Issues & Ideas

An immigration crisis long in the making

Once again, comprehensive immigration reform seems stalled — some say at least until after the 2014 or even 2016 elections. In the meantime, President Barack Obama has instructed his staff to come up with a plan of action by the end of the summer that can be implemented without congressional approval.

Here’s hoping that the White House uses this opportunity to think outside the box.

Let’s start with the word “comprehensive.” This has become the euphemism for combining stiff border controls with a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.

From 1993 to 2013, the number of border patrol agents increased five-fold, from 4,000 to more than 21,000. According to a 2013 Migration Policy Institute study, the Obama administration is spending $18 billion per year on immigration enforcement — 24 percent more than the combined budgets of the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Office, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The historic rise in the undocumented immigrant population from 3.5 million in 1990 to almost 12 million today coincides exactly with this massive border buildup. Far from stopping immigrants from crossing the border to join their families or find work, making the crossing more difficult and dangerous has only convinced them to stay once they make it. Whether or not Obama’s latest proposal to spend $3.7 billion more to handle the current crisis at the border is even helpful in the short term, it's clear that over the long term this continued focus on enforcement is just pouring money down the drain.

On the other hand, a path to citizenship is a just response to those immigrants who are already here and who have invested their lives and livelihoods in this country, with the explicit or implicit support of their U.S. employers. But this overdue adjustment of status only treats the symptoms not the cause of migration flows.

Despite the widespread belief that everyone in the world is clamoring to uproot themselves and move to the United States, the truth is that most people, including poor workers and their families in Latin America, would prefer to stay in the countries of their birth if they could.

As the great French-Algerian immigration scholar Abdelmalek Sayad always emphasized, immigration is first and foremost emigration. The reasons why most Cubans came to the United States are well known, but this is the exception. The causes of the poverty and political instability across much of Latin America might as well be classified information given our media’s silence on these matters.

Political agenda

In research for my book Shaping Immigration News, I found that from the early 1970s through the mid-2000s — a period of intensifying globalization and several U.S.-sponsored bloody conflicts in Central America — the proportion of immigration news stories in leading American newspapers mentioning international causes actually fell from 30 percent to 12 percent. In contrast, French newspapers in the 2000s continued to mention the global angle in one-third of their immigration news stories.

These findings are buttressed by another study spearheaded by the University of Oslo, forthcoming in the journal American Behavioral Scientist, of news coverage of unauthorized immigration in Norway, France, and the United States during 2011 and 2012. My colleague Tim Wood and I found that references to structural causal “push” factors appeared in just 5 percent of U.S. news stories versus 15 percent in Norway and 17 percent in France. Given this dearth of public information about the structural causes of immigration, it is probably no coincidence that U.S. respondents in a 2009 Transatlantic Trends survey were far more likely than European respondents to favor border controls over development aid as the best policy solution.

My research also shows that a high proportion of immigration news focuses on the actions of government, so to a certain extent this media agenda reflects the political agenda. The problem is that journalists are missing the real action. Instead of spending all of their time covering law enforcement at the border, more attention needs to be paid to U.S. government foreign, trade and economic policies related to migrant-sending countries.

As it happens, the spate of media attention to the current crisis of Central American child immigrants could provide a real opening to discuss the link between immigration and U.S. foreign and trade policies in the region.

The administration’s first reaction to this latest crisis has been to reinforce border controls, increase deportations, and dispel the rumor that women and children who make it across the border will get a “free pass” to stay. Its second reaction, less trumpeted, has been to offer help to Central American governments to combat poverty and rampant violence, often portrayed as a selfless act of generosity on the part of the United States. According to one report, USAID will spend $150 million on programs in Central America to keep at-risk youth in school and out of gangs, provide job training, and help connect small farmers to local markets.

Whether the second option will do much good to immediately slow the current surge is certainly debatable, but let’s be clear, it is not an act of generosity. One could say it is the least we can do, and far from adequate, given the direct role the U.S. has long played in fomenting unrest and misery in the region.

The title of Juan Gonzalez’s masterful history of Latinos in America — Harvest of Empire — makes it clear that the United States is only reaping what it has sown. As Gonzalez recounts, Central America’s deep poverty and inequality are inextricably linked to U.S. business intervention in the region beginning in the 19th century and intensifying across the 20th.

In the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries across Central America and the Caribbean, the U.S. government intervened multiple times to prop up corrupt dictatorships closely tied to U.S. banana, sugar, coffee, timber and mining interests and to force out democratically elected leaders who had the temerity to suggest even limited reforms.

U.S. created own crisis

More than a quarter of a million people were killed during the 1980s wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, most of them by death squads or military forces trained and supplied by the U.S. government. In 1980, there were less than 100,000 Salvadoran-born immigrants living in the United States; as a direct consequence of the unrest caused by U.S. wars in the region, that number jumped to nearly 500,000 by 1990 and today is over 1 million.

And what about the gang violence that is being blamed for prompting the current wave of emigrants from Central America? One of the biggest gangs, MS-13, was created in Los Angeles by refugees from the U.S.-sponsored civil conflict in El Salvador, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Such overt political interventions are not the only ways that the United States has created its own immigration crisis.

U.S. trade policies in the region have also prompted massive out-migration. The NAFTA trade agreement with Mexico has not only not improved the economic condition for most Mexican workers but has actually increased their poverty and insecurity and their incentives to cross the border. On the other side of the border, U.S. manufacturing and service industries shift employment to “flexible” low-wage jobs with few benefits tailor-made for displaced Mexicans. The meatpacking, textile, construction, restaurant and hotel industries have systematically laid off American-born workers and actively recruited unauthorized immigrants — among them probably many of the parents of the children now locked up in detention centers at the border — to replace them at a fraction of the cost.

The irony is that many of those complaining about immigrants are themselves victims of the same economic and political policies. As immigration scholar Peter Kwong writes in his book Forbidden Workers, the immigration issue should not divide Americans “into legal and illegals or immigrants versus native-born” when in fact global laissez-faire economics are producing a “downward slide in working conditions that will eventually affect us all.”

Somehow journalists — as well as scholars, activists and policy-makers — have to find a way to tell this bigger story of the powerful actors and structural factors that make it crystal clear why so many people are making desperate choices to come to the United States. We need less de-contextualized narrative reporting about immigrants and border patrol and more explanatory journalism about immigration as a process and its links to globalization. We need more and better news coverage about why the immigration problem exists today in order to provide a better roadmap for legislation to fix it.

Because in the long run, only fundamental changes in U.S. foreign and trade policies are likely to provide a comprehensive immigration reform worthy of the name.