Saturday, May 01, 2010

Illegal immigration: Too big to fail.

My problems with the Arizona anti-immigration law are informed by my lifelong experience within the ever-changing political landscape of the American Southwest. I grew up with Latinos, and I remember how interesting and exotic it seemed to have friends who were born in Mexico. The idea that people didn't have a right to seek a better life in the States didn't really enter my head until one day when a 7th grade Algebra teacher decided to shift gears in class and tell us about how people came to America to have "anchor babies" and live off of welfare in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

This didn't jibe with my experience of Latinos, the parents of my friends and classmates, who even in my youthful purview were obviously working physically harder than my own mother and father.

Later, in a Spanish class, I had the rare opportunity to see a film called "El Norte." Last time I looked, I couldn't find this film on Netflix, which is a shame. But the film is a graphic depiction of what it actually takes to cross the border, and the challenges these people face once they find themselves in the land they once imagined to be paradise.

So like pretty much everyone in the United States, I am aware that illegal immigration is a problem. But not for the reasons that built the Arizona bill. Our economy cannot function without illegal workers. THAT is the problem. Our economy necessitates cheap labor, and THAT is what ensures a constant stream of immigrants into the Southwest. It's what keeps stories of women being slaughtered mysteriously in the desert in the news. The problem is that we have come to need illegal immigrants and we ignore the fact that they pay the coyotes thousands of dollars they don't really have, to cross a border that traverses dangerous deserts, to face a future rife with constant discrimination and haunted by the possibility of deportation.

Crossing the border is not easy, cheap or safe. Not from Mexico, and certainly not from China or Russia or anywhere else. But people keep doing it. They wouldn't do it if there wasn't something here for them, employers willing to bend the rules, and for the less scrupulous among our Southern neighbors, a market for their drugs and guns. The illegal immigration problem would not exist if it weren't for the implicit needs of those of us on the Northern side of the line.

The job debate is also pointless. If an American wanted the job that was snapped up by an illegal immigrant, it's not just because the illegal immigrant was there to take it, but because an employer was willing to risk INS violations and tax issues to hire someone for much, much less than the American would accept. As a result, our grapes are cheap, our dishes get washed, our gardens get trimmed, our hotel rooms get cleaned, our brakes get replaced. Quietly. Cheaply.

My point is, the Arizona rule does nothing to stop any of the crime, any of the border crossing, any of the employment opportunities for illegal immigrants. It does nothing to keep illegal immigrants on their "own" side of the border (the border we painted across this little plot of stolen land we've decided is ours, I might add). It will do nothing more than undermine the economy of Arizona, renew the immigration debate (not that it ever does any good to do so), and anger those of us who don't think a nation built on multiculturalism has any business criminalizing skin color.

Perhaps it's time to remember how almost all of us come from stock that existed on the receiving end of the same hatred and frustration that caused the Arizona law come into being. Perhaps it's time for everyone to realize that such hatred has never gone away, only shifted to different cultures and skin colors hoping to realize the American dream. It's time to remember what it was like for the Italians, the Irish, the Chinese, not too long ago, and realize that the immigrant will never stop being a part of the American economy, culture or reality. As long as Americans live the life everyone else wants, immigrants will want to be Americans.