The United States is famously a nation of immigrants. As the poet Martin Espada brilliantly suggests, latin immigrants have painted the walls of Lawrence, Massachusetts in their bright colors. Against its greatest servitudes, this nation stunned the world and elected Barack Obama President.
It is also the nation of the Ku Klux Klan and routine bigotries, of witch hunts and red scares, of a madness over health care reform funded by the medical “insurance” companies (corporations whose decisions murder 45,000 people by denying or delaying medical coverage every year according to a recent Harvard study), and of two oligarchic parties, one of whom froths at the mouth over immigration and seeks to build a long wall along the border to keep “illegals”out, the other of whom dances around the issue. The greatest walls, as William Blake once said, are those of the spirit.
The New York Times has just run two insightful and, as a commentary on American democracy, disturbing editorials on immigration. “Broken in USA,” October 1, is on the immigration sweep at American Apparel, one of the last major plants in the garment industry in Los Angeles. One might ask: what manufacturing except for weapons is left in the US? GM hangs by a thread. The green economy is what Obama promises, but how much the Democrats can deliver – beyond the original stimulus package which is a start – remains to be seen. In this case in an exploitative industry, the Obama administration struck bizarrely at a comparatively decent company. Perhaps he can put it out of business…
As a result of the audit, American Apparel had to fire 1800 immigrants. According to the Times, they were stable workers, paid 10-12 dollars an hour with health benefits, hoping to becoming Americans. One thinks here of Obama’s speeches about hope ( oh Barack, the boy who ran along the dike with nine others in Indonesia chasing a kite, whose father was Kenyan and whose mother Kansan, look in the mirror...):
“Unlike companies that routinely seek out illegal immigrants (the better to exploit them), American Apparel pays $10 to $12 an hour, well above the minimum wage and industry standards, plus health benefits. It hires locally, cultivates a trained work force and is seen as a valued corporate citizen in Los Angeles. The city’s mayor [Villagarosa] called the firings ‘devastating.’”
Of the company itself, the Times says:
“American Apparel wouldn’t be our first target in the notoriously shady garment industry. The government has not charged it with knowingly hiring or exploiting illegal labor. By most accounts it has tried to maintain a legal work force given how hard it is for employers to weed out applicants whose fake documents look authentic.”
The Times underlines the defeat of hope among decent and hardworking people, dissolving 1800 jobs in the midst of the Los Angeles depression:
“A crackdown that forces 1,800 taxpaying would-be Americans into joblessness in a dismal economy is a law-enforcement victory only in the bitterest, narrowest sense.” See here.
The other editorial “Border Fantasies,” September 21, pointed to the joke of the boder wall. It is a wall built to sustain the worst authoritarian and oligarchic element in the country and its enablers, a coalition which raves about preventing Arabs from entering (if there are Arabs among the 13 million "illegals" already here, it has yet to be discovered). But building this wall was one of the last shifts of the last round of Republican rule, massively redistributing money to the top 1/10 of 1 % of the population; meanwhile, the income and wealth even of the upper middle class, the bottom 80% begins to dissipate and many of the rest of us are learning, in a depression (I am speaking particularly of unemployment) and the unique situation of American decline as a world power, what near poverty and fear look like. The new authoritarians can throw money at a wall but cannot build one:
“Auditors reported last week that the high-tech, 28-mile ‘virtual’ section of the fence was running a mere seven years behind this month’s planned opening. Initially, designers talked of using off-the-shelf technology for the radar, cameras and other sensors, but problems cropped up. (Imagine, discovering that cameras tremble in rough weather.) ‘I’m trying to figure out why this is so difficult,’ said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas. ‘These are basically cameras on a pole.’”
“The current cost estimate for the Buck Rogers barrier? $1.1 billion.”
A laconic commentary on this bizarre construction – to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Mr. Obama, tear down this wall – continues:
“Investigators from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office report that the larger, actual fence — covering a 600 mile-plus stretch between San Diego and Brownsville, Tex. — cost $2.4 billion to build and will cost an extra $6.5 billion in upkeep across two decades.”
