Smart Borders

All future postings from blogger Matthew Webster will now appear on:

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Duty Free

        The border is a fascinating anomaly. Here, pesos and dollars can be spent on either side of the Rio Grande. Spanish and English are accepted at most places of business, and the schools teach countless students who cross a bridge every day for their education. Everyone knows medicines are cheaper in Mexico, and just a 90-cent toll to walk across. Animals cross in broad daylight unhindered by la migra.

Which brings us to the singular case of duty-free goods. A host of duty-free shops on either side of the border sell discounted liquor and tobacco products. The buyer gets a claims ticket, walks to the bridge, and as they are passing through the turnstile, their product is then handed to them. All that is left is to walk across to Matamoros, then turn around and head back through U.S. Customs. The very idea seems ludicrous, laughable, and yet thousands of people do it a week.

Duty-free stores highlight the absurdity of our current, unresponsive, dehumanized borders. They are set up to be impermeable for people (think the 2006 Secure Fence Act), and yet goods and products are encouraged to cross the border many times. When the United States moved many of its automobile and textile manufacturers over to Mexico, this free movement of products was surely brokered into the deal. Why then are people viewed so differently by the current immigration laws?

America’s immigration laws are being disobeyed covertly nationwide. Some 12 million illegal immigrants currently work and reside in the United States. The problem, is, that those businesses which lured them to the United States do not want to “declare them” to customs or fight for a real path to their citizenship. No, instead, American capitalism is content to keep them illegal (read exploitable).

In his publication Young India, Mohandas Gandhi worded it in the following way.

We have too long been mentally disobedient to the laws of the State and have too often surreptitiously evaded them, to be fit all of a sudden for civil disobedience. Disobedience to be civil has to be open and non-violent. (emphasis mine)

Gandhi clearly saw that the rules were being bent freely. He decried this form of evasive disobedience, though, because it merely bends the law and encourages lawlessness. The world is a different place because men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. chose not to bend bad laws but instead break them, openly and fully intending to accept the state’s punishment. Only then can true change happen.

Starting with the Bracero Programs in 1942 which sponsored about 4.5 million migrant workers, the United States has uneasily bent its laws concerning immigrants it deems it needs economically but does not want socially. Countless restaurants and fields and factories across these United States currently employ Mexicans and other illegal immigrants at substandard wages and without benefits. This “duty-free” work force is capitalistic cowardice.

If we truly welcome immigrant labor, our immigration laws must be reformed immediately. For too many years, government policy has been “hard” on immigration and soft on enforcement. This sort of double-speak, this mental disobedience embodied by the border has allayed the conscience of Capitol Hill, has freed it of its duty to its citizens, those Americalmost immigrants, and those businesses valuing an economic edge above social welfare.

However, we are never free of our duty to any resident of these United States. Pretending that 12 million living and breathing and loving and working people are negligible simply because of they lack a classification that came to many of us freely at birth is to ignore our duty. For Americans, our borders have been “duty-free” places for decades. Our modern wars abroad do not touch us anymore with rationing, peace-gardens, and can drives and so cease to be real; in the same way, Americans are granted an international bill of rights at birth which enables them almost carte blanche access to the rest of the world. How different it is just a few hundred feet across a river!

There is no such thing as “duty-free” living, and it is our duty to speak out against border policies and immigration laws which are unjust and limit residents’ rights. As Gandhi famously wrote, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”

We have nothing to fear but our reaction to fear…

     Despite our loud exclamations otherwise, change brings out fear in all of us. Though change may be a constant, our fears and our fear-induced responses are the variable which brings about community and communication or violence and separation. While Roosevelt said we have nothing to fear but fear itself, it is only as true as the misquoted Bible verse “Money is the root of all evil.” Neither is entirely correct, because both leave out the human element which always has the power of making change redemptive or destructive. We have nothing to fear, then, but our negative reactions to fear.

 

     “No matter how much I say I support open borders and immigration, there is still this little part of me that doesn’t want to see all this change,” she says, motioning to Minne-snow-ta. “It seems like all this is pretty good; people getting along, helping each other out, maintaining their own traditions. I want my kids to have this same place.”

