Monday, April 03, 2006

Border Wars

Yep, I had some fun claiming to be a fictional creation for April Fool’s Day. Let’s be honest: It would be so lonely on the blogsphere without me.

Still, I have other duties that I must perform. This weekend that included attending an academic conference on my campus. While I could highlight the great elements of the conference (including a fantastic performance by Teatro Luna), that simply wouldn’t match the tone of the blog. After all, it is the Center of Gravitas. So, let me talk instead about something that made my skin crawl.

Part of the conference included meals for the participants. On the second day, the organizers ushered us into a nondescript hotel banquet room to enjoy “Tex-Mex.” You can imagine my displeasure when I discovered that the hotel staff had placed two, twelve-inch “sleeping Mexican” figures as bookends to the buffet. Who, in God’s name, thought this was a good idea? One has to wonder if they had served southern food if they would have placed two “Mammy” cookie jars to set the mood.

These annoying lumps of terra cotta appeared at the very moment that Latinos supposedly have the nation’s attention. Debates and protests over immigration “reform” appear in media and political centers. Yet, for the caterers of this event, that debate clearly had little do with the zesty food stuffs they prepared.

It does not surprise me that the current anti-immigrant hysteria focuses on Mexican migration. Reporters and politicians give little time to discussing [white] Canadians or European immigrants who take what are essential skilled jobs in the U.S. Rather, the diatribe focuses on a supposedly invisible flood of sneaky Latinos looking to have dozens of babies at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.

Being a historian who actually researches the lives of Latinos in the U.S., none of the current delirium seems particularly new to me. The U.S. has a long history of anti-Latino sentiments. What few seem to note, though, is that the laxity of the border occurs in one direction: from the U.S. to Mexico, not vice versa.

The border allows U.S. citizens to exercise their greatest tourist fantasies. They easily cross into Mexico to drink cheap liquor, buy drugs, find male or female prostitutes, and explore dropping their other taboos in the supposedly “lawless” border zone. Most of these partying American border- crossers simultaneously disdain those moving from the South looking for jobs.

Likewise, U.S. capital, thanks to NAFTA, freely crosses the border as well. U.S. companies exploit “cheap” labor and lax environmental regulations. Though rarely discussed in the U.S., the rapid building of maquiladoras (U.S. owned manufacturing companies located just south of the border) compounded existing internal stresses within Mexico. In 1987, 1,200 of these types of plants accounted for almost 323,000 jobs. By 1990, 2,014 maquiladoras employed half a million people. Today there are over 4,000 maquiladoras employing over a million people. By 2010, it is estimated that 4 million people will move to the northern cities in Mexico because of the maquiladoras.

What has this meant for Mexico? It has created incredible instability as workers abandon Mexico’s agricultural sector, which can’t compete against U.S. agribusiness (which also has almost free reign thanks, again, to NAFTA).

Working from sunrise to sunset, maquiladora workers can hope to earn between $3.50 and $5 a day in these U.S. owned plants. This provides just barely enough to survive in the border towns, where the cost of living is 30 percent higher than in the rest of Mexico. Many of these workers have literally not seen what their homes look like in the daylight because they spend all of their waking moments in these plants. They only return to their houses to sleep.

Little interest is given to workers’ rights in these U.S. plants. In at least one instance, a U.S. company required employees to take "vitamins" which turned out to be amphetamines as a means to increase production. Women employees, who compose the majority of maquiladora workers, often face constant sexual harassment – something not prohibited by Mexican law.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Border Patrol has ballooned in size since the 1970s in an effort to ensure that the border flow stays one-sided in favor of the U.S. During the 1990s alone, the budget went from $1.5 billion in 1994 to $3.9 billion in 1999. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 authorized the hiring of 1,000 new Border Patrol agents per year during the period 1997-2001, more than doubling the number of existing officers.

The larger the Border Patrol grows, the more abussive it seems to become. In 1998, Amnesty International issued a report condemning U.S. policies and actions along the U.S./Mexican border. The human-rights group documentated cases of individuals caught by the Border Patrol who had been beaten, punched, kicked, raped, and verbally insulted. Amnesty International also noted that the Border Patrol often detains individuals without legal representation, under conditions that do not meet international standards.