“Investigators also concluded that there’s no good way of gauging the effectiveness of the fence.”
“The current decline in border arrests could be because of the bad economy as much as the fence (which the innovative have already learned to breach with cutters, torches and ladders). Even then, the fence covers only the more manageable third of the border with Mexico.”
Let us consider the current state of Republican and Democratic enabler ingenuity: we ostensibly don’t have money for health care and a green economy while we can throw endless borrowed funds at two wars and counting and a wall to keep the world out. An Agence France Press story from September 22 shines a different and revealing light on the moral character of the American (and NATO) efforts in Afghanistan: “French Police Clear Migrant ‘Jungle,’ Arrest 278.” It reports on the desolation of 278 Afghans.
“Illegal Afghan migrants cry as police evacuate them from an improvised camp in Calais, northern France, September 22, 2009. French police began clearing on Tuesday an improvised camp dubbed ‘the jungle’ where illegal migrants, mostly Afghans, gather near the port of Calais before trying to cross to Britain.”
Isn’t NATO supposed to be helping Afghans? How come this story isn’t picked up by the Times? How many Afghans (in 30 years of intervention) or Iraqis has America taken in? Jesus weeps, but Mr. Malcolm, the immigration official is proud of his operation in Los Angeles (look at the French and Bush arrests, he might say; I didn't bust up any families; I just did an audit and forced the company to fire the workers itself…).
In addition, according to a joint report of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights, 5600 people have died attempting to cross the border since 1994. See here and here. They rightly name this an international humanitarian crisis. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (not the protection of human beings) has reported 416 deaths so far in 2009. That compares with 390 last year and 398 in 2007. In addition, the wall only makes the journey more dangerous. In an interesting example of the unexpected or counterproductive consequences of macho American foreign policy, it accelerates the fees charged by people smugglers to $2 billion a year in Arizona alone. Even as they mutilate it, coyotes worship the wall.
Still, standing out from pages of “reporting” in the Times (see Tortured Reportings here), the two editorials are intelligent and decent. The wall incarnates the backwardness of Fortress America; it mocks the values of human rights and the Statue of Liberty. If we keep out the world, perhaps we will not decline. The United States government also borrows ever more money from the increasingly powerful tyrants in China and sinks deeper and deeper into war – even Obama, who used to know a “dumb war” when he saw one, is tempted to escalate in Afghanistan...Yet he has just won, on Friday, a stunning victory through negotiations concerning the Iranian nuclear program (more progress in one day than in 8 years of belligerence in Glenn Greenwald's striking headline two days ago). If Obama manages to decide as wisely about Afghanistan, Newsmax, a “respectable” publication of the Republican party, printed an article this week calling for a military coup against him (see here and here for the screed of John L. Perry, "Obama Risks a Domestic Military Intervention"). Under vehement protest, they removed it. If the Republicans were not the leading party of corporations and Fox News, the party which has recently led the country for 30 years, the fact that this screed is so bizarre, that it foments despicable measures (along with the idea that it might not be so bad for someone to shoot the dangerous foreigner, the Muslim and socialist and Hitler, the alien who is President) could simply be ridiculed. The racism involved in the firing of immigrants at American Apparel is of one cloth with the racism (and anti-radicalism, see here) toward Obama. The racism toward latinos and blacks is of one cloth with the degradation and impoverishment of many whites – it is all a form of divide and rule – and the soaring riches, lifted from the public till, of Goldman Sachs, AIG and other predatory companies. See Michael Reich, Racial Inequalities: a Political-Economic Analysis, Princeton, 1984 - perhaps the most careful and intelligent example of statistical social science yet produced). The statistics on income and wealth (real wages have not gone up since roughly 1973) make the shadows and hatreds of American political life come into focus.
