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Closing the barn door: U.S. politicians are bent on rewriting immigration policy, but don't expect them to solve real problems.

U.S. lawmakers are putting out an "unwelcome" mat for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, most of whom are Latin Americans.

In December, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill making illegal status in the United States a felony. The proposal also increases penalties against employers for hiring undocumented workers; criminalizes churches and community groups that provide shelter, refuge or services for illegal immigrants; and calls for the construction of a 1,100-kilometer steel wall along the 3,200-kilometer border with Mexico. (At press time, the U.S. Senate was mulling a somewhat less draconian approach.) Earlier this year, Georgia lawmakers introduced legislation that would charge a 5% fee to people sending home money if they cannot prove they are in the country legally.

As the Congress debates the first sweeping overhaul of immigration law in two decades, such punitive laws may end up greatly reducing remittances, money transfers sent home by foreigners. More than two-thirds of the estimated 25 million Latin American and Caribbean citizens living abroad are unskilled workers who send money to relatives on a regular basis, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Latin American remittances--totaling US$55 billion in 2005--exceeded the combined total aid and direct investment from industrialized nations in many countries in the region. According to a United Nations study, remittances have brought 2.5 million people out of poverty.

Undocumented workers tend to earn low wages in jobs many in the United States won't take: washing dishes, cleaning offices and houses, busing restaurant tables, picking fruit, and doing lawn work. The money they send, typically between $100 and $300, not only pays for groceries, electricity and doctor's bills but also keeps children in school and, increasingly, finances new small businesses. Like it or not, we're married, economically, to cheap labor from Latin America.

Some Latin American countries, wisely, are using remittance cash for development. In Mexico, the largest recipient of remittances at $20 billion in 2005, federal, state and municipal governments match every dollar sent home, money which goes to pay for infrastructure and to generate jobs. In the state of Zacatecas, remittances helped pay for a $1.5 million dam near Juchipila to irrigate once-arid lands; the project is keeping farmers at home who might otherwise leave.

Remittances are, admittedly, little more than welfare, representing only temporary relief. They empty towns and rural villages and break up families. It is clearly no solution for permanent financial security. And yes, the United States, like any other nation, has the right to control its borders, especially in the post-Sept. 11 era, and considering that an estimated 700,000 people cross illegally into the United States each year.

But taxing remittances is cruel, and building a $2.20 billion wall while criminalizing illegal status is a poor substitute for immigration policy. It will not keep out migrant workers, nor terrorists, who prefer to cross borders with forged documents or, better still, get here legally. Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were grad students on visas with normal jobs, even wives, kids and houses and no particular red flags about their presence in the country--until after the Twin Towers fell. The FBI missed it. The CIA missed it.

That's because they weren't the kind of people politicians now seem to worry so much about, poor, hard-working migrants looking for a break, like any other wave of migration the United States has ever had before--Italians, Greeks, Russians, Poles, Irish, Chinese, English--in its long history of absorbing poor, hard-working migrants. Any U.S. citizen who is neither of African origin (and thus likely a descendant of slaves) nor Native American is related to someone who probably came here with nothing, spotty to zero English-language skills and no prospects except an abiding belief in freedom--economic, religious, or otherwise--and the right to pursue happiness.

Legislation that staunches the flow of remittance money back to Latin America would have the unintended effect of increasing poverty and, consequently, would motivate even more desperate people to cross the border, fence or no fence. The politically courageous move would be to devise a guest-worker program that gives undocumented workers defined legal rights. As mid-term elections approach, however, politicians are instead eager to establish their anti-foreigner credentials. One approach is likely to create solutions, and one is likely to win votes. Guess which way we're headed.
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Title Annotation:RADAR
Publication:Latin Trade
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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