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WHAT WE THINK
In the vigilantes' camouflage or the politicians' fancy suits...
Standing up to their anti-immigrant lies

August 26, 2005 | Page 3

THE DECLARATION in Arizona and New Mexico of a "state of emergency" at the Mexico border is only the latest accent in a rising drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric that grows louder by the day.

Sounding the alarm were two "rising stars" in the Democratic Party, Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

For his part, Richardson declared the "emergency" on the grounds that immigrants were threatening the health and safety of livestock in the border area. The fact that Richardson was more worried about animals than human beings crossing the rugged New Mexico desert is typical of the twisted logic of the anti-immigrant hysteria.

Napolitano and Richardson's actions might be put off to the crass political maneuvering of two Democrats ambitious for the limelight. But they are part of an ugly increase in racism and hate against immigrants.

Most ominous has been the rise of armed vigilante groups like the Minutemen, who grabbed headlines earlier this year when they descended on Arizona to "patrol" the border. This spawned imitators across the country, including California, where several far-right factions have called their own border mobilizations.

The vigilantes have open connections to far right and neo-Nazi groups. California's Save Our State, for example, maintains contact with the white supremacist Stormfront.org Web site. Yet the anti-immigrant bigots have been given a shockingly respectful hearing from politicians of both major parties.

Though he was later forced to retract his statement, Federal Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner earlier this month said that the U.S. government should consider deputizing the vigilantes to police the border. Though the business wing of the Republican Party is behind George W. Bush's so-called "reforms" to U.S. immigration policy to insure that U.S. bosses will have access to low-paid immigrant labor, other sections of the party, led by bigots like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), echo the far right's hate.

The anti-immigrant politicians and vigilante thugs build their case on often-repeated myths.

For instance, they say that the U.S.-Mexico border is "out of control." This is just not true. The U.S.-Mexico border is the most traversed in the world, with an average of 250 million crossings each year. Only 1 percent occur without authorization, but these attract all of the political attention.

In San Diego alone, more than 70,000 Mexicans cross the border daily, mainly to buy consumer goods. In 2003, Mexican shoppers spent $40.8 billion in the local economy, contributing an extra $3.3 billion in sales taxes. Especially at several twin cities straddling the border from California to Texas, Mexicans help sustain the whole border economy, contributing taxes and creating jobs--not draining social services, as immigration opponents complain.

In the post-September 11 era, anti-immigrant politicians also claim that lax border security could allow "terrorists" into the country. No "terrorist" has ever been caught crossing the Arizona desert, but politicians and law enforcement want to foster this fear.

The other phantom threat to justify tougher border enforcement is drug trafficking. In fact, according to a Drug Enforcement Agency report in the aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which further opened U.S. borders to cargo traffic, federal officials estimated that most cocaine coming into the U.S. entered through official ports of entry, occasionally with the collusion of corrupt customs agents.

The Minutemen and their friends in the statehouses and Washington claim to be concerned that immigrant workers are "stealing" the jobs of native-born workers. But this, too, is a myth.

For one, the claim is based on the idea that there are a static number of jobs in the U.S. economy. In fact, the Department of Labor estimates that more than 33 million new job openings will be created between 2000 and 2010. Nearly 60 percent of these will be low-skilled jobs, which are more likely to be filled by immigrants.

Far from stealing jobs from native-born workers, "the growing supply and concentration [of immigrant labor] in certain occupations suggests that the newest arrivals are competing with each other in the labor market to their own detriment," concluded one study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

As Latinos become more integrated into and central to the U.S. economy, they have become an easy scapegoat to shift the blame for declining living standards for working people.

But pitting immigrant workers against native-born workers weakens both. The anti-immigrant climate helps drive down the conditions for immigrant workers, making it easier for employers to impose lower wages and worse conditions on all workers.

As the old adage of the labor movement goes, an injury to one is an injury to all. Only by building a unified labor movement that champions the rights of immigrants--and organizes immigrant workers as equal partners in the struggle--will workers be able to fight for jobs and better conditions for all.

This is why anyone who wants to advance the struggle for justice and equality needs to stand up against the anti-immigrant tide.

That means organizing at the border, whenever the vigilantes call their mobilizations. In California, immigrant rights supporters and anti-racist activists have called for counter-protests September 16, when another far-right group plans to launch its armed "patrol." The struggle needs to extend from the border throughout the U.S.--following the example of the 40,000 people who turned out to demonstrate in Chicago against the threat of the Minutemen.

We have to stand up to the anti-immigrant bigots--whether they wear the camouflage fatigues of the vigilantes, or the fancy suits of the politicians.

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