Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Illegal Immigration

America wants cheap fruits and vegetables, but isn't willing to pay the price for them.

Moving to other countries can be complex, rewarding, challenging, and sometimes illegal. Along with much of the anti-immigrant furor which crops up in countries from time to time — it's cropping up here in the Netherlands and was very common when I lived in the UK¹ — there's also an occasional backlash against illegals.

What always frustrates me about this backlash is that there's often very little rational discussion about the issue. In US President George Bush's 2007 State of the Union Address, he declared a need for a "guest worker" program (he had tried to push it before that). The idea was to allow workers to come to the US, pick the crops and go home. The theory is that since we need laborers willing to work for little money on some of the most difficult and low-paying jobs we need done, why not temporarily allow people in the country who will do those jobs. Republicans are stereotypically anti-immigration and they objected to their own President's proposal, though I will give Bush credit for trying to solve a thorny problem.

Well, the state of Georgia recently tried to solve this problem by passing HB 87, a complicated and expensive "punish the hell out of everyone" law which aimed to stop people from applying for jobs illegally, stop employers from hiring illegals, stop people from transporting illegals, stop illegals from using false documentation, etc. It aimed to gut illegal immigration and at first glance, it appears that it's already achieved one of its major goals: stopping illegal immigrants from taking work.

Though I believe people should have the opportunity to live and work wherever in the world they want to (and I know it's an unrealistic dream), I rather welcome Georgia's law because in accomplishing what it set out to do, it's showing America what's really going on with immigration issues. Just over a month after it was passed, in a state where agriculture is their number one industry, crops are rotting in the field. From that article:

Barely a month ago, you might recall, Gov. Nathan Deal welcomed the TV cameras into his office as he proudly signed HB 87 into law. Two weeks later, with farmers howling, a scrambling Deal ordered a hasty investigation into the impact of the law he had just signed, as if all this had come as quite a surprise to him.
Did you catch the "two weeks later" bit? That's how serious these issues are. They have an immediate and deep impact on us and naïvely pretending that kicking out illegal immigrants and getting worked up over them allegedly stealing jobs doesn't help the situation. Georgia knew very well that they were heavily dependent on illegal immigrants taking up work, but because the Republican legislature valued slogans over reality, Georgia faces having their farm industry crumbling at a time when the economy is already doing very poorly.

The governor is scrambling to fix the mess he's made and he's encouraging farmers to hire "criminal probationers" to replace the illegal aliens. There are plenty of problems with this, not the least of which is that there are only about 2,000 inexperienced workers to replace the estimated 11,000 person shortfall.  And for anyone who says Americans are simply too lazy for this work needs to apply for one of these jobs and try to keep it for a week. It's back-breakingly hard labor under a hot sun, for very little pay. I've read of some encouraging the farms to pay more money for workers (and some have already tried bonuses with little success), but if the farms pay out too much money, their produce will be too expensive relative to other US states who have been a bit more pragmatic about this issue.

It's entirely possible that the courts may shut down this law, or at least put a stay on it, but I hope they don't. Though painful, I want Georgia to see firsthand how complicated immigration issues really are and perhaps the rest of the USA can get an idea that maybe they should think about these issues rather than simply pontificate.

1. One abhorrent woman in the UK kept ranting about needing to keep immigrants out and rather than me bluntly pointing out that she immigrated from Austria, I simply pointed out that I was from the US. She told me I was the "right" kind of immigrant and made it quite clear she wasn't talking about "highly skilled migrant". Sadly, Austria has quite a bad reputation in this area.


  1. In Austria the situation is quite involved, though I would imagine it's not clear-cut in other countries either. The former eastern block countries are very close to Vienna, so even in the 60s we got a lot of "guest workers" from Yugoslavia etc. A lot of them stayed, though, but didn't get better jobs, so a divide started to build.

    Starting with the 90s, Austria suddenly got *loads* more immigrants; many of them unskilled people. The government encouraged immigration, and this time it wasn't guest workers - it was clear that the whole family could immigrate.

    You find many of people - a lot from Turkey, as far as I can tell from the language - who flat out refuse to learn German and even need more clueful friends and neighbors to translate when they, for example, go to the doctor. It appears there's a subculture and they feel they are in sufficiently high numbers to be able to stay in their group all their life. Vienna obliges by starting to put out official information in all kinds of languages.

