Why Millions Risk Lives to Enter the U.S.

by Randy Shaw on January 22, 2009

Immigration policy remains a hot button issue in the United States. Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel has described comprehensive immigration legislation as the “third rail” of American politics, and CNN provides Lou Dobbs with a daily forum for bashing undocumented immigrants. While opponents of creating a path to legalization for such immigrants recognize that they leave Mexico due to a lack of opportunity, they avoid the underlying causes of this migration. Fortunately, David Bacon’s Illegal People provides the often ignored background. Bacon convincingly demonstrates that United States trade and economic policies have forced Mexicans to leave their country by eliminating viable economic options at home. This virtually forced migration has dramatically increased illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States, yet many of the corporate interests promoting globalization and free trade back politicians who then blame undocumented immigrants for America’s economic problems. Bacon’s clear, succinct, and highly readable book explains how globalization creates migration and criminalizes immigrants, pulling back the curtain to reveal facts that the Lou Dobbs’ of the world would prefer be kept out of the debate.

Few journalists are more deeply steeped in the lives of undocumented immigrants than the Bay Area’s own David Bacon. A former boycott organizer for the United Farmworkers of America, Bacon has produced landmark photo essays and a number of books on the plight of Mexican immigrants in the United States.

Bacon’s new book, Illegal People, explains how U.S. trade and economic policy caused the massive influx of Mexicans into the United States. For example, after NAFTA ended Mexican government corn subsidies, and allow the massive importation of cheaper U.S. corn, Mexican corn farmers could not earn enough to survive. Bacon details the plight of Oaxacan corn farmers, showing how they had little choice but to migrate to the United States, regardless of the great personal risks. Once here, they are demonized as “illegal,” often cheated out of wages and benefits, and potentially, as in recent years, subjected to ICE raids where they are often treated as terrorists.

Bacon reminds us of the incredible physical obstacles immigrants face in reaching the United States, and the brutality far too many experience once here. He also highlights the egregious hypocrisy of United States immigration policy: after our policies have forced people off their land, and given them no choice but to migrate, we then prosecute and deport them for violating our immigration laws.

If Bacon’s account were not backed with examples and facts, one could easily think he was writing a fictional horror story. Or an Orwellian, 1984-type tale in which a powerful nation allows major corporations to oppress and criminalize impoverished Mexican immigrants solely for profit.

This is not the image of the United States that Barack Obama sought to offer the world this week. And those who still claim that free trade policies help the poor should be forced to respond to Bacon’s analysis.

The Future of Immigration Reform

After explaining the causes of Mexican immigration, Bacon discusses strategies and proposals for comprehensive immigration reform. I found this section particularly interesting, as Bacon provides a counter-interpretation to my own analysis of the immigrant rights movement advanced in my new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century Whereas I credit UFW veterans for greatly expanding labor, church and community support for immigrant rights, and particularly praise the immigrant rights advocacy and mobilizing success of SEIU and UNITE HERE, Bacon views these groups as backing watered-down legalization measures in Washington DC that do not serve the interests of undocumented immigrants.

Bacon sees the hundreds of smaller, community-based immigrant rights groups across the nation as the true representatives of the immigrant community, and fears that their perspectives will be subordinated to “union lobbyists” who are under pressure to be “players at the table when bills are written.” Bacon sees the SEIU-UNITE HERE-UFW alliance with churches and some immigrant rights groups as too willing to defer to Democratic Party politicians, and of sacrificing principles in order to be “politically realistic.”

Guest Workers

Bacon’s chief concern is that the SEIU-led coalition will accept a form of “guest worker” programs as part of a comprehensive legislative deal. He thus offers an extensive critique of guest worker policies. Starting with the bracero program, which allowed growers to bring in Mexican workers “temporarily” during World War II’s labor shortages, Bacon shows that guest worker programs have a fifty-year track record of denying workers decent wages and working conditions.

Bacon cites SEIU’s President Andy Stern’s statement that unions should only back immigrant rights measures that are politically viable (which implies support of a form of guest worker policies), but does not clearly explain why the unions that have organized the most undocumented immigrant workers, and greatly expanded the immigrant rights movement, would back a legislative deal that hurts immigrant workers. He does not give SEIU or UNITE HERE leaders a chance to address his concerns, so readers do not learn that SEIU’s Eliseo Medina has conditioned support of any guest worker program on its including a path to legalization, the right to unionize, and other components not part of prior guest worker plans.

Bacon leaves no doubt that he believes that the smaller, grassroots groups have a deeper connection to the immigrant community, and that SEIU and its coalition partners are taking positions without adequately consulting their immigrant basis. Yet the network of small grassroots groups Bacon backs did not have the resources to greatly expand the immigrant rights movement, which then exploded after SEIU and its coalition partners made building the immigrant rights movement a priority. Bacon’s position, also found in critiques by grassroots environmental groups of the often DC-based national organizations, raises many points of discussion; while I do not share Bacon’s perspective, he offers an important contribution to the debate.

The 2006 Marches

Bacon’s account of the massive 2006 immigrant rights marches also differs from my own, and is clearly shaped by his belief that the movement should be led, and is primarily a product of, smaller grassroots groups rather than larger institutions like SEIU, the Catholic Church, and their coalition partners. Bacon, whose photo of one of the marches graces the cover of my book, quotes activist Nativo Lopez’s claim that people poured into the streets “not to support” the comprehensive immigration reform proposals coming out of Washington, “but driven by the fear of the harm they’d do.” That may have been Lopez’s experience, but it is then hard to explain why SEIU, UNITE HERE, and their allies were turning out tens of thousands of immigrants to protest against what these groups were advocating for in Washington DC.

Lopez’s claim is consistent with those who believe SEIU and UNITE HERE are out of touch with the policy preferences of their immigrant base, but I drew the opposite conclusion; otherwise, these groups would not have had such success turning out tens of thousands of immigrants to protest marches across the nation.

Anyone familiar with Bacon’s weekly KPFA radio show knows that he is not one for easy answers, and he enjoys the back and forth of debate. The first half of Illegal People offers a definitive analysis of the corporate links to mass migration into the United States, while the latter section offers pro-legalization activists a chance to internally debate proposed guest worker plans and other controversial provisions likely to be included in new comprehensive immigration legislation. With the introduction of such a measure not expected until the fall, progressive unity is still possible; Bacon’s Illegal People is vital part of this debate, and even those who do not agree with all of his views will benefit greatly from the forcefulness of his arguments.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the newly-released Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)

Filed under: Book Reviews