     She was voicing something with which everyone inevitably struggles. Mistakenly, our guttural instinct is to preserve what we love, though it be in formaldehyde. Paradoxically, though, the best way to honor that which we love the most is to let it grow and change. If something is worth keeping, it will survive. Though detractors will dub this cultural suicide, it is more akin to a cultural “survival of the finest.”

     This phenomenon can be witnessed by simply driving through our nation’s urban centers. New York, that wonderful amalgamation of cultures and races and tastes and lifestyles somehow manages to be a cohesive whole. The Dominicans in Washington Heights learn English out of necessity, using it on the subway and at the bank even as they continue frying plantains and yucca for their dinners. Israelis, Germans, Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Kenyans, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Korean, Russian – all of these and more find their way to the 5 boroughs, releasing some of the less desirable characteristics of their culture while maintaining the finest of their homeland.

     Although this might seem overly optimistic, it is possible. Certainly the United States has much to learn from other cultures and other country’s ways of thought; to open ourselves to renewed immigration would strengthen our most praiseworthy and fundamental values while complementing our culture with the best of the world. Rather than listening to xenophobic shock jocks such as Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs, or other fear-monger media sources, the inevitable effects of a globalizing population must be greeted with an informed welcome. We have much to learn from the world, and as “perfect” as certain corners of our country may seem in their idyllic state, it would be fear-based and fear-producing to build walls when we should be building bridges. Ultimately, our nation cannot hang a “No Vacancy” sign on the outstretched arm of Our Lady Liberty; at this Christmastime, it is all too easy to realize what and whom we might be turning away out of ignorant fear.

Learning to Communicate

Humans thrive on communication. To feel that your morals and ideas are understood and validated is a fundamental desire of all people.

It is precisely this desire for direct, clear communication which drives violence even in our modernized, technological world. Violence is direct and clear, if nothing else. War polarizes sides, forces people to have an opinion, clearly delineates right and wrong, and establishes lines of communication (granted, these “lines” of communication are bombs and bullets, but the message is still clear). Contemporary society is still most adept at voicing hate, and still clumsily silent or muddled with its other stances.

Ultimately, violence thrives because it is more immediately gratifying and seemingly more direct. And yet, no meaningful, substantive dialogue can be born out of the negative negotiations of military conflicts. Because we have been and continue to shy away from engaging in civil discourse, we persist in military engagements which only silence real communication. It is one of the most damning indictments upon our civilization that it killed because it was at a loss for words, that nuanced discussion was avoided in favor of seanced apologies and regrettable military conflicts.

Violence too often appeals to those who are passionate for immediate action. And violence itself can take many forms; the true definition of violence could be the physical combating of spiritual conflicts and moral issues. Read in this manner, violence is much more than the Iraq War – it is the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which seeks to physically impede immigrants we ignore in Congress. It is detention centers which strip detainees of human rights because of a lack of creativity and dedication to immigration reform. It is the over-funding of the Border Patrol and the under-acknowledgment of immigrants’ true contribution to America.

Overcoming violence, then, is simply learning to communicate. We do not need more divisive rhetoric, more negative nativism or xenophobic partisanship. We do need real immigration reform, we do need deep discussion about our business relationships with Canada and Mexico. We do need to bring our country to a unified whole which does not exclude 12 million immigrants nor the qualified millions waiting for their chance to work in the United States.

Let it be said of us that ours was a generation which learned how to communicate. Martin Luther King and Gandhi pioneered the modern era of true communication sans the ultimately distracting and self-defeating implements of violence. May we carry on this commitment to communication within these United States and to our neighbors of the world.

Lessons from European Immigration

     America loves to think it is the only country dealing with a certain issue. Surrounded by only two countries, our nation is insular and isolationist in its thinking. Few issues highlight this more than that of immigration.

