others want, but in a whole variety of ways. They “occupy jobs” but also create wealth, pay taxes and consume goods and services.

* Is it not true that undocumented workers don’t pay their share of taxes? It depends on how you calculate what should be their share. Most undocumented immigrants, in fact, manage to find a way to get their federal and state taxes deducted and paid. It is true that they tend to be low wage and therefore pay less in federal taxes, though they kick in a lot for sales taxes, fees and so forth.

But they work themselves to death for employers who make huge extra profits off their exploitation. These employers rake in the wealth created by the undocumented immigrant workers, not the workers themselves. Can we really say that they are paying their fair share of taxes? The series of tax giveaways to the rich that started with Ronald Reagan and have continued through George W. Bush have ensured that these rich folks most definitely do not pay their fair share of taxes on the wealth created, but not kept, by the immigrant workers.

So rather than wailing about how immigrant workers use public services but don’t pay taxes, we should do something about the corporations and wealthy who benefit from the immigrants’ work, yet do not pay taxes on the wealth they create.

* Another piece of nonsense is to jump from the correct observation that pressure for large scale immigration is going to continue for the foreseeable future, to the wrong-headed conclusion that the best way to handle this in an orderly, legal and humane manner is through guest worker programs. Guest worker programs are attractive to big business because they guarantee a passive but legal labor force that can be exploited for a while and then “sent home” as needed, before they are old and need a lot of expensive health care services. But “sending home” the guest workers is not so easy; if there are no more jobs back in the country of origin at the end of the stint than at the beginning, there will be a strong pressure for guest workers not to go home and to stay on as undocumented immigrants.

A partial solution might be to channel guest workers into a “permanent resident” visa track at some point in their stint, but much better would be simply to issue more regular permanent resident visas (green cards) to the kind of people who are otherwise likely to come undocumented. They will come here with some rights and the possibility of gaining full rights via U.S. citizenship after five years.

* Of course, isn’t it the case that to deal with the undocumented immigration problem we should first “seal our borders” and “make sure there is adequate internal enforcement”? No, that is not the case, that has the correct order of events backward. If we would find a way to legalize the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants, then create adequate legal mechanisms of labor migration so that masses of people don’t have to swim the Rio Grande or stagger through the desert any more, the “illegal immigration” problem would shrink to a tiny fraction of its present size. Not only would we not need fences and more border guards and detention facilities, we could cut back on all those things and the taxpayers would save a bundle.

* Is it not true that immigrants cause a lot of crime, disease and social problems? This is the most pernicious lie. You would never know it from listening to Lou Dobbs, but most studies show that the undocumented immigrant population is on the whole healthier than comparable sectors of the general population, and commits considerably less crime. This is perfectly logical: people with chronic illnesses can’t make it across the Sonora Desert, and the last thing most undocumented immigrants want to do is to draw attention to themselves by getting into trouble with the law. What undocumented immigrants are, though, is the perfect all-purpose scapegoat of the moment. By blaming undocumented immigrants for everything under the sun, a lot of people in high places can get themselves off the hook.

Consider: Undocumented immigrants are not responsible for the following:

* The trashing of affirmative action policies which have helped African Americans and other minorities and women to get ahead.

* The failure of Congress to create better labor laws and of the executive branch to enforce the ones we have.

* Cuts in college student aid and in government support for primary and secondary education, all of which have contributed to the intractable problems of our inner city, minority and low-income students.

* The U.S. health care financing crisis, which has us paying more for worse health care than people in any other rich country, while 45 million people lack health insurance.

* The stagnation of the minimum wage.

* The Iraq war and the grotesque waste of lives and treasure which this has entailed.

Finally, there is a belief among both the anti-immigrant forces and some on the pro-immigrant side that immigrants are just passive people by nature. Anti-immigrant spokespersons describe them as an inert mass of people who just by existing pull down the wages of U.S. workers. Some sincere friends of immigrants seem to share this view, and end up taking a patronizing attitude.

But the mass marches of 2006 and 2007 have shown that even the undocumented immigrants can be a fighting force for justice, not just for themselves, but for all working people in the country.

Would we not all like to see manifestations of mass activism and solidarity like that in support of labor rights or universal health care, or against the Iraq war?

What keeps the full potential of immigrant workers and their families from being realized is the vulnerability that comes from their undocumented status, and some vicious laws which endanger even documented workers (Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, both of 1996).

Liberate the immigrants from being undocumented, by giving them amnesty or legalization or whatever you want to call it, repeal the 1996 anti-immigrant laws, and you are unleashing a mighty force for justice in the workplace and the nation.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.