Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Cost of the American Dream


By Yolanda Cotterall

The politics of immigration have complex roots.

Since 9/11, the idea that national security is at risk has been used by many to justify draconian tactics to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants walking across the border. However, the big picture politics are infringing on the livelihood of regular people, everyday workers, whose trespasses on the basis of border security are being paid for in their own security.

Imagine a mother informed by her weeping child over the phone about a raid at the plant where her husband works; having heard nothing from him, her mind races. He might have been picked up by government officials. She is afraid to dial his cell phone for fear of bringing said officials to her home. Her three children are at school, without anyone to protect them; she is afraid to pick them up without risking capture in the streets that she now considers a danger zone.

Some could argue that this family should have understood the risk when they decided to make the trip from their small town in the interior of Mexico and cross into the United States without the proper paper work. However, the initial urgency of this type of situation provides perspective. Many people, including young families seek the hope of a better life, a better future for their children even those that have not yet been born. They were told there was work and a future where hunger and hardship were not the main focus, and where hard work is adequately rewarded. This is the allure of our precious American dream.

But while many have made that trip across deserts and mountains to find work, U.S. enforcement officials (as well as average citizens who live along the border) patrol it day and night. This narrow border has become the playing field for an absurd form of the children's game "Red Rover" or "Capture the Hill," where the game plays out: one side trying to find a hole through which they can gain entry and the other side trying to stop them. For some, the game is personal and goes well beyond a disagreement over border policies, immigration documents and a cheap labor force, with a willingness to apply unnecessary hardship and, even, a willingness to break the law in an effort to stop migrants, which can only be identified as an obsession based on hate and bias.

It is this possibility of harm, legitimized by our laws, that breeds fear and insecurity among these migrant workers. We can all understand the terror that a mother must feel in the situation described, but can we understand this feeling as a default? The idea that any day your life could be turned upside down, that any day is another reason to fear the loss of your parents, or fear for your children's safety if you were snatched away, is frightening.

It is very difficult, however, to deter the migrants from trying. Large numbers of "players" win the game daily, gaining entry and finding work while earning what seems like a small fortune, compared to work, if it can be found, back home. The idea is to come for a brief time and return with enough money to buy some land, build a home, and educate their children. In many cases, the main objective is simply to keep hunger at bay long enough for the kids to grow up.

On the U.S. side, those that hire the winners of this dangerous game are not altogether innocent of complicity. The labor resource these migrants represent is not only cheap, but the new arrivals are willing to do jobs most Americans are not interested in nor seek. Employers are attracted to this resource for the cheap labor force which allows them to stay competitive in a market. This temptation to keep the bottom line healthy versus obeying the law is a tough business challenge to address.

It seems that everyone on the U.S. side and in Mexico has opinions about how this very inconvenient and complex supply and demand conundrum can be resolved. However, until it is resolved, we must all agree that any illegal conduct by civilian patrols along the border is an unacceptable practice which breeds insecurity and danger among the defenseless, negating the American Dream and replacing it with something else entirely.
Cotterall does economic development work with Latino immigrants in rural Minnesota.
Copyright © 2009 by the Minnesota Editorial Forum. 4/09