Exploring the History and Myths of US Immigration—Setting the Record Straight: Midwest Social Forum

As part of a series of workshops and discussions held on the issue of immigration and the prospects for continued organizing efforts on the part of the immigrant rights movement, a workshop titled “Exploring the History and Myths of US Immigration: Setting the Record Straight” was held this past Saturday in Milwaukee as part of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum.

As part of a series of workshops and discussions held on the issue of immigration and the prospects for continued organizing efforts on the part of the immigrant rights movement, a workshop titled “Exploring the History and Myths of US Immigration: Setting the Record Straight” was held this past Saturday in Milwaukee as part of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum. The workshop was designed to review the history of United States immigration policy, to address the various myths that circulate in the media and in the discussion about immigration, and to give an overview the proposed legislation that has come out of the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. The workshop consisted of three panelists active in the immigrant rights movement and invested in the success of long-term organizing efforts in immigrant communities—Salvador Carranza of Latinos United for Change and Advancement (LUChA), Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran of Latinos United for Change and Advancement (LUChA), and Alexis Mazon of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos and Immigrant Defense Task Force in Tucson, Arizona.

The workshop began with Alexis Mazon giving and overview of the current legislation in Congress—the House’s bill HR 4437 and the Senate’s bill S 26.11 (often called the Hegel-Martinez bill), both of which she described as “very frightening” and expressed frustration that the two bills are now seen by many in Congress and the United States as the only possibilities for immigrants. As would be expected, Mazon rejected the approach of criminalization of immigrants offered by Wisconsin Representative F. James Sensenbrenner in HR 4437 and outlined how the bill would build more walls along the border, make “existence” within the United States without documents a felony subject to detention, deportation, and a lifetime ban from entering the United States, and would make it a crime for individuals and organizations within the United States to aid undocumented immigrants. However, Mazon’s criticism of the Senate’s bill—seen by some as a compromise in light of the draconian House bill—was a departure from much of the dominant discussion within progressive movements and set the stage for a real discussion of how the movement should respond to a “compromise” bill that fails to address even the most minimal aspirations of the movement. Mazon called the Senate bill a “report to deport” measure and explained that the bill’s “legalization” provisions were offered in exchange for leaving the United States and registration with the government with no guarantees that workers would be allowed back into the United States once they left as one of the preconditions for the guest worker program. Aside from criticizing the guest worker program as an inadequate solution to address immigration caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other economic and structural reasons for immigration, Mazon outlined other “criminalization” aspects of the Senate legislation. These included the provisions making it a crime potentially subject to deportation to have ever used a false security number to obtain employment, the creation of a “continuing crime offense” where immigrants who admit to crossing the border without doing so legally are considered to have committed a “continuing crime” that is subject to up to twenty years in prison, indefinite detention provisions for immigrants, increased cooperation between local police and the border patrol, the expansion of detention facilities (which will be done by companies such as Halliburton, Bechtel, and Wackenhutt), and the extension of a wall along the United States-Mexico border. Panelist Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran echoed Mazon’s objections to the Senate bill and also pointed out that while the media has emphasized the “amnesty” component of the bill—a provision that does not even exist in any substantive form within the bill—there has been no discussion of its actual provisions including the lack of guarantees for admission into the guest worker program once immigrants have left the United States, the requirement for citizens to learn and demonstrate proficiency in English, and the limits placed on due process rights for immigrants.

Following Mazon’s discussion of current legislation, Salvador Carranza examined several common myths in the immigration debate. He began by discussing how militarizing the border is not a deterrent to undocumented immigration and indeed more people have enter the country via extra-legal means due to the process of criminalization and restricting the number of visas allowed. Carranza asserted that the militarization of the border or the “security approach” has cost millions of dollars as the Border Patrol increased its patrol time by a multiple of eight, its budget by ten, and increased its officers threefold since 1994. He addressed the myth that the guest worker program being offered by the Senate bill and the notion that immigrants take jobs by explaining how immigrants are working simply to secure their existence and that the primary responsibility for job lost lies with corporations and neoliberal trade policies. According to Carranza, a guest worker program would create a second class of citizens that will depress the wages of all workers. The myth that undocumented immigrants cost money was countered by the facts that the $10.1 million spent nationally to provide immigrants with servers often goes unclaimed as immigrants use half the services over their lifetime that they are eligible for, that the Social Security system has made $420 billion from immigrants according to 2004 statistics (a full 10% of its revenue, that undocumented men have a 96% labor participation rate, and that with the United States projected to lose 85 million workers in the next 15 years with only 60 million being replaced, immigrants could fill that void and provide even more money for the Social Security system. Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran also explained that one of the frequent questions in the debate—why immigrants do not come legally—is largely mute as it is, for the most part, impossible due to limits placed on entry via family sponsorship, corporate sponsorship/employment, or special country designations. As examples, he explained that only 38,000 visas are given out annually for spouses, that employment visas are hard to get unless one has training in a field with high demand, and that to enter under the corporate/employment designation as an investor one must invest at least $500,000 and create ten jobs. Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights one of the many groups present at the Midwest Social Forum has a number of fact sheets dealing with immigration myths and the process of immigrating to the United States.

Unfortunately, while there was little time to address the complete history of immigration policy in the United States, the panelists were able to respond to audience questions about how would be the best way to address the issue of immigration. Alexis Mazon explained to the audience that Texas Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee of the Congressional Black Caucus offered a much more humane immigration bill that would allow for legal permanent residency of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years, would double the number of family visas allowed, and would increase the number of work visas awarded to immigrants. Mazon rightly criticized Jackson-Lee’s bill for failing to address NAFTA and other root causes of immigration, but explained it was the best proposal in Congress until Congress realizes that they have a vested interest in developing policies such as living wages, health care, and fair housing as a means of “securing people” instead of “securing” borders. Salvador Carranza offered up the European Union’s policy on immigration as a potential sample policy as well. Of course, as Carranza pointed out, when there are people such as Bill O’Reilly openly admitting that they are fighting immigration legislation as means of maintaining white privilege, it is hard to believe that there could be a legislative or legal path to realize the human rights of immigrants. Mazon argued that aside from being ineffective in light of the current situation and the history of the criminalization of immigrants, electoral strategies “leave out millions” and cannot approach the power of mass mobilizations and community organizing strategies. Mazon declared that current immigration policy where 5,000 have been found dead on the border in the last 12 years is “literally killing” the immigrant community and that immigrants have been sold out by politicians every time whether it has been the Real Id Act, Homeland Security, or Senate bill 26.11.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org