While migrant labor has always been a significant and important part of the US economy, particularly in the Southwest, laws regulating it have fluctuated for political reasons, said Aviva Chomsky, professor of history and coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Salem State University. The idea that migration is "illegal" is relatively new and has a lot to do with racial bias.
"Before the Fourteenth Amendment, there were no restrictions on immigration at all, because no one could be citizens except whites," Chomsky said. But after the Civil War, "citizenship by birth changed all that. That's when racially restrictive immigration laws started."
Historically, migration from Mexico was circular, she said. People would come north to work, and then they would return home.
"What changed that was the militarization of the border that started in the late 20th century," Chomsky said. "The more the border is militarized, the more the undocumented population grows. Instead of coming and going, people come and stay because it's too dangerous to keep gambling with the repeated border crossings."
Operation Gatekeeper, launched under the Clinton administration in 1994, allocated millions of dollars to build fences starting with San Diego-Tijuana, and ramp up Border Patrol agents. The border fence has expanded and now blocks various locations across the 2,000-mile border.
"When they secured that border to make it more difficult to cross, there was a whole lot of people on this side of the border that could not go back," said Bill Flores, a retired high-ranking officer with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. "It's not like they wanted to stay here, but they were stuck. Before it was more transient; now it's more permanent."
Chomsky connects the dots between civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander's idea, illustrated in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, of a caste system created via legal status. Alexander argues that once de jure, outright racist policies against African-Americans were outlawed following the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a backlash ensued to circuitously reinstate inequities that defined the Jim Crow era. Racially profiling and disproportionately incarcerating blacks at higher rates than whites has resulted in the stripping away of the very civil liberties supposedly gained in the civil rights movement like the right to vote, hold a job, sit on juries and receive public benefits.
"Interestingly the rights they're deprived of are quite similar to the rights people who are undocumented are deprived of," Chomsky observed. "They physically exist but legally they are excluded. By defining one group of people as inherently racially, legally different, you then justify all manner of atrocities against them."
While it had once been commonplace and legal to discriminate against Mexican, Central and South American people simply because of their countries of origin, the civil rights era saw an end to that, as it saw an end to outright discrimination against black Americans. Under the bracero program that existed between 1942 and 1964, Mexican laborers were allowed to work in the United States, but it was like a system of indentured servitude where workers had no control over the terms of their labor, very few rights and poor working conditions, Chomsky said.
Once the bracero program was eliminated amid the atmosphere of the civil rights movement, the United States was forced to dump openly race-biased immigration laws that gave preferential treatment to certain northern European immigrants. What resulted was the Hart-Celler Act, which placed a uniform visa quota on all countries.
Though Hart-Celler looked equal on paper, it was still racially biased, Chomsky pointed out. Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, China and India have very large populations. Mexican workers had historically crossed the border in the tens of thousands yearly. So giving tiny European countries like Luxemburg, Switzerland, Belgium or Andorra the same visa limit as Asian countries and Mexico still favors European immigration, she said.
"The 1965 immigration law is an example of how trying to look equal on paper doesn't really treat people equally," she said. "It's not openly racially biased, but it is."
While Alexander links the backlash against the Civil Rights Act to practices like racial profiling, the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have resulted in mass incarceration that's turned the clock back on racial justice by labeling people "felons," Chomsky said immigration laws have resulted in discrimination against migrants by labeling them "illegal."
"It was a very deliberate creation of this status to replace a previous status using a terminology and a rationale that is supposedly less racially charged," she said.
Despite rabid anti-immigrant sentiment and the ratcheting up of measures aimed at expelling or blocking entry to migrants from south of the US border, Chomsky pointed out the trapped population with no avenue toward legal status makes for big profits both as cheap, readily-abused labor and as inmates in private prisons, while becoming easy scapegoats for political opportunists who often fear-monger myths that immigrant workers take jobs from Americans.
In contrast, only 44,000 visas for "skilled and unskilled" workers were issued by the federal government for immigrant labor from all countries in 2013, according to Department of Homeland Security data.
"When we think about the actual demand for immigrant workers and what immigration laws permit, and contrast that with the type of sensationalized thinking and reporting about immigration, there's a lot of cognitive dissonance across the board," said Tom K. Wong, assistant professor in political science who specializes in immigration at the University of California at San Diego. "Despite what the reality is, the narrative is constant. And the reality is, we don't actually give permanent residence to a lot of workers. That's reflected in the numbers."
Criminalization of immigration with an angle at "enforcement-only" practices without meaningful evolution of immigration policy directly links to the high death rate at the border, according to the National Foundation for American Policy study, which found:
The loss of life will almost certainly continue unless more paths are open to work legally in the United States. The only plausible way to eliminate immigrant deaths at the border, as well as reduce illegal immigration in the long term, is to institute a new program of temporary visas or portable work permits for foreign workers. Strong evidence exists that the current "enforcement-only" policy has strengthened criminal gangs, providing a profitable line of business for Mexican criminal enterprises. If Mexican and Central American workers could come to America on a legal visa or work permit they would have no need to employ the services of a coyote or criminal enterprise.
Profiteering From Lack of Legal Status
A survey of news reports from around the country indicates many have found capitalizing on the illegal status placed on immigrants to be profitable.
ProPublica investigated the growth in temp workers who are largely Spanish-speaking immigrants with few workplace protections, revealing how mega-corporations like Walmart, Philips Norelco and BMW benefit from such exploitable labor.
