Harrington: A punitive plan that won’t solve the problem
Jim Harrington, TEXAS CIVIL RIGHTS PROJECT
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
The number and breadth of demonstrations across the country against Congress’ efforts to criminalize undocumented immigrants and those who assist them have stunned the nation. Equally astonishing was Cardinal Roger Mahony’s public pledge to order the priests and religious in the Los Angeles Archdiocese to passively resist and disobey House Resolution 4437 if it is passed.
The House bill would make it a federal crime to be in the United States illegally or for anyone to assist undocumented immigrants.
Making it a crime to enter this country illegally will not deter anyone. Efforts to seal off the border in areas such as El Paso and California have not stopped the flow of illegal immigrants — or even slowed it. These efforts have merely made it more expensive and dangerous and have created a network of traffickers branching out to cities across the United States.
Undocumented people must pay $800 or more to a coyote before making the dangerous and uncertain journey. But that risk is better than their hand-to-mouth subsistence in poverty-racked Mexico. Thousands endure extreme conditions to cross the desert. Most make it, but every year some 300 die trying. Tagging on a criminal conviction will hardly stop them. No one would go through this hell if they and their families could survive in Mexico.
And Mahony’s point is that, at some juncture, basic human rights require that unjust laws be broken. HR 4437 would make it a crime for doctors to attend to farm workers suffering from pesticide poisoning, or to treat a construction worker’s broken bones. It would make it a crime for local faith-based food pantries to feed hungry immigrant children, for priests and ministers to give $10 to a husband to buy medicine for his pregnant wife, for teachers to teach children how to spell and respect one another, and for local church congregations to give Christmas baskets to families.
If these Congressional Republicans had their way, they would deport the 12 million undocumented immigrants already here. If they were to succeed, the economic effect on both the United States and Mexico would be devastating. Crops would rot in U.S. fields. Hotels, restaurants and construction businesses would fold. Almost 5 percent of the U.S. economy depends on undocumented laborers.
Mexico’s already limping economy would crash. Undocumented immigrants send $1 billion back to that country every year — more money than Mexico receives from its oil industry. Every Mexican who migrates to the United States is one less individual for whom Mexico has to provide, and one more worker who will help support a number of relatives en la patria.
For years, Congress has grappled in vain with how to control this near-perfect model of a free market for human labor. The draw of employment in the United States has created a flow of jobless people — mostly Mexican — illegally entering the country in search of better lives.
U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., suggests that prisoners could harvest our crops, apparently a kinder and gentler form of slavery. But the quality and abundance of the prisoners’ harvest would not match anything like that produced by hard-working immigrants, and Rohrabacher’s suggestion reflects the meanness and absurdity of House Republicans.
The United States’ dependence on cheap labor and Mexico’s faltering economy will doom this House bill. Our immigration problems will not be solved until we resolve the grave distortions between the U.S. and Mexican economies. Congress would make better use of its time, and our tax money, by dedicating itself to that task, rather than by creating repressive, punitive and ultimately unworkable criminal sanctions.
Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation that promotes civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas.