Fundamental issues are ignored in immigration debate

By Marsha Crites • Guest Columnist

She is very thin, about 6 years old, her hair is unkempt and her nose is running, but her smile is broad and captivating. It is hard to walk with her wrapped around my waist in the marketplace.

Eventually she gets down on her knees to beg for money in Spanish, and I feel paralyzed with grief and torn about the moral choice that faces me. A few hundred feet away I see the adults for whom she is the begging “bait.” I wish I had food to give instead of money, as she will likely never benefit from money should I choose to give it.

In this week in which we celebrate the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am haunted by the vision of this little girl who two weeks ago clung to me as I shopped in an open craft market in Nicaragua.

I listened to Dr. Ben Chavez speak this week at WCU. A noted activist who worked with Dr. King in his youth organization, Chavez was one of the Wilmington 10, was the youngest leader of the NAACP, has a theology degree from Duke among other degrees, is a father of 8 and grandfather of 5, and has been imprisoned 40 times. He reminded us clearly of the King quote I heard often this week. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Increasingly in this country and in Western North Carolina, I hear people rail about failed immigration policies. I will admit that the policies have failed and that the complaining is nothing new.

Check this out: “The wailing in our country about the ‘invasion of immigrants’ has been long and loud. Few of their children in the country learn English ... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of importation can be turned, they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language and even our government will become precarious.”

This, my friends, is not the diatribe of a presidential candidate in 2008. It is the cry of none other than Benjamin Franklin, who was deploring the wave of Germans pouring into Pennsylvania in the 1760s. Anti-immigration policies here are older than the country itself and have included rants against the Irish, Italians, Chinese, Japanese and Catholics. In fact John Jay, who later became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, proposed, “a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics.”

I, for one, am grateful that our country continued to develop and be enriched by the failure of many such campaigns that were born in fear, political demagoguery, and ugliness.

How then, do we think about the immigration issues we face in a time of local labor shortages and Homeland Security? Indeed, what would Martin Luther King advise about how to handle the 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico? Can you imagine that he would recommend we build a huge wall on the border?

Perhaps we should take a lesson from Texans who have over the years had experience with tall border fences. The fiery columnist Molly Ivins, who is now dead, tells us of a test fence built during the Reagan administration down in the Big Bend outpost of Terlingua, also the home of a well-known chili cook-off and beer fest. Apparently, it didn’t take many beers before the “Terlingua Memorial Over, Under, or Through the Mexican Fence Climbing Contest” was devised. The winning time to get through the 17-foot tall, barbed wire topped fence? 30 seconds.

Yet our current administration, with some Democratic support, is funding an initial $1.2 billion to start building the wall, projected to cost more than $60 billion over the next 25 years to build and maintain. We’re talking two or three 40-foot high rows of reinforced fencing that will cover a swath of land 150-feet wide for 700 miles.

What on earth are we thinking? Mexicans, local ranchers, environmentalists, and others with any sense are outraged. Indeed, a 2005 federal act authorized the Homeland Security czar to suspend any environmental or other laws that might stand in the way of building the wall. Already 19 federal acts — including the Clean Water and the Endangered Species Acts and National Historic Preservation Act — have been waived.

Ignoring the basic questions

As the vision of the little Nicaraguan girl fills my mind, I wonder why no one making policy is facing the primary question: Why do these immigrants come?”

The answer, according to populist author and talk show host Jim Hightower is not that they are pulled by our jobs and government benefits, but that these families often are pushed by a poverty so deep that they are willing to sacrifice most anything. Most Mexican immigrants, indeed, would prefer to live in their own country. Up North, even though the pay is better, immigrants feel out of place, miss their families, the culture, their happiness. Yet sheer survival requires so many to abandon all they love.

In the last 15 years, Mexico’s long-standing system of sustaining its farms, jobs in state industries and subsidies for local products has been decimated by the policies of U.S. banks, corporations and the government ideologues who collaborate with the wealthy bureaucrats and oligarchs of Mexico. NAFTA was a primary culprit as the ruling elites of Mexico joined our own politicians in promising to create jobs, raise wages, and generate growth. Instead, the grassroots economy has degenerated, destroying the already poor livelihoods of millions of Mexican citizens.

The statistics are startling. Today there are 19 million more Mexicans in poverty than before NAFTA was passed. (Statistics here are from the Hightower Lowdown, volume 10, no. 1.)

So, in the spirit of Dr. King, perhaps we must conclude that we have been having the wrong debate. Certainly, while three-quarters of Latino immigrants are from Mexico, the immigration crisis is not limited to Mexicans. People from all parts of the world, even those who came here legally, have faced enormous challenges and much deportation since 9/11.

Perhaps it is time to realize that the same policies and disregard for human decency which are driving us to “look down” at immigrant neighbors are those that are stripping our own country of its middle class and widening the gap between the very rich and the poor to a greater extent every day. Perhaps it is time to understand that the more frail the economic status of the great majority of people in the U.S., the more likely that we look for a scapegoat from a far-away land.

Economic change will help

What can we do as ordinary citizens in Western North Carolina? The benefit of election years is that our elected officials seem eager to hear our concerns. We can stand up for candidates who will work to prevent the downsizing and sending offshore of middle-class jobs, we can rail against the new bankruptcy laws that make all of us vulnerable to financial ruin, we can insist on the enforcement of America’s wage and hour laws, work to undo policies that encourage employers to use part-time and contractual work to avoid paying benefits, insist on campaign reforms that work harder to prevent the buying of our politicians by special interests, and perhaps most importantly, vote for those who will radically reform the health care system that is bleeding individuals and businesses in unprecedented ways..

After all, it was not powerless immigrants who perpetrated these abuses on the American worker. It is the richest, most powerful, and best-connected corporate interests who have placed us in peril.

Thus, immigration reform cannot be separated from labor and trade reform in this country. We must stop what we are doing to Mexico and other poor nations, and in the process we can save our own economy from ruin. We must realize that America’s immigration problem is not at the border, but on Wall Street and in Washington.

After all, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

(Marsha Crites, M.S.W. is a landscape designer with Harvest Moon Gardens in Sylva and teaches adult leadership skills in Haywood County. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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