(Opinion): Basic justice for immigrants who do the dirty work

by Allert Brown-Gort

It has been more than two months since President Bush returned the issue of immigration to the forefront of the national consciousness through a proposal to radically overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Although initially there was a spirited debate, election-year politics have ensured that there has since been little clarification of the president’s plan and almost no movement on the legislative front.p. In the meantime, however, three new reports highlight the urgent necessity of coming to an agreement on the issue of immigration, particularly on the regularization of undocumented migrants. The first is a report by the Foreign Ministry of Mexico, which estimates the number of immigrant deaths at the border at 409 for 2003. While these numbers are better than the 499 deaths registered in 2000, they are significantly worse than the 371 deaths in 2002.p. The second report is an Associated Press survey that finds deaths of Mexican workers have increased in the U.S., even as the safety trend for the majority of workers has been improving. Calculating that there is more than one job-related death a day (comparable to the number of deaths among those attempting to cross the border), the report points out that while Mexican immigrants now represent about 1 in 24 workers in the U.S., they represent approximately 1 in 14 workplace deaths. In a number of Southern and Western states, the likelihood of dying from a workplace accident for Mexican workers jumps from almost double to more than four times that of U.S.-born workers.p. The third is a Latino Labor report by Rakesh Kochhar of the Pew Hispanic Center. His research demonstrates that the number of employed Hispanics increased by 660,000 workers from the fourth quarter of 2002 to the fourth quarter of 2003, while the number of employed non-Hispanics increased by only 371,000. According to the report, this increase in Latino employment was driven by immigrant males (especially those who have entered the U.S. since 2000) and those who were in construction jobs. Since Latinos currently make up approximately one-seventh of the labor force, and immigrants account for less than half of that, this means that a very small portion of the labor pool accounted for over two-thirds of the jobs gained.p. There are an estimated 6 to 8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., of whom 4 to 5 million are Mexican. Decades of economic restructuring, most notably in agro-industry but also in a range of other industries, have meant massive influxes of immigrant workers throughout the country.p. What these reports point out is that we have a profoundly ambivalent view of immigrants. Our economy desperately needs them, or they would not account for such a large proportion of new jobs in the current “jobless recovery.” They obviously perform the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, or they would not die at two to four times the rate of U.S.-born workers. But we want to act as if they are totally unwanted, or they would not be forced to come through the desert and die at the rate of more than one a day.p. Until now the national debate on migration has tended to overwhelmingly emphasize the supply side — “they are coming here for a better life.” But they are also coming because our economy needs them. As long as we consider them unwanted guests, it is easy to concentrate on their illegal status. If people are “illegal,” they must have broken a law; and if they are criminals, we don’t want them. Except that, apparently, we need them. So we compromise.p. We act as if we do not see them. We force them to live hidden lives. We deprive them of rights — from driving legally to the ability to call the police without the risk of being deported. We deny their foreign-born children the right to higher education.p. A year before President Bush proposed his immigration initiative, the Catholic Bishops of the United States and Mexico issued their first joint pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer. They point out that the treatment of immigrants challenges our consciences, and that “(w)e judge ourselves as a community of faith by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.” In the same manner, as a nation, we should examine our conscience, and judge ourselves as a society.p. Unless we agree to pay higher prices for goods and services such as groceries, restaurants, hotels, construction and child care, we should recognize the sacrifices that immigrants make to strengthen this country and stop asking them to die for us. Basic justice demands that we provide those who have come without documents some mechanism to earn the right to reside legally and — why not — to eventually become U.S. citizens.p. _Allert Brown-Gort is associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies and a Fellow at the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. _ p.

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