Misplaced Blame in Immigration Debate

Carol Barton, Executive for Community Action and Coordinator, Immigrant & Civil Rights Initiative

May 23, 2013

The United Methodist Book of Resolutions reminds us that migration is fundamentally about the distribution of wealth, resources and jobs in the world.  Our Social Principles (para 163E) state that “In order to provide basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care and other necessities, ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world.”   When this is not the case, people always have, and will, move to survive.  [Global Migration and the Quest for Justice, Book of Resolutions 2012, #6028]

As I have traveled the country meeting with United Methodist Women to talk together about immigration, many people ask “why do people come?”  While there are hundreds of answers, a fundamental reality is that US economic and trade policies with Mexico in the 1990s directly contributed to mass migration from Mexico to the US.  Yet US immigration policy, including the new Senate Bill 744, blames migrants and seeks to penalize them rather than the government policy-makers and businesses which have benefitted both from trade with Mexico and cheap migrant labor in the US.  This is misplaced blame.

The 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, opened borders to the flow of investments and goods, but not people.  It enabled US grain companies to dump federally subsidized corn on the Mexican market.  Poor Mexican farmers could not compete and over several years millions abandoned their farms in search of other work.  When Mexican cities could not absorb these workers they headed North.  Now, a Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, is driving thousands of Central Americans across Mexico to the US as well.

While trade agreements do not explain all of the migration by any means, Princeton Sociologist Alejandro Portes noted in 2006 that “in Georgia, for example, the Latin-origin population went from 1.7 percent in 1990 to 5.3 percent in 2000, a 312 percent increase due to an inflow of 300,000 persons, overwhelmingly from Mexico. Cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, whose “Hispanics” in 1990 consisted of a few wealthy Cuban and South American professionals,” had upwards of 80,000, mostly undocumented Mexican laborers by 2006.  Sixty-three percent of the undocumented immigrant population (approximately 6.8 million) entered the United States before 2000 according to the Department of Homeland Security.  These were the post-NAFTA years.  And according to the Pew Hispanic Center, over half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants are from Mexico.

Rather than address the causes of unauthorized migration to the US, particularly from Mexico and Central America, the primary focus of the Senate immigration reform bill S744 is about keeping new flows of migrants out—except through temporary work programs or for highly skilled workers such as engineers.  The bill would vastly expand border and internal enforcement mechanisms, authorizing use of drones, the National Guard, bio-metric employment verification, and other measures at the cost of an additional $4.5 billion.  The past decade has made clear that massive government spending on border walls and enforcement has not stemmed migration (only the economic crisis did so).  Those who benefit include private prisons and military contractors, but not US taxpayers.

People seeking to support their families will continue to take the risks to find livelihoods in the US, often at the cost of their lives.  The real fix needs to be about developing robust, equitable and sustainable economies in poor nations so that people have the choice to remain at home with their loved ones, as well as to migrate.  As a nation the US could invest in that development rather than in trade deals that benefit “us” at the expense of “them” or development policies that favor the export of people over the creation of jobs.

When we as a nation build walls to protect “our” jobs and “our” wealth by excluding the most vulnerable; or invite people in only when we need their labor and then discard them, we undermine the Gospel’s central message of Love.  The current bill takes us further down that path.  United Methodist Women will work tirelessly for a bill based on justice and human rights for all.

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