Following September 11, 2001, the agency grew even more rapidly. Now under the Department of Homeland Security, immigration services employs over 15,000 officers authorized to carry weapons and make arrests. That’s more gun-wielding folk than in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Prisons, the Customs’ Service or the Drug Enforcement Administration.

I think, therefore, the debate about the U.S./Mexican border is largely skewed in the wrong direction. If we continue to permit free U.S. capital to cross into Mexico without free labor, we support a system that exploits individuals. What would happen if we allowed for a truly free border? If we really have faith in capitalism, free labor would mean that companies would have to compete for the available labor supply. Migrants, after all, only move to find better pay and better jobs. Should we end the artificially created restrictions on migration that keep an abundance of laborers trapped in Mexico, U.S. companies on both sides of the border would be forced to pay a decent wage.

When I think of the sleeping Mexican figures that sat ominously on the buffet line, I think of them as what many Americans would like Mexican migrants to be. They are anonymous, docile, and interchangeable. Perhaps it is because those images have been so ingrained in popular culture that the recent protests seemed to take many Americans off guard.


Keguro said...

I was going to blog today, but the fingers will not work. So, I'll camp here. Was recently in NYC and saw the history of slavery exhibit at the Historical Society. Most compelling for me was the materials section. A number of objects from the 18th C. were placed in a tableau, mirrors, pewter, silver, with the caption: slaves touched everything.

My point? I've been thinking about the relative invisibility of "illegal" migrants, invisible because we choose not to see. What would it mean to think that a good proportion of our household items, most especially food, bear the imprint of immigrants? That migration labor enables and inhabits our quotidian?

GayProf said...

Keguro: It’s funny you bring up the issue of selective invisibility as I thought about including it in this post, but couldn’t quite make it fit. When I am at the gym, I am often confronted with the raving xenophobe Lou Dobbs on the television in front of the treadmills. Dobbs calls out, “Who, in the immigration debate, is thinking of the [presumably white] American middle class?” Yet, it’s that very middle class that benefits from the migrant labor every time they go to the grocery store. They know it, but opt not to see.

Oh, and feel free to camp out here anytime.

Roger Owen Green said...

I LOVE the demonstrations. If there were one around here, I'd be inclined to join it, for reasons that you've noted before - that it isn't just those directly affected by these policies who are appalled by them.

MEK the Bear said...

Thanks GayProf for shedding a spotlight on this for me, I was vaquely aware of what was happening and about the U.S. owned factories just south of the border.

As Keguro pointed out, it made me wonder how many immigrants and almost-slave laborers have made the food I buy and the clothes I wear?

The whole thing makes me a bit naseous.

tornwordo said...

How can you fault someone for striving for a better life? Doesn't every human being deserve that right?

I firmly believe that the border should essentially be eradicated.

shadowsarahkeebs said...

Clearly the issue isn't the border, but rather the willingness of employers to (barely) pay immigrant/migrant workers for labor that's "beneath" local people. The blatant racism doesn't seem to show up on people's radars.

In Canada, we actually fly Mexican and Carribean men here to work in agriculture, under conditions which make exploitation easy and efficient. One justification of the program is that they are inherently better suited to work in greenhouses than (white) Canadians, because they come from hot countries. And although they're good enough to work here, they are absolutely barred from immigration to Canada.

It's pretty clear that this has everything to do with societal attitudes towards labor and race in general, and not a jot to do with border security.

Luciferus said...

Lovely post. "Abusive" only has one s, though. I think....

BatmanSF said...

Hey gayprof! This is great stuff. I would absolutely swear Lou Dobbs is on CNN 18-20 hours a day, usually interviewing someone who agrees with him, occasionally shouting down the rare person who doesn't. I wish you would get on there and explain your point about the maquiladoras to him. Although now that I think about it, his solution would probably to close the borders completely in both directions. Anyway, consider me a new regular reader of Center of Gravitas! Bruce