Chris Tranchetti returned to academia after a successful career as a naval officer and businessman. Because he supports a large family, Chris continues to work and is taking courses at a slow and careful pace. He is interested in social and moral problems, particularly immigration. He has many insights into and will very likely write a thesis on Socrates and Jesus. Some time ago, Chris wrote me a beautiful letter on the death of a dear friend and colleague, and going to the border to bury him.
I am back from New Mexico / Texas after burying my friend James Flores. It was both a sad and wonderful experience.
Sad, obviously, because of the loss of a friend. Wonderful because of the opportunity to meet his family. Sad because of the hard life these people lead and their dearth of financial resources. Wonderful because of being witness to how tight James’ family was and knowing that he shared his ‘success’ of making it out by sending money from every paycheck to support his mother and others. Wonderful as well because of the outpouring of gratitude and compassion that was displayed toward the group of gringos from Colorado who knew and worked with James for years, assisted him in his final days, and then brought him home. These people gave to us from their substance, not from their excess. They are the true Christians and followers of Christ (in contrast to the Tom Tancredos and James Dobsons of the world). During our mere 36 hours visit, we forever became a part of the Flores family.
James’ sister and mother live in Sunland Park, NM which is on the border of NM and adjacent to El Paso, TX. The funeral home was in El Paso (as was our hotel) and the cemetery was in Sunland Park. Interestingly, El Paso is on Mountain Time (the same as New Mexico), while the rest of Texas is on Central Time. As I reflect on my visit, I became sure of some things: I am sure that the U.S. will become a bilingual country during this century and that the second language will be Spanish. I am sure that I am OK with this. I am sure that the border fence was an outright waste of time, money, and effort on the part of the Bush Administration.
The border fence is a ubiquitous eyesore both in Sunland Park and in El Paso. We could see it from his sister’s house and at times it parallels the interstate highway on the right shoulder. There are ‘gaps’ in the fence work which seem to degrade the ‘security’ it was designed and touted to provide. Worse still, it splits two commercial cities – El Paso, TX and Juarez, Mexico. The loser from this economic split appears to be El Paso. Juarez is a large vibrant (as well as violent) city of over 2 million people. El Paso pales in comparison with around 700,000. Most of the industry seems to be on the ‘Mexican’ side of the fence. However, I guess the Patriot Act did increase the size of the Border Patrol adding a few jobs for Americans in El Paso… The border fence is not as powerful a symbol as the Berlin Wall was. However, it is as divisive, hypocritical, and damaging to international relations as the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. For this reason alone, although there are countless others, we need to ‘tear down this wall.’
Finally, the fence recalled to me our first meeting. It was in 2007 during the new student orientation conducted prior to the start of the summer quarter. You came down the Cyber Café and had pizza with us. You were looking for students for the Ancient Political Theory class, and while the class sounded interesting, I could not make it work that summer. As we have seen, all things happen in their appropriate season, and I got to take the course a year later. But, what I remember most distinctly was that you were questioning each new student about their degree program, and why they chose what they chose. At that time, I was a security student. I explained my desire to promote national security through an understanding of people, culture, and economic development, not through the construction of border fences. Your comment to me was that you hoped I would go far. Well, mentally, I have come far since the summer of 2007, and while my impact for change is still waiting in my future, my belief that only a false sense of security is provided by the construction of walls between peoples remains.
I am not a ‘climb the barricade’ activist, but I do have a developed (and developing) sense of conscience. The poverty of many in Sunland Park and El Paso, and of those who risk their lives (and those of their families) crossing the desert and the border to live and work in the U.S., should not go unheeded. These immigrants (whether first or second generation) are the current backbone of the U.S. just as the Italians, Irish, Germans, Poles and Chinese were a century ago. They deserve our admiration and assistance not our disdain. As the richest country in the world, the fact that we have citizens living in poverty is a sin. But recognizing the problem and solving the problem are two different things. To solve the problem requires the promotion of awareness of the problem, and, then, a desire to combat the problem with the resources of the richest nation in the world. Alas, I fear that we have neither the awareness nor the desire. If the journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step, I have crossed the threshold of my doorway. Now, how do I take the second step?