Let’s face it, despite American myths about rugged individualism and an honest day’s labor, historically speaking, the back-breaking labor has always been preformed by someone else (usually non-Caucasian and dirt poor). There were slaves in the cotton fields, Chinese immigrants on the railways- there were even attempts at enslaving Native Americans at various points.
And today, things haven’t changed much.
Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, El Salvadorans, and other Latin American immigrants have been streaming north over the years to find work in the United States. However, the ease of immigrating into America has changed dramatically since the time of Ellis Island. While once an immigrant could enter the US with few stipulations other than he not be carrying an infectious disease (and even then, he might be quarantined for a period and then allowed in), few of us seem to realize just how difficult of a process immigration has become.
Let’s take a look at some of the requirements:
English Requirement: When your ancestors immigrated to America, how many of them could speak English? Alright then, how much did their (initial) inability to speak English keep them from being productive members of society? How many of us would be here today if the English requirement was in place a century ago?
Moral Character Requirement: Essentially, one is required to produce proof that he hasn’t been convicted of any crimes anywhere he’s lived in the past two decades. Considering that (1) most immigrants are poor and may have needed to commit certain crimes to survive and (2) with rampant police and judicial corruption, the chance of getting a fair trail is small or the chance of being framed is high, it seems likely that a number of immigrants who would otherwise be good members of society are prevented from being so.
Civics Requirement: Immigrants are required to have an understanding of American civics, but let’s face facts- most natural-born US citizens don’t have a knowledge of civics. Can you, off the top of your head, state which constitutional amendment protects citizens from unwarranted search and seizure (not that the TSA cares)? What about the difference between congress and the senate? Who was the 15th US president? Not only did immigrants to Ellis Island not have to know these things, but many of their descendants don’t know them either.
So most would-be immigrants find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, the conditions they live in now are so miserable that they are forced to leave behind their homes, culture, and (in many cases) family to find work in America (and the trip is hellish in and of itself). On the other hand, immigration requirements are so stringent, many are unable to legally enter the US. The only option: become illegal immigrants.
Now if you’re a company in the US, who are you going to want to hire? A citizen protected by minimum wage laws, working condition regulations, unions, hazard pay, and so on? Or are you going to want to hire an illegal immigrant- a person in such a desperate need for work that he’ll slave away for long hours in dangerous conditions for almost no pay?
And so it goes- corporations, companies, and individuals use illegal immigrants as a renewable source of cheap labor. If Mike winds up in an industrial accident, his employers have to pay some sort of compensation. If Manuel gets hurt, who cares? Since he’s not in the US legally, he’s not protected by any law. Indeed, as an illegal immigrant, his employer has additional sway over him by being able to report him to the INS if he ever gets out of line.
Of course, the abusive, exploitative nature of many illegal immigrants’ jobs are lost on many Americans. Some are ignorant of how difficult immigration has become and assume that illegal immigrants are circumventing the system to “leech” off of the US- taking jobs that once belonged to blue collar American workers. Others are racists and xenophobes- pure and simple. And of course politicians are complicit in the perpetuation of anti-immigrant sentiment, using illegal immigrants as a scapegoat for various problems, promising that their platform of strict immigration reform will ensure American jobs go to American workers. Whether these politicians actually believe in their own rhetoric, or are merely keeping immigration requirements strict to ensure a constant supply of cheap labor for the corporations backing their campaigns, I cannot say- there’s probably a lot of both. Either way, the end result is American workers, rather than finding sympathy and solidarity with their Latin American counterparts, are pitted against them. Racism is fomented, and illegal immigrants are stereotyped as thugs, criminals, and indolent cheats- and this prejudice quickly spreads until it’s widely applied not just to illegal immigrants, but to all immigrants and all Hispanics. So what’s the sum of all this? A society twisted against the very people whose hard, thankless labor this society rests on. Bigotry is able to hide under the mask of patriotism, while the people ultimately responsible for the labor crisis here and abroad make a clean getaway.
Let’s look back at the situation in total: Due to insufferable conditions in their homelands (often as a result of American corporations, like the corn subsidies putting thousands of Mexican farmers out of work, or Chiquita Brands International’s banana republics), immigrants are forced to the search for work in the US. However, harsh immigration rules force many to become illegal immigrants, losing all rights or protection and become exploited and abused by corporations in the US. Finally, these people- the poorest of the poor who even now are grateful for what little they have- are spat on by their fellow American workers for “taking their jobs”, and targeted by racist elements within the states.
And all because of what? Capitalism: a system that puts profit before people.