     The rhetoric often focuses on the fact that we have a problem with immigration, that too many people want to come to our country with a surging economy. A quick look at Europe shows that is most certainly not the case. According to the November 24, 2007 issue of The Economist, “…immigration in Europe has outstripped even inflows to America.” As a result, xenophobia and nationalism are rampant in many EU countries, with 29% of the Swiss voting for the anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party, with an anti-alien party coming in second in Norway’s last elections, and 20% of Flemish voters favoring a far-right party. Our own nativistic desire to fence in our Southern border is simply a more drastic and costly measure than these European nations thus far.

      But, that is not the whole story. Britain, Sweden, and Ireland, all with pro-immigrant policies, have brought in thousands of immigrants since they opened their borders to workers from the east, Europe’s equivalent of America’s southern neighbor. Laudably, Spain has over 547,000 working-age adults from Romania and Bulgaria, and yet 43% state that immigrants are a boon to Europe and 55% believe they are good for the economy. (“The Trouble with Migrants” The Economist)

      All of these countries have thriving economies, and while the cause/effect relationship can be debated, they are most definitely correlated. In the United States, we became most nativistic when our economy was worst. Perhaps that is why the immigration issue is currently clamoring on all the major media networks.

      Looking to Europe, we can learn and realize what closed border policies create. Germany, with its labor pool closed to the EU until 2011, just recently opened up its borders in an attempt to lure the skilled workers it lacks. Our quotas have much the same cause, prohibiting thousands of skilled Indian, Chinese, and Mexican workers (to name a few) simply because too many applications are coming from their specific country. Beyond being racist, nativistic, and xenophobic, these restrictive immigration laws will no doubt have serious ramifications in the next decade as the United States attempts to maintain its status as a world power.

Our current system is akin to an unaffirming, negative affirmative action. It sets max quotas on countries when it should be setting minimum quotas on specific labor forces. Any immigration law must address our nation’s true needs, rather than the opinions of some outspoken few. Immigration must be legislated by viewing immigrants as assets rather than a kneejerk response to a short-lived economic downturn. If we continue to turn away so many willing and able workers, there will come a time when we need them and they are nowhere to be found.

Published in: on December 5, 2007 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rio Grande Valley Tactical Infrastructure EIS Document Response, or The Difference between 1907 and 2007

    2007 marks the centennial of the United States’ peak year of immigration. 1907 marked a year where, despite awful discrimination against Asians in the ongoing Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the introduction of the Japanese Gentleman’s Agreement, America drew well over a million to its shores to participate in our thriving economy. The centennial of that year finds a very different attitude towards immigration in the polis of America. With the inhibitive and overly restrictive immigration laws and lottery system, we have no real concept of how many migrants, sojourners, asylum-seekers, refugees, and visa over-stayers “immigrated” this year. We do, however, know that some 12 million extralegal citizens currently reside in the continental United States, as defined by the Mexican-American War; in addition to these teeming extralegals, there are millions of other Americans complicit in this immigrant labor and success in our nation.

    While positive, concrete immigration reforms stalled in a staunchly partisan triumvirate political system last year, the only significant immigration legislation in recent years is the Secure Fence Act of 2006. This legislation is slowly, imperceptibly creeping along the Mexican-American border, attempting to replace the natural Rio Grande with the inefficacious Muro Grande. the 538-page U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report entitled “Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Construction, Maintenance, and Operation of Tactical Infrastructure Rio Grande Valley Sector, Texas,” detailing the border barrier and its efforts was just published to the public this past week. Having read these words with an eye to its impact on my own backyard of Brownsville, Texas, it appears to be a shameless show of smoke and mirrors. The purported aim of this barrier, in keeping with the same goals of this present administration which has already brought us to the desert of Iraq and the shores of Cuba, is first and foremost to counter terrorism, presumably being trucked across our Southern border as you read this. In addition, though, the border wall is also supposed to deter drugs (to help our healthy black market “just say no”) and stymie the flow of illegal immigrants in ways that legislative reform cannot.

