Comedian Dave Chappelle featured a skit once in which he played the President of the United States. In response to the problem of millions of Americans without health insurance, Chapelle’s character offered a simple solution: since Canada offers universal health care to its citizens, he proposed Canadian identification cards for all US citizens. Americans could receive their medical treatment in Canada, free of charge!
The irony of the situation is that, in many cases, massive immigration to a particular country takes place precisely because of that country’s military, political and economic intervention in the nation sending the immigrants. The British Empire of the 19th Century drained many of its colonies of their resources—people now leave India and Pakistan to search for work in England. North Africans who grew up speaking French but with little hope of finding a job at home have moved to France. The former Soviet Republics to the south of Russia are now sending droves of migrants to Moscow in search of employment. Spain has witnessed an influx of migrants from Latin American countries.
The pattern is quite simple and predictable: the colonized country is bled of its resources, its political independence limited and economic development artificially stunted. When its people cannot raise a family at home, they move elsewhere—and international ties make it easiest to move to the colonizing country.
This is the case here at home as well. The two independent nations that have seen the highest percentage of their citizens migrate to the United States are countries where the U.S. has historically been the most involved: the Philippines and Mexico. (This is not counting the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which has more of its people per capita living in the continental U.S. than any other nation on earth.)
Over the past two hundred years, these two nations have been impacted by military, political and economic intervention from the United States in myriad forms. At various points in history, forces in the U.S. Congress were pushing to annex the countries entirely. Both have felt the force of U.S. military intervention on numerous occasions. To a greater or lesser extent, their economies have been locked into a neocolonial relationship in which U.S. companies used the Philippines and Mexico as sources of raw material and markets for manufactured goods, keeping them from developing their own national businesses. There is little irony in the Mexican folk saying, “Ay de México…tan lejos de Dios, tan cerca de los Estados Unidos…” (“Woe is Mexico: so far from God, so near to the United States.)
U.S. intervention in Mexico began with a military intervention which deprived the nation of more than half its national territory, imposing the first of many foreign debts on Mexico. The pattern of intervention continued into the 20th Century; the annexation of Mexican industry by U.S. companies was encouraged by the government of dictator Porfirio Díaz. The most recent and most broad-reaching move taken by U.S. business to take control of Mexico’s economy, however, was the North American Free Trade Agreement, or “NAFTA”.
In the immigration debate, the right wing typically calls for heavier enforcement of existing immigration policy—“the law’s the law”. Meanwhile, the left wing is too often on the defensive, asking that the existing laws not be enforced as strictly. Far too little critique is offered about why the laws are fundamentally unfair, however. As long as we have trade policies that force migration and immigration laws that criminalize it, we will be left with a deeply hypocritical policy that is impossible to enforce.
Immigrants’ rights and the struggle for alternative trade must go hand in hand—you can’t have one without talking about the other.
This article was originally posted January 2001 on Fair Trade San Diego and is cross posted here by permission of the author, David Schmidt.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants' rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income.
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