Globalization’s Junk Mail?
By Laura Carlsen
03 March, 2007
Foreign Policy In
The titles that Immigrations
and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attaches to its operations reveal a great
deal about the logic behind current U.S. immigration policy.
Among the most suggestively
titled is the ongoing Operation “Return to Sender,” one
of the largest such operations in U.S. history. The program, supposedly
designed to target “fugitive aliens,” has resulted in the
indiscriminate round up of over 13,000 undocumented migrants in cities
throughout the United States.
The cynical name given to
this even more cynical operation implies a sender, a receiver -- and
an object. The object, or rather objects, are migrant workers and their
Operation Return to Sender
is an instrumentalist policy that ignores the humanity of migrant workers.
It refuses to recognize that migrants have hopes and dreams, that they
have a legitimate need to eat and think and act. It denies family ties
and affective relationships. It also ignores the central role that undocumented
workers play in the U.S. economy and the factors that brought them to
the country in the first place.
In short, Operation Return
to Sender acts on the premise that the millions of undocumented workers
in the United States today are little more than globalization’s
Who’s the Sender?
A large proportion of the
detentions in Operation Return to Sender have been Mexicans, which is
logical given that most undocumented migrants are Mexican. According
to immigration expert Raúl Delgado Wise of the University of
Zacatecas, Mexico is now the world champion in exporting its own people,
with 11 million Mexicans currently residing in the United States. The
migratory drain on Mexico’s population shows up in demographic
statistics, where 800 townships now register negative growth.
The reason for this massive
out-migration is clear. Mexico is not producing enough decent jobs for
its people -- and the United States is hiring. Between 2000 and 2005,
Mexico lost 900,000 rural jobs and 700,000 in industry. President Felipe
Calderon got off to a bad start in his attempt to reverse this trend.
Government statistics for the first two months of his administration
showed a loss of 178,370 jobs in the formal sector. The future doesn’t
look any rosier. A recent Bank of Mexico business survey projected 615,000
new jobs this year, representing a drop of 300,000 compared to last
year and far short of the estimated one-million-plus jobs needed to
absorb the number of Mexicans who enter the labor market every year.
Growing unemployment and
massive labor outflow are the results of the lopsided way Mexico has
integrated into the global economy. Raúl Delgado Wise puts it
bluntly: “The strategy that Mexico followed through the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and indiscriminate trade liberalization
detonated an explosive growth in migration.”
The National Campesino Front
estimates that two million farmers have been displaced since NAFTA,
in many cases related to the increase in U.S. imports. In 1994, the
first year of the agreement, the United States exported $4.59 billion
of agricultural products to Mexico, according to the Department of Agriculture.
By 2006 the figure had risen to $9.85 billion -- an increase of 114%.
U.S. exports of corn, Mexico’s staple crop and largest source
of rural employment, alone doubled to over $2.5 billion in 2006.
This combination of unemployment
in Mexico, the huge gap between salaries in the United States and Mexico,
and U.S. demand for cheap labor to compete on global markets has created
the current situation. In other words, it’s the international
labor market that writes the addresses and stamps the envelopes.
The Mexican government didn’t
explicitly decide to send off these human missives to the United States.
Despite the central place in the economy that remittances have gained
over the years, no national policy aimed to export able-bodied citizens
abroad. In fact, NAFTA was supposed to solve immigration problems and
decrease the pressure to seek jobs in the United States.
The Mexican economy has,
however, benefited from the predicament. Guillermo Ortiz, head of the
central Bank of Mexico reported recently that 2006 remittances rose
to an all-time high of $23.54 billion -- 20% over the previous year.
As the second source of foreign
income after oil revenues, remittances have been a main factor in reducing
extreme poverty in the countryside. While the World Bank, among others,
cites NAFTA and the Mexican government’s poverty assistance programs
for achieving that end, a 2005 report from the Bank of Mexico gives
credit where credit’s due—poor families receive more assistance
from remittances than from all government programs combined.
This contradiction has led
critics to blame the Mexican government for fomenting out-migration
because of its economic dependency on foreign income from migrants.
Few Mexican politicians explicitly tout the role of remittances in countering
severe imbalances in the national economy. Nevertheless, this reliance
on remittances substitutes for any national development policies specifically
aimed at generating employment and stimulating rural production.
According to recent studies,
most migrants to the United States already have a job offer before they
get there, or at least strong connections to sources of employment.
The average time between arrival and employment is very low, usually
not more than a few weeks.
The demand for undocumented
labor in the U.S. economy is structural. It’s not just a few companies
seeking to cut corners. These are not just jobs that “U.S. workers
won’t take.” Migrants work in nearly all low-paying occupations
and have become essential to the U.S. economy in the age of global competition.
The meatpacking industry
provides a good example. Eric Schlosser's excellent exposé of
the U.S. meat industry as it went global shows a fast slide in working
conditions over the past decades as a result of de-unionization, erosion
of wages and benefits, and increasing safety and health hazards. Part
and parcel of that slide has been the replacement of unionized U.S.
workers with migrants.
