Although immigration was not much discussed during the presidential election, the state of the economy is likely to bring the issue back to the fore. David Bacon's new book Illegal People raises many of the questions to be asked.
Can any group of people who only seek to work be called "illegal" and treated like criminals? What sort of sanctions, if any, should be imposed on them? Do we bear collective responsibility for global trade and investment policies that end up displacing large numbers of people on our shores? What policy should we pursue in the future to address what xenophobes like Lou Dobbs rail against as the crisis of "illegal immigration"?
With his background in union organizing, Bacon sees restrictions imposed on Mexican and Central American unionizing, in such industries as mining, as a prime cause of workers having to flee repressive regimes for security in the United States.
His progressive ideology leads him to assign much of the blame to free trade agreements like NAFTA, which create human displacement and then refuse to recognize the problem. American corporations, having been instrumental in driving down wages for Latin American workers in factories and on farms, are then eager to snap up the same labor here for a pittance, putting downward pressure on wages among native-born Americans.
Bacon cites instances of American companies working in league with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to harass and deport workers suspected of not having papers — should they be so bold as to seek to organize.
This, surely, is part of the story. Disruption because of trade agreements is indisputable. But contradictions are rife in Bacon's argument. He wants the benefits of globalization for workers on both sides of the border, but not its costs. It seems a stretch for him to declare that "Displacement and inequality are just as much part of today's economic system as they were at its birth in the slave trade and the enclosure acts." Where is the immigrant's act of will in this?
By reframing "illegals" as economic migrants, he seeks to elevate them to human dignity, but commits the same sin he seeks to overcome. Both "migrants" and "illegals" are two sides of a similar dehumanizing coin. Immigration, the old-fashioned term, implies more than involuntary displacement for purely economic motives, connoting instead a voluntary adjustment in social outlook.
Not all immigration, even illegal, is by the poor Mexican or Central American, Bacon's almost exclusive focus; this reinforces the stereotype of the desperate immigrant, dependent on our mercy, when the truth is more diverse.
Bacon does well to expose the fallacy of "guest worker" programs, part of every so-called comprehensive immigration reform package of the Bush years, endorsed by both parties. This corporate-beloved idea is a return to the racist bracero program of the mid 20th century, which resulted in abuses of Mexican workers until it was repealed. The revived temporary worker proposals even provide for workers to touch back to reclaim temporary legality, as in the bracero days, when growers used to call it "drying out wetbacks."
Bacon thinks the expansion of existing temporary worker programs would yield more worker misery. So-called earned legalization is little more than a temporary worker plan in disguise.
By premising the problem of immigration as an irreducibly economic matter, Bacon sidesteps a philosophically principled advocacy of freer global mobility of human beings, as is already true of capital. A case must be made for more immigration, at every level of skill, not necessarily because of compassion for loss and displacement, but as a contributor to innovation and productivity.
Such a construct would be futurist and optimistic, instead of looking back to the broken promises of globalization. It would presume that the net result of trade is always good. Bacon's book has much going for it in setting out the human element of displacement, but lacks such confidence.
Anis Shivani's collection, "Anatolia and Other Stories," will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2009.