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The border crossed us...and other facts about immigration
Countering the right's myths and double standards

June 2, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

THE ANTI-immigrant right got a new hearing for its backward ideas as Congress debated immigration legislation these last few months. From "securing our borders" to "fighting crime," their arguments for draconian anti-immigrant laws are as wrong-headed as their proposed border wall is long.

It will be crucial for activists to be armed with the arguments necessary to cut through the lies. ELIZABETH SCHULTE points out the hypocrisies and double standards of the U.S. ruling establishment's attitude toward immigrants through history.

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The first immigrants

According to the Thanksgiving story that every schoolchild is taught, when the Pilgrims came to what would be called America, they learned from the Indians how to grow crops and live off the land.

We're told that the "first immigrants" were welcomed with open arms by native-born people. No fences, no quotas, no border guards.

And what did the Native Americans get in return? The "first immigrants" tried to enslave the Indians, and when they couldn't, the immigrants drove Native Americans from their land and slaughtered them in one of the most awful genocides in history.

As the Shawnee leader Tecumseh told the Osages people in a speech calling for unity and resistance against the colonists around 1811-12: "When the white men first set foot on our shores, they were hungry; they had no places on which to spread their blankets or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our fathers commiserated their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given to his red children...

"Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they will sting their benefactors to death."

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"A nation of immigrants"

The U.S. government touts America as a place where people from many cultures are welcome to become a part of great "melting pot." If this is the case, then why in different periods of history has the U.S. government criminalized immigration?

For the most part, the flow of immigration historically has mirrored economic growth. As the U.S. economy declined, so did immigration. Despite this fact, employers and politicians have conveniently blamed immigrants for hard times, and imposed restrictions on immigration to keep out so-called "bad elements."

In the 1840s and 1850s, German and Irish immigrants were scapegoated. In 1882--following a nationwide strike wave in 1877--the government pointed the finger at Chinese workers by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring them from immigrating and becoming naturalized. In 1917, a literacy requirement was imposed to hinder immigration by Eastern European Jews and Italian Catholics.

Similarly, during the McCarthy era, immigrants were scapegoated and targeted as undesirables. In 1952, the McCarran Act banned socialists and communists from immigrating to the U.S. It also resulted in the deportation of scores of foreign-born labor activists and rank-and-file leaders.

U.S. bosses got the best of both worlds with a combination of a bracero guest-worker program and stress on Mexico-U.S. border enforcement in the 1950s. At the same time that employers could exploit inexpensive, temporary labor from Mexico, they had greater power to deport that vulnerable workforce.

So when politicians talk about "a nation of immigrants," they mean immigration when and how they say.

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Turned back to face the Holocaust

Between 1938 and 1941, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Europe, hoping to escape Nazi persecution. Despite knowing full well the brutality of the Nazis toward the Jews, the U.S. government adhered tightly to its immigration quota system.

In 1939, some 900 Jewish refugees on a ship named the St. Louis wandered in the waters off of Florida and Cuba for a week waiting to get permission to land. Even though 700 of the ship's passengers had already registered for foreign visas, the U.S. refused to let them land and grant them temporary visas until the quota numbers could become current.

The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. On the way back, refugee agencies convinced Holland, France, Belgium and Britain to give the passengers sanctuary--but many were later trapped when Germany invaded Western Europe and perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

This is the not-so-proud history of the "land of the free."

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Some immigrants are more welcome than others

When it comes to immigrants seeking refuge, the U.S. government's central concern is politics, not oppression.

Beginning in 1966, Cubans who came to the U.S. were automatically classified as refugees, granted permanent residency status and given help to settle in the U.S., under the Cuba Adjustment Act. This was the standard for Cuba's "refugees from communism."

A very different standard was applied to those fleeing repression in Haiti. When the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in 1991, tens of thousands of Haitians fled when death squads unleashed terror on Aristide supporters.

When they boarded boats, risking their lives on the ocean voyage, U.S. immigration officials intercepted the asylum seekers and sent them back. The U.S.--an ally of decades of Haitian strongmen previous to the election of Aristide--dubbed the asylum seekers economic refugees, condemning them to their fate back in Haiti.

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Not all borders are equal

In the current debate over immigration, virtually all politicians--Republicans and Democrats alike--agree that the U.S. has to control its borders. But it's only the southern border that they're concerned about.

Since September 11 especially, politicians claim that tougher enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border is of utmost importance in stopping terrorism. But not a single documented case of terrorists "infiltrating" the U.S has occurred at the Mexican border.

The politicians' concerns about border control have nothing to do with security--and everything to do with using Mexican immigrants as scapegoats.

A look at the numbers proves this. Some 250 million people cross the border between Mexico and the U.S. each year. Less than 1 percent cross without authorization.

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"They're flooding in"

When the right wing complains about immigrants flooding into the U.S., they mean Mexican immigrants. But Mexicans aren't the main immigrants to the U.S.

In 2000, about 50 percent of legal immigrants emigrated from the "Americas" (North, Central and South America and the Caribbean), according the Population Resource Center. Just half of these migrated from Mexico, less than from Asia (about 26 percent). Fifteen percent came from Europe.

Despite the right's rhetoric, immigrants play a critical, irreplaceable role in the U.S. economy. "If we didn't have those elements [immigrant workers], we would be moving into a situation like Japan and Europe...where the populations are graying in a way that is very alarming and endangering their productivity and endangering even their social security systems," Lewis Goodman, an American University expert on U.S.-Latin American relations, pointed out to the Associated Press last year.

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"Criminals sneak across the border"

The right wing says that undocumented immigrants are responsible for crime in the U.S. This is a charge that has been used against the foreign born throughout the history of the U.S.--and it's been a gross distortion in all cases.

First of all, it's a fact that immigrants contribute more to the U.S. economy than they take out. "The U.S. economy is expanding by a long-term average rate of 3.5 percent per year," according to a February 22, 2005, report in The Globalist. "More than one percentage point of this increase can be attributed to the increase in population through immigration."

On top of that, immigrants pay into the system with their contributions in taxes--while they rarely take advantage of government services and programs such as Social Security if they are undocumented.

Second, the reality is that the U.S. government opens its borders to big-time criminals on a regular basis.

In 2004, Jean Claude Duperval was arrested in Florida four years after a Haitian court convicted him for his role in a massacre in the town of Raboteau in 1994. When Duperval--who played a leading role in the 1991 coup against Aristide--applied for asylum in the U.S., he had the support of then-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Hugh Shelton. In a 1997 letter, Shelton praised Duperval and urged that his application for political asylum "be given every possible consideration."

Then there's Luis Posada Carriles. The infamous anti-Castro movement thug snuck into Florida last year.

But the Bush administration wasn't concerned about this "illegal immigrant"--since he was central to the CIA's decades-long war on Fidel Castro, starting with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and continuing with his role in the bombing of a Cuban commercial airliner that killed 73 people in 1976. In the 1980s, Posada worked with the paramilitary death squads in El Salvador against left-wing rebels. He spent the 1990s bombing Havana tourist spots.

Yes, there are criminals sneaking into the U.S. But they are war criminals and allies of the U.S. government. The ordinary people who come to the U.S. seeking a better life will be made into criminals--by new anti-immigrant legislation.

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