    Preexistent in this lengthy document, however, is its own unstated downfall. The document brings up token dissent as a means of disproving “all” alternatives to a border wall stretching some 70 miles through the Rio Grande Valley and up to 700 miles along the entire border, but the criticism undoubtedly ricochets back at the wall. The report states that a natural hedge would slow crossings and promote nature, but that it regrettably would not be a foolproof deterrent and would need constant reparations. Such criticism could be directed at the border wall itself. Its staunchest supporters admit it will do littler more than slow down illegal crossings. The report itself states that, because the wall is not continuous, it will probably just shift illegal activity to other, arguably more treacherous, crossing zones.

    The document also proposes that the wall is a “force multiplier” to aid in stopping immigration. Intriguingly, this has been the rallying cry for American businesses so desirous of cheap immigrant labor. Additionally, this report ignores the fact that providing more legal means to citizenship, as opposed to vindictive threats of deportation and Catch-22 scenarios for extralegal aliens already here, would do more to reduce illegal immigration. Just as providing CHIP and family assistance does not serve as an incentive for the impoverished to have illegitimate children, neither will this sort of immigration reform open up the door to illegal immigrants. Rather, it will provide a way and means for qualified individuals to forgo a cruel lottery system in order to officially enter the ranks of the Americans they work alongside already.

    The border wall espoused in this document, replete with its treatment of dissent, is politically little more than a token gesture that both Republicans and Democrats are “tough on immigration,” though hardheaded and medieval in their means. Tokenism is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. writes in his “Bold Design for a New South,”

not only…a useless goal, but…a genuine menace. It is a palliative which relieves emotional distress, but leaves the disease and its ravages unaffected. It tends to demobilize and relax the militant spirit which alone drives us forward to real change.

Socially, ethically, morally, and economically, the Secure Fence Act which is now being treated as inevitable, is a negative, self-defeating gesture which will cripple our workforce, legislate nativism, forgo and delay meaningful immigration reform, and sap precious resources from our nation’s poorest. This wall will brutalize the fragile ecosystem and cultural legacy of La Frontera and will set up a racially-suspicious immigration which leads heavily in favor of Western European countries with its emphasis on numbers, irregardless of population size. This lengthy literary exercise in bureaucracy will soon disappear in the vaults of the Library of Congress, but if we erect a barrier in this Western Hemisphere and ignore real legislative reform for immigration, its legacy will be that of 1924 and 1882, rather than that of 1907, the biggest year yet in immigration. Future generations will peer inquisitive at our contemporary history, befuddled by the ways in which a country so in love with globalizing technology and overseas production could be so obstinately opposed to a globalizing populace.

We do not need illegal immigrants…

     Talk to any economist or realist, and they will assuredly agree that immigrant labor has made our country what it is and sustains our current economy. Controlling all other variables, if our nation were to cease all immigration or deport all 12 million illegal immigrants, our economy would plummet, our businesses bankrupt, our social security system crumple. We need immigrants; to deny this is to deny America.

     However, we do not need illegal immigrants. There are two ways to supply our businesses and nation with the necessary masses of low-skilled, low-paid workers. One way is our current system of hiring illegal immigrants at a fraction of the cost or employing those on worker visas. This works for us, but at the sake of suspending millions of people’s rights and welfare. Additionally, it perpetuates the influx of illegal immigrants into our nation.

      There is another way, however. If the United States opens up its doors to immigrants in a graduated fashion and allows its current extralegal immigrants to apply for citizenship, we will be inviting a replenishable, legal, documented workforce of higher caliber at still basement wages. Legal immigrants are still highly underpaid for their expertise, and their discounted labor costs will add to our economy; the prime difference, however, is that legal immigrants have the potential and the hope to progress. Contrary to illegal immigrants, newly immigrated citizens can one day hope to work out of low-paying jobs, to unionize, to receive education, to raise a family, to save money, to utilize health-care, to pay taxes and insurance.

