Not long ago, I was talking with a friend about the living conditions of migrant farm workers in Maneadero, Mexico. I had just made a trip to the Baja California town, and I described people living in tin shacks, packed ten to a room. Some folks sleep on the ground, in the dirt, under shanties made from plastic tarps. Children walk around naked, bellies distended from parasites, hair bleached blond by malnutrition. Mothers cradle babies who were born with birth defects and deformities because of the chemicals that were sprayed on the field while the pregnant women were working.
As I described this scene to my friend, she looked at me with suspicious indifference. “That’s too bad, David,” she said. “But we can’t spend all our time worrying about the plight of people who have it rough in life. I mean, if we sit around thinking about all the people suffering in the world, we’ll go crazy. And what can I do about it, anyway? And why should I do anything about it? I mean, what do these poor migrant farm workers in Mexico have to do with me?”
This will be the first in a series of discussions about two intricately related issues:
(1) The people who immigrate to this country, and
(2) The ways our companies, our economy, our government’s trade policies, and our consumer lifestyle force people to migrate.
You don’t hear many people talk about the causes of immigration. When the topic of immigration comes up in the United States, Australia, Canada, the European Union, or other countries with high populations of recent migrants, the debate is typically centered on how immigrants affect the country that receives them. Progressive voices defend the immigrants’ rights, arguing for the benefits they bring to the receiving country; reactionary voices claim that immigration is a threat to their nation.
But you don’t hear a lot of talk about the reasons why people migrate to begin with. Immigrants are treated as if they had materialized out of nowhere. Indeed, the dehumanizing term “alien” may be strangely appropriate for the way many native-born citizens view people who come from other countries—immigrants are discussed as if they dropped out of the sky. All that’s missing is the flying saucer.
Pro-immigrant folks argue that immigrants are good for the United States; anti-immigrant folks say immigration harms our country. Both sides, however, subscribe to what I call the “Myth of the American Biosphere.” Our country is treated as if it were some sort of independent, closed off habitat which immigrants have entered. But when a person crosses the border of the United States, is this the first contact they have ever had with this country? Is this their first interaction with the economic and political systems in which we live, breathe, and work?
Pundits in the U.S. rarely touch on the causes of immigration, and when they do, it’s usually folks on the anti-immigrant side of the aisle. Most of them get it pitifully wrong—I typically hear people claim that there is something endemically wrong about the countries that people migrate from. That their countries are “corrupt,” “dysfunctional,” or “backwards.” These sorts of ethnocentric accusations imply that the causes of immigration have nothing to do with us. They imply that our country is “suffering” from the effects of immigration, and that immigration happens because “those countries just can’t get their act together.” Let’s call this the “‘Their Country Sucks’ Myth.”
As long as we hold to these two above-mentioned myths, we can allow ourselves to believe in a third myth: what I call simply the Myth of Amnesty. If we view the U.S. economy as a closed system, disconnected from the rest of the world, and believe that people come into the U.S. because they “do not want to fix their own countries,” then we will probably assume that they have committed a crime by coming here. And if we treat immigration as a crime, then we will choose to be in favor of or against some sort of “amnesty.”
As the dictionary definition of the term implies, “amnesty” is forgiveness for a crime that has been committed. And as long as the discussion centers around the idea of amnesty, both approaches—the pro-amnesty or anti-amnesty crowds—imply that a crime has been committed and that a “wrong” has been done. The anti-amnesty crowd supports statements like the one I saw on a t-shirt at a gun show: “HELLO, 911—I’D LIKE TO REPORT 6 MILLION BREAK INS!” Pro-amnesty folks will say, “It was wrong to come here without papers, you shouldn’t have done it, but we forgive you.” Even in current debates surrounding Obama’s partial implementation of the DREAM Act, many progressive arguments center on the idea that “young people shouldn’t have to pay for the wrong [sic] that their parents committed by coming here illegally.” However, in order to view immigration as a crime, we must also hold to the Myth of the American Biosphere and the ‘Their Country Sucks’ Myth (along with a whole slew of other myths which we haven’t time to go into here: the Myth of European Exceptionism, the ‘My Ancestors Can Come Here But You Can’t’ Myth, the ‘These Immigrants Are Different from Past Immigrants’ Myth, etc.)
It is my assertion that these myths are fundamentally false. The inequalities, poverty and misery that fuel immigration are intricately tied to our economy. To the products we consume. To our country’s trade policy. The inequality that has increased worldwide, the increase of poverty worldwide, is intricately connected with the prosperity enjoyed by the residents of countries that receive immigrants. As Chilean author Eduardo Galeano once said:
“Nuestra derrota estuvo siempre implícita en la victoria ajena; nuestra riqueza ha generado siempre nuestra pobreza para alimentar la prosperidad de otros…”
“Our defeat has always been implicit in the victories of others; our wealth has always been used to produce our own poverty and feed into the prosperity of others…” (From Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina. Translation mine.)
Poverty and prosperity. First World and Third World. Immigrant sending countries and immigrant receiving countries. They are two sides to the same coin. And it is this dual, two-sided world—a world of haves and have-nots, immigrants and native-born individuals—which we will explore in this series.
So what about the farm workers of Maneadero? What about the poverty, misery, illness, birth defects, malnutrition… is this all just some lamentable (but uncontrollable) situation that has nothing to do with us?
See, most of the vegetables grown in Maneadero are grown to be consumed, not in Mexico, but in the United States. In spite of the fact that Maneadero is located in northern Mexico, the agricultural fields are a part of the U.S. economy. The products are harvested and immediately shipped northward, across the border, to distributers in Los Angeles and Oakland. These people are harvesting the tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, jalapeños and strawberries that we consume. The enormous factory farms they work on employ them for their cheap labor. Which makes it easier to grow lots of vegetables and ship them north, across the border, into California. The vast majority of these vegetables picked by their hands come into our supermarkets. Our fast food restaurants. It’s the lettuce on our Taco Bell taco, the tomato on our Burger King whopper.
Why don’t these supermarkets and restaurants just source locally, using vegetables grown in community gardens and bought at farmer’s markets? Because it’s cheaper to exploit people in Maneadero and spray chemicals on them. As we’ll see in upcoming installments, this situation is the norm rather than the exception… and it applies to many of the products that we consume.
There is a hidden cost behind cheap products.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a volunteer at World Relief Garden Grove, proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at [email protected].
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