Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Immigration: An Integral View

This morning I posted a piece on the teachers and students who skipped school to march in the protests here in Tucson. I've had two very impassioned replies from regular readers of my site -- from people I respect.

Immigration has become a very sensitive issue, especially here in Arizona where, as Erica mentions in her comment, many Mexican-Americans know how this land was stolen from Mexico much in the same way the U.S. stole so much land from the tribal peoples who had lived here for thousands of years.

There are no easy answers. We cannot deport 12 million people as Jon Kyl and John Cornyn would like to do, or build a big fence as Kyl has proposed. We cannot criminalize them as the House would like to do. We cannot charge them with criminal trespass as the AZ House wants to do.

So what do we do?

I think the first step is to take an honest -- and integral -- look at the situation to see what really is happening.

For many people, the bottom line is that millions of people are trying to illegally enter the United States through Mexico each year. They feel we need to stop this from happening by whatever means necessary (a wall, military presence, citizen militia, killing them, and so on). They want to address illegal immigration solely as a behavior, and solely from their own values position.

Most of what we talk about in this country treats illegal immigration as a behavior and offers punishment for that behavior without looking at what prompts it in the first place. This is why we have not solved the problem. Taking this view, we never will.

Many people do come here legally. Those who can afford the paperwork and lawyers (and some might say the bribes) jump through the hoops and come to the U.S. to work and send money back to their families. Many others don't have access to the help they need to come here legally, so they pay a coyote or they take their chances with crossing the unforgiving desert. Many hundreds die each year of dehydration or exposure.

Still others, especially women, try to sneak across the border to have their child born in the U.S. so that the child will be a citizen. Mothers are rarely sent back with their newborns, so the current U.S. laws reward the behavior of sneaking across the border.

Those who oppose having people come here illegally patrol the border with guns to scare the migrants away or with phones to notify the border patrol. Others advocate for better government security to keep migrants out.

But if we look closely at the exterior behavior, we also have to look at the interior motivation behind the behavior. Why would people leave their families and risk their lives to come here and be treated like dirt? What is the intention that inspires a willingness to risk so much?

Obviously, for most who come here illegally, even the low wages they get paid as illegals is better than what they might get in Mexico or Honduras or Guatemala. So there is certainly a monetary reward for the risk.

But there is also the despair that they feel in their homeland when they cannot provide for their families and feed their children. Added to the despair is the risk of illness from poverty and a fear for the lives of those they love. What would you do in such circumstances? Probably whatever it took.

Many have family who have already found their way here legally or illegally, so they have the motivation of being with family -- of shared struggle. This is a strong motivation among a people who are strongly rooted in family. America's political right talks about "family values," but Hispanic cultures place a huge emphasis on family.

This is one of the cultural components. There are others. In Hispanic culture a man is not a man if he cannot provide for his family. This is a powerful motivator -- it will push a man to risk his life to come here to make money he can send back. This is also what makes many of these men outstanding workers (and I have worked with many illegals here and in Oregon).

Another of the cultural values is one we have created ourselves: America is seen as the land of opportunity. This is a belief shared by many around the world. It has only been during the last five years that our reputation around the world has been shaped by torture, wars, racism, and arrogance. Still, many see America as a place to create a better life. We worked hard to create that belief around the world.

On the other hand, our culture looks at immigrants who come here illegally as criminals, not as brave people doing their best to survive. We see them as "wetbacks" who cross the Rio Grande to get to America. We pay them to tend our gardens and clean our pools or houses, but we look down on them.

In other parts of the country, they pick our fruit and vegetables. They work on Forest Service land planting trees or picking weeds on tree farms. They are hired as temps through agencies who don't ask and the immigrants don't tell.

And we despise them. There is an unspoken racism in this country that targets brown-skinned people, whether they are Indian (from India), Arab, or Hispanic. Otherwise liberal people I know are afraid of South Tucson (where the population is largely Hispanic). I have seen unqualified white people get hired over qualified Hispanic people.

We somehow believe that brown skin means terrorist (Arabs) or ignorant (Hispanic). We have a cultural bias against Hispanic peoples in particular. The cliche used to be that Hispanics were lazy and unproductive (remember the Speedy Gonzales cartoons?), although that has changed as more Hispanics have risen to positions of power and own their own businesses.

Still, our society depends on immigrants -- legal and otherwise. There are twelve million illegals here and most of them are working. Among those here legally, unemployment is lower among immigrants than non-immigrants for the first time ever.

As mentioned above, immigrants take jobs many of us would not want. They fill a crucial role in our economy. Without them our economy would crash. Yet our laws are set up to make it as hard as possible for people to come here legally to work.

This may be the hardest issue to overcome. We have divided our economic need from our legal system. We need these workers, but we want to make it legally impossible for many of them to come here.

Meanwhile, the Mexican and Central American economies still struggle to create jobs -- even after NAFTA and CAFTA. Things are better than they were, but there is much more need than there are jobs.

If we take into account the behavioral, the intentional, the cultural, and the social elements of this issue, as I have tried to do in these preliminary observations, we will have a much better idea of how to confront this problem in a responsible way.

There are no easy answers. We must attempt to see this from all sides and try to come up with an approach that is fair to all involved. We cannot become so entrenched in an us-versus-them mentality that we fail to have compassion in our hearts or justice in our actions.

Possible Solutions

Provide easier work visas. We need to make it easier for immigrants to get work visas to come her legally. And we need to build into those visas a way for those people to become citizens. This country needs immigrant labor, so why not make it easier to get these people here legally.

Decriminalize those who have been here for five years and hold jobs. Many people see this as amnesty. Maybe it is. So what? They're here, they're working, and we can't afford to send them back to wherever they came from. (Note: there are many illegal Europeans and Asians in this country, as well.)

For those who have not been here for five years, give them the option of paying fines (over time) or going home. Most will stay. If they stay they can apply for a work visa and get in line for citizenship after five years.

Help Mexico (and other Latin American countries) build more stable and productive economies/ This seems like a no-brainer, but we have done little to help them, only to plunder a low-wage work force. This will reduce the need for many to come here for work.

Change immigration laws to make it easier to come to America legally on the way to citizenship, especially for students. We can't let everyone come here, but we can handle more than we are allowing now.

Strengthen border security patrols. There is already a push to do this, and last year more than a million people were caught coming into Arizona alone. So we know that border security works when there is enough of it.

Increase inspection and fines for hiring illegal migrants. But we should not be targeting small businesses, we should be targeting those larger businesses that hire a lot of illegals from temp agencies and pay them low wages.

Target coyotes and drug runners (this may include the Mexican military if recent reports from Texas are true) who bring illegals into this country. These people are taking advantage of needy people and treating them horribly.

And maybe most importantly, we need to provide humanitarian aid for the many citizens of Mexico and Latin American who do not have clean water, enough food, or sufficient housing. It will be a lot cheaper to help these people where they live than to arrest them and send them back when they come here illegally.

What do you think?

This is a tough issue, and I am only beginning to think about the possibility of an integral approach to this. What am I missing? What would you do differently? Let's start a dialogue.

We have many incredible and creative minds in the integral community. Let's try to be part of the solution to this tough problem.
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