Newly immigrated citizens are upwardly mobile individuals starting out on the bottom rung of capitalism; illegal immigrants, however, are locked in the basement of an America which espouses equality. To perpetuate our current stagnation on the immigration issue is to condemn millions of would-be Americans to an inescapable catch-22, caught between the economic necessity of American wages and the absence of human rights bestowed upon our legal citizens. Our nation does not need illegal immigrants, but it does need those people who are on the other side of our current immigration laws and quotas to possess the means for citizenship and become productive, publicly active citizens and workers. We must radically rethink and restructure our immigration laws to legalize hard-working Americalmosts.

Badges of Citizenship

     At the end of the first movie to feature color photography, a certain “cowardly” lion gets a badge of courage and feels filled with bravery. Anyone watching The Wizard of Oz, though, realizes that he has become courageous throughout the entire movie, and that this ceremony is little more than fanfare to celebrate who he already is.

     Working in a high school on the Mexican-American border, I am surrounded by students caught in the immigration process. For one, he waited ten years to finally get approved and win the lottery for citizenship this past December. Another student has already been told by the United States government that he is a desirable applicant but must wait until he wins his place as one of the measly 26,000 Mexicans allowed to legally enter our country each year. And then there’s your high-honors student, involved in extracurriculars and volunteering, who is anxiously waiting to hear whether her September application for citizenship has been accepted.

     Those opposed to granting even partial amnesty to extralegal immigrants in the United States are missing a vital point. Providing illegal residents a means and a hope for legalization does not change who they are intrinsically any more than the Cowardly Lion’s badge made him courageous. For these people it would be a means to greater opportunity, yes, but opportunities for which their studies and work ethic were already prepared. Students who have successfully exited ESL programs, families who are working together to stay off welfare, individuals who are paying taxes through their employer’s reduced wages – all of these people will simply be validated, legalized, and given the means to contribute further to our community.

     An “earned” amnesty initiative would assure that only people who are already acting like responsible citizens would be granted citizenship. The vast majority of the 12 million extralegal immigrants are precisely these sorts of individuals and families, American in everything but name. A piece of paper does not change their morality, their ethics, their talents, their life, their liberty, or their pursuit of happiness – a piece of paper simply ensures that they can fully participate in our democracy and are afforded the rights citizens take for granted. The small percentage of immigrants who do not work towards an earned amnesty are the types of individuals who should be the focus of aggressive national security measures; these measures become feasible only when the number of “lawbreakers” is converted to a manageable number.

     Our country’s cities, restaurants, schools, fields, factories, and economy are buoyed by 12 million individuals who contribute their talents and ideas to our nation of immigrants. The best way to secure our borders, to effectively budget social security and welfare, to maximize worker output, and o encourage each American to strive for his/her very best is to enable some form of earned amnesty in an effort affirm the decision so many immigrants have already made – to work, to study, to be active in the community, to be American.

Monopolicies

     When I was only 18, I received a check of $18 from a class-action lawsuit against BMG for its monopoly price gouging practices of the 1990s. BMG, along with several other mail-order music clubs, had decided that it would overprice its discs so that it could still make a hefty profit off its “12 for the price of 1” deal. This is all well and good, but this corporation stepped over the line when it encouraged other music clubs to do the same, so they wouldn’t out-compete each other in their markets.

     One of the most telling signs of a monopoly is that businesses in apparent competition all agree not to compete in a certain manner or venue. While the U.S. government and its bi-partisan system are arguably not a corporation, they have most certainly engaged in “monopolicies” in regard to immigration reform. By agreeing not to disagree on this issue until after the elections, they have effectively silenced the 12 million extralegal immigrants, and the millions of legal citizens who plead for them, for yet another year. Our country screams out for deep immigration reform just as it railed against Prohibition some 80 years ago. But all the major candidates have skirted the issue at best, breathing platitudes and supporting a ridiculous gesture of national defense – the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

      It has certainly brought our nation to an impasse, when politicians are terrified to speak about an issue which greatly affects our nation’s GDP, society, education, healthcare, and future. This past week Hilary Clinton was railed against when she dared say the illegal immigrants should be able to apply for driver’s licenses. Whether you agree with her other policies or not, she was one of the only candidates who would take a firm stand and propose some means of incorporating the 12 million and counting people who reside within our borders without any legal protection or identification. Nearly every other candidate criticized her statements, yet not of them addressed the underlying issue. If we are not to give these people a means to citizenship, are we to spend billions of dollars extraditing and deporting 12 million people who largely comprise our labor class? If we fail to allow residents, illegal or otherwise, the opportunity to legally register their vehicles or themselves, will that take any steps towards keeping them off the roads or “securing” within our nation’s borders?