    And note I'm not talking about "taking jobs away" or some such. It's just that in some areas of Vienna and in some tram lines etc., you don't hear German (or English or other Western-European languages) spoken very often. What you do see is people who seem to go out of their way to make an effort to distance themselves. They get a bad education, bad jobs, and so the divide increases.

    This rubs off on me if it goes on every day.

    Of course, if I openly wanted to discuss any of these things, I would immediately be accused of racism. Such is the discussion culture about this topic in Vienna.

  2. @Marcel: I do feel that when you move to a country, particularly if you plan to do so permanently, that you should make an effort to learn the local language(s) and adjust to that culture, just as a country which encourages immigration should do something to accomodate those who have been encouraged.

    It's ironic, though, that many of my friends back in the US nod their heads in agreement when I say something like "it's OK for a country to insist that immigrants speak the local language", but then some get offended when I suggest that the US insist that immigrants learn English.

  3. This is classic Republican cake-and-eat-it-too 'policy'. Republicans are supposedly the capitalists, and one tenet of this is that labour, like capital, is a free-flowing resource. Anti-immigration, simply put, is anti-capitalism. The hypocrisy of these anti-immigrant, dare I say, other-ists, is coming out thanks to HB87. I agree with you: Georgia and other states need to learn the costs of their actions and lie in the bed they've made. They also need to learn the value that these immigrant populations bring to the table. Chavez was an activist for these groups to unionise and stop being treated as second- or third-class people.

    As reactionist, political nonsense gets enacted, it will further damage the simpleton goons who don't even understand the tenets of the rhetoric they line up to mindlessly spew on about.

    @Marcel: I think the distance is a two-way street. You don't seem all that accepting of the Turks, and they therefore see no reason to try to appease you.

    Like Ovid, I think that if you emigrate to a place, you should really be into that place, but I come to that idea from a gifted, first-world perspective. If I had to leave my country of origin due to economic hardship and leave my family and home because it couldn't be run very well or was corrupt, I may do exactly what the guest workers you speak of would do: Find a place with connections using your local language and carve out a mini society. There's really nothing wrong with that per se. Because, if I needed to move to Thailand tomorrow because my house was being bombed and my livlihood was threatened, I would find an English-speaking community to help me with that transition. It may take me years to learn Thai in this situation, but I need to be a productive member of society until then; that results in me working in an English-speaking area. I would rather enjoy this situation, being a linguistic nerd and a fan of the Thais, but if they treated me with disdain, yet I still had no other realistic options to leave, I would likely think that they can piss off and I'll just continue to live my English-speaking life with my English-speaking community. If someone were compassionate toward me and welcomed me, then of course I would try to integrate into their society. But learning language is hard for many people, and I think we all need to be a bit cognizant of that.

  4. I exceeded my character limit...

    Part two...
    @Ovid: as a linguist and an American I would like to point out one thing that America lacks that jsut about every other country has is a linguistic policy. There is NO official language in America. There is a de facto language of English, but it is not codified into law.

    I think when US policy affects other nations and forces people off their land (NAFTA combined with ag subsidies) and into the underground, hellish markets of immigrant labourer status, the least we can do is accomodate them linguistically. It is practical/pragmatic.

    If the US created an official language, then maybe we should require that people learn it. But until then, it is a touch offencive to suggest that anyone must learn another language to be a part of US society, as it is built as a melting pot that is accepting of all nations' 'tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to be free'. The US is the one place in the world where this shouldn't be frowned upon, as it is our very identity to be accepting of immigrant populations and pockets of people from all over the world. Countless Germantowns, Chinatowns, Little Italies, Koreatowns, and Mini Saigons back me up in this. And most of LA backs me up on this as well, with its numerous majority Spanish-speaking areas.

    We need to keep in mind that immigration is different for some people. For some, it is not fun. For some, it is a stark economic necessity. And we need to give those people a bit of a break, a bit less judgement, and more acceptance. Offering them a gesture of friendship will make people want to integrate. Being pissed that they don't speak your language on public transportation is not compassionate.