The “blame the victim”
logic accuses undocumented workers of crossing the border and stealing
these jobs. But the order of events is demonstrably the opposite. The
industry developed cost-cutting strategies to break up unions and seek
out the cheapest, most vulnerable labor force possible. This created
the demand for undocumented workers.
The example becomes relevant
since the ICE just carried out one of its more spectacular (and controversial)
raids on Swift meat-packing plants in six states, resulting in the arrest
of 1,282 workers. Swift claims the action temporarily shut down 100%
of its beef production and 77% of its pork production.
As David Bacon has pointed
out, it’s no accident that the actions came against the Swift
plants. Five of the six plants have unions. The company has complained
bitterly that it was in negotiations and fully cooperating with the
federal government when the raids took place.
Aside from traditional employment
in agriculture, another major source of the use of migrant labor has
been the advent of sub-contracting. This practice, well in place since
the early 1980s, has contributed to the de-unionization of the workforce.
It conveniently releases employees from direct responsibility for the
legal status and treatment of workers in their employment.
The ICE reports that even
the U.S. military employs illegal migrant labor. Last September the
ICE arrested 122 Mexican and Central American workers hired by a sub-contractor
to build military housing for the Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado.
The ICE used the arrests to once again make the spurious link between
immigration and terrorism. The press release on the operation notes,
“ICE works closely with industries, such as airports, power plants,
oil refineries, and military bases, to secure them from the risk of
terrorist attacks posed by unauthorized workers employed in secure areas
of our nation's critical infrastructure facilities.”
In the end, these selective
crackdowns on workers will do nothing to eliminate underground hiring.
Any attempt to more systematically eliminate undocumented workers from
the workforce, rather than sending a clear signal to migrants as proponents
claim, would have the even more disastrous effect of terrorizing entire
communities and creating labor shortages in vital sectors of the economy.
Likewise, the guest worker
programs supported by President Bush and the Mexican government fail
to solve the root problem of a dual labor market. Divided between legal
and illegal workers, this market takes advantage of the vulnerable status
of undocumented workers. Under these systems, migrant workers still
do not enjoy full labor and civil rights and are often subject to blacklisting
if they exercise even their more limited rights--as seen in the experience
under the existing temporary work visa programs now in existence in
certain parts of the United States.
A More Rational Response
The ICE claims that Operation
“Return to Sender” seeks to weed out those who have committed
a crime. But its own records show that for the majority of detainees,
the “crime” is working for low wages in U.S. factories,
meat-packing plants, gardens, and homes without the papers that have
been denied them.
In a weeklong series of raids
in the Los Angeles area last January, the ICE detained 750 migrants.
According to its own figures, less than 20% belonged to the target group
of individuals with previous deportation orders. In raids across the
country, ICE reports show that most of those captured have no previous
Immigrant rights organizations
have noted that the crackdown has led to serious human rights violations.
Families are separated. Hearings are slow, and often families do not
know for long periods of time where their loved ones are being held.
A January 16 report from the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector
General of conditions at five detention centers identified frequent
violation of federal standards, overcrowding, and health and safety
All this has provoked a response
from pro-immigrant groups. Following the official “progress”
report on Operation Return to Sender on Jan. 23, pro-immigrant groups
denounced the raids, saying that the 13,000 arrests since May 2006 had
led to separation of families, cost the United States an untold fortune
in economic losses, and gets us no closer to reasonable and viable policies.
In the Los Angeles area the
January detentions galvanized local groups and communities into concerted
action, with strategy meetings to stop the raids. A nationwide mobilization
for May Day 2007 is also in the works.
The revived efforts are good
news. The movement had entered into a soul-searching period following
the May 2006 mobilizations. The unprecedented force of the nationwide
demonstrations had a centrifugal effect on mobilization organizers.
Faced with an anti-immigrant backlash, they could not agree on next
Slowly, however, local, regional,
and national organizations are trying to pull together and develop new
strategies. Local actions to defend immigrant rights, protest detentions,
and counter racist vigilante groups are growing throughout the country,
alongside Latino voter registration drives and for a new effort to reform
The Security Illusion
In a visit to Mexico on February
16, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff stated firmly that
there could be no consideration of immigration reform until “the
border is secured.” By so doing, he merely reiterated the formula
that has deepened the crisis on the border and eroded binational relations.
This persistent refusal to
take a more integrated and realistic approach has led to a policy dead-end
that poses risks for communities on both sides of the border. Creating
new immigration policies that rationally integrate the nation’s
security, economic, social, and political realities is a huge challenge.
But approaching that challenge by focusing exclusively on security exacerbates
problems in the other areas and will ultimately fail to resolve the
The ICE reports it returned
190,000 migrants to sending nations in 2006. The massive expenditures,
economic losses, and human tragedy produced no demonstrative progress
on any front.
Migrant workers are central
to cross-border economic integration. A political system that ignores
them -- or worse, treats them as junk mail -- is not only hypocritical
but severely out of touch with reality.
FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen
is director of the IRC Americas Program in Mexico City, where she has
worked as a writer and political analyst for the past two decades. The
Americas Program is online at http://americas.irc-online.org/.
Copyright © 2007 IRC
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