According to ProPublica's reporting:
Latinos make up about 20 percent of all temp workers. In many temp towns, agencies have flocked to neighborhoods full of undocumented immigrants, finding labor that is kept cheap in part by these workers' legal vulnerability: They cannot complain without risking deportation.
ProPublica also uncovered examples of how these migrant workers are placed in harm's way and often pay the ultimate price, including instances where a worker was buried and suffocated to death by sugar while trying to unclog machinery, and a worker who was slowly crushed to death by machinery making hummus. In both cases, employers showed disregard for workers by not bothering with safety guidelines. The brother and co-worker of a deceased worker told ProPublica:
They waited for something bad to happen . . . They just use people like us - take advantage of us. They just throw you in there and it's like, what happens, happens.
The New York Times also found that immigrants in detention centers function as virtual slave labor, being paid as little as $1 a day to keep their detention centers operating while the private prison companies that own the facilities cash out. Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, which own the majority of immigrant detention centers, made $301 million and $115 million in net earnings, respectively, according to The New York Times.
Per the Times' May report:
As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor - usually for $1 a day or less - at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.
There are no signs that the precipitous drop-off in undocumented migration will yield a symmetrical reduction in detention of immigrants. In April, GEO Group announced a $45 million, 640-bed expansion to hold immigrants at a prison in Adelanto, California. The expansion is expected to generate $21 million in additional, annualized revenues for the company, according to an April 2014 press release.
Private companies aren't the only ones cashing in on immigrant detention. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that the practice had been a moneymaker for local jurisdictions in the past, reporting that at the height of the economic crash in 2008:
Washington paid nearly $55.2 million to house detainees at 13 local jails in California in fiscal year 2008, up from $52.6 million the previous year. The US is on track to spend $57 million this year . . . For some cash-strapped cities, the federal money has become a critical source of revenue, covering budget shortfalls and saving positions.
Private prisons and public agencies alike have cashed in on immigrant detention doubtlessly with the help of a controversial detention quota imposed by members of Congress in 2009 that requires US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold 34,000 people in detention every day, as The Washington Post reported last year.
"we are national hypocrites"
The quota has resulted in an astronomical increase in the number of immigrants detained, more than doubling between 1999 and 2009 to 369,483, according to a report by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data research and gathering organization at Syracuse University. Two years later, the number of immigrants in detention rose to 429,000 in 2011, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. A whopping 88 percent of these detainees were from Mexico (67 percent) or Central America (21 percent), according to a 2011 Department of Homeland Security report.
Driving forces behind migration include the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into law in 1994, the same year the border fence went up, and has sunk many in Mexico into poverty by throwing the country's markets and economy open to US business. Subsidized American products like corn and pork began flowing into Mexico and driving prices down to the point where local, smaller-scale enterprises couldn't compete. The rapid, destabilizing downward shift of the Mexican economy sent people north, as demand for cheap services and labor continues in the United States.
US foreign intervention and the toppling of democratically elected governments in Central and Latin America have resulted in turbulence, and its "war on drugs" has been criticized as a major contributor to cartel violence in Mexico.
In a 2010 talk, Chomsky pointed out that people have been migrating freely over the face of the planet since the dawn of humanity, and the idea of controlling human migration is only about 200 years old.
"It's salutary to remember this when we think about what would happen if we stopped trying to control immigration," she said in 2010. "For tens of thousands of years the human race had no controls on immigration and somehow we muddled along, things worked themselves out without immigration controls. It's not impossible to imagine that we could create a new system that did not rely on trying to control people's freedom of movement."
Reineke, from the Colibrí Center in Tucson, said it's time to rethink how US policies have created pressures that force people to come north when they otherwise wouldn't.
"We really can't continue looking at the border as the place where the problem originates; that's a very dangerous way to think about immigration in an increasingly global economy," Reineke said. "We have increasingly open borders to commerce, markets, goods and the ability of companies to work across borders. But then we have increasingly closed borders to the free movement of people, especially those who are workers, who are not part of the consumer class."
That combination of openly allowing consumer goods and investment to flow through borders unhindered while clamping down on the resulting movement of people has proven deadly, Reineke added.
It's time for reevaluation but also soul-searching, she said.
"I do believe Americans are compassionate people, but I also believe fear and xenophobia about immigrants has allowed us to dehumanize them and be desensitized to the loss of life on the southern border," she said. "On the more extreme side, if we're reacting with such hate, fear and disdain to children who are escaping violence and showing up on the southern border, we have a lot of work to do in terms of our relationship with our Latin American neighbors on this continent. We need to think through this problem in terms of saving lives. It's an issue of conscience and morality for this country and Mexico as well."
Vicente, the Marine Corps veteran, summed it up in his typical succinct, direct way.
"There are lots of trade treaties," he said. "What we need is a human treaty."
Exhausted, we left the borderlands behind with the sun beating us head-on as it set in the west, the direction we were heading. Each went our separate ways back to homes spread throughout Southern California.
The sadness of what I saw didn't sink in until about 24 hours later, after the distraction and chaos of meeting and traveling with new people who were on a mission wore off. I was moved by their heroism, grit, persistence and humility. In the end, it's Robin Reineke's words that sting.
"As I'm going about my life in Tucson, there are people going through some of the most intense human suffering and survival happening on the global scale today, literally an hour from my house. I want more Americans to think through what that means for us."