      It is time that the people of United States take a stand against any sort of monopolicies. For too long, we have allowed politicians to tell us what the “real issues” are. Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I, along with so many well-meaning religious people, voted my “conscience” by choosing a “pro-life” candidate. These candidates, largely Republican, touted the fact that they would support pro-life policies, but in their terms of office no large alterations have been made to Roe vs. Wade but huge changes have occurred in our militaristic mindset and our warmongering ideals. It is time that the people of this democracy decide which issues they are voting on and then hold their candidates accountable to those issues. So far, the outcry for immigration reform has rested simply within our souls, but we must make it loud and clear that we cannot continue living in a country where 12 million people live without rights, protection, documentation, or hope of attaining citizenship for anyone but their posterity. If America is to have any hope in maintaining its status as a world leader, taxes, war victories, campaign reform, and even nationalized healthcare are not the real issues. The real issues, the issues which must come to the forefront of our national debates, are education and immigration reform. These are the two ways in which we can better our future today.

Published in: on November 4, 2007 at 10:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Criminalization

Much dialogue on marijuana in the last few decades has centered around the large rates of incarceration and the exorbitant cost of imprisonment. According to estimates in Eric Schlosser’s book Reefer Madness, some 20,000 inmates are currently imprisoned primarily for a marijuana charge. Proponents for legalization have a valid point when they argue that if marijuana were no longer criminalized, it would save the United States millions of dollars in lost labor and imprisonment fees.

What is more bizarre, then, is that very few politicians or advocates have spoken loudly or clearly on the topic of immigrant criminalization. With more than 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the United States, this number defies all logical enforcement and flouts our underfunded prisons.

There are essentially two types of bad legislation. Some failed legislation are good laws badly enforced, as in the case of the Emancipation Proclamation or school desegregation in the South. Both of these were good laws which lacked a concerted effort at universal, uniform enforcement. While some states succeeded in integrating students of all ethnicities, many states found loopholes and ways to thwart real enforcement.

The other sort of bad legislation are bad laws impossible to enforce. Prohibition, as laid forth in the 18th Amendment, was a good moral choice but bad legislation. State-mandated alcohol abstinence was impossible to enforce; it succeeded in little more than feeding mob activity and criminalizing thousands of people who up to this point had been law-abiding citizens.

Our current immigration system in the United States would fit into the latter category. With over 12 million illegalized citizens, it is fiscally and theoretically impossible to punish, discipline, fine, imprison, or detain every extralegal immigrant in the U.S. Its enforcement is impossible, but that has not stopped us from pouring $6.7 billion dollars into border security for 2007. Border security received more than a 3% raise from 2006, while education funds remained essentially the same and emergency funds were cut by 2%, even in the wake of the Katrina fiasco. With all these increased border security measures, the cost to apprehend a single illegal immigrant crossing the border has risen from $300 in 1992 to $1700 in 2002. And we still have over 12 million undocumented immigrants.

The only immigration reform which has been approved in the past few years has been in bulking up our border security. However, that is missing the crux of this situation – this is ultimately self-defeating, prohibitively expensive, and impossible to enforce.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his outspoken speeched against Vietnam, stated that, “Justice is indivisible.” To have a law on the books which is unjust and not being enforced is to shake the very bastions upon which our justice system stands. Ultimately we must join with King in agreeing that, “no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” While amnesty will not solve everything, offering a feasible path towards citizenship for potential illegal immigrants as well as undocumented workers currently residing in the U.S. will begin to address this article of failed legislation and this pock upon our moral countenance.