There are two ways of getting home and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place. – G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
The daily crossings from Mexico into the United States are treacherous and sometimes deadly journeys. Ask Mark and Louise Zwick who run Casa Juan Diego in Houston, Texas, a house of hospitality serving immigrants, refugees, and the poor. They receive calls everyday to pick up starving and wounded people who have crossed the border illegally. Some require medical assistance, others are pregnant, and all are in need of a warm bed, sleep, and a plate of hot food. Despite the apparent hopelessness of wandering through the off roads in the dead of night and fear over physical harm from nighttime predators or nearby criminals, they still come to the United States, often leaving wives and husbands, little children, and other loved ones behind.
Mass immigration isn’t new to the United States. During the 19th and 20th centuries it wasn’t an American phenomenon either, with immigrants from Europe settling also in Canada and across Latin America. Additionally, Irish immigration in Spain, ripe since the 17th century, strengthened the historic relationship between these two nations. The name Obregón, a fanciful Spanish twist to the name O’Brien (Irish, Ó Briain), is a living relic from the ancestors of the Emerald Isle.
Throughout the world and regardless of nation, immigrants–legal or not–have been viewed with suspicion, feared to carry diseases, and even thought to conspire insurrection. Along with racial bias and ethnic prejudice, immigrants endured religious bigotry.
In 1774, John Adams wrote the following about Catholics:
…the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood; their Pater Nosters and Ave Marias; their holy water; their crossing themselves perpetually; their bowing to the name of Jesus, whenever they hear it; their bowing, kneeling and genuflections before the altar.
Furthermore, among the sheep there will be wolves. As criminal activity rises, the prison population grows and taxpayers find themselves footing the bills. However, leading experts seem to agree that the link between immigration and higher crime incidence is weak. This is not to say crime perpetuated by immigrants isn’t troubling. But the fact remains that studies are generally unreliable and mixed with political motivations, making a reasoned, public response, complex. The Left’s lighthearted, unblemished caricatures perpetuating “victimless” crimes or the Right’s demonization of our southern neighbors as criminal escalators, both fail to capture the stark reality that human beings, regardless of legal status, shocking as it may be, sometimes engage in criminal behavior and sometimes are law-abiding.
Instead of starting in the middle of the conversation, perhaps we should begin a discussion of illegal immigration by examining why people choose to risk life and limb to cross the border in the first place.
For some time, Argentina was a model of cooperation between big government and big business. The government’s privatization of public utilities, financial deregulation and monetary policy, its elimination of tariffs (which flooded trade deficits as domestic producers were uncompetitive with foreign products), and the forty percent loss of wage purchasing power slowly sunk this South American country. Unable to stay afloat, local businesses were wiped out on a massive scale by big business. Millions were left unemployed, homeless, and starving. Bank accounts were frozen. Flocks hit the streets in protest, banging their saucepans against a public/private partnership infatuated with the endless growth of debt, the empowerment of multinational corporations, and the pillage of the Argentinean people.
The year is 2000. The country is Bolivia. Recession-driven deficit and out-of-control debt led the Bolivian government, under pressure by the International Monetary Fund, to adopt market prescriptions in compliance with further loan conditions laid out by the World Bank. These included unfettered trade and regressive taxation policies, as well as privatization of utilities: rail, airlines, oil refineries…and water. In 1999, Bechtel, a U.S.-based firm, signed a contract to run waterworks. Rates went up by 50 percent with families charged one-quarter of their income for water. Even rainwater became a commodity, and stiff fines were applied for collecting what naturally descends from the earth. Unpaid bills led to corporate seizures and possession of debtors’ homes. Parents had to choose between water and medical care for their children. Government repaid the public trust by protecting the interests of multinationals, even declaring martial law amid protests, which resulted in hundreds injured.
The results of privatization were even more disastrous. The railroads went under. The energy industry generated $100 million less in tax revenue than it had under public control, and slashes to social services only deepened Bolivian despair.
In Paraguay, 2% of the population owns the land in a nation of farmers. Albeit some significant differences, mass depopulation of rural lands date back to England’s sixteenth-century enclosures, with farmers forced to give up agriculture and look for work elsewhere. A nation under the dictatorship of agribusiness, Paraguay is home to genetically modified agricultural companies like Cargill and Monsanto, where the exodus from rural lands is caused by the shift of arable land to the dedication of genetically modified soy, and the flight from toxic pesticides that have killed livestock and produced birth deformities among rural families with no access to health care. Paraguay is a leading example of the Hudge and Gudge marriage.
Finally, we must examine whether our nation’s policies have contributed to the social and economic burdens undocumented workers place on the American people, and if the man on the street in Santa Fe, Argentina is no less vulnerable than the man on the street in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our politicians continuously support public policies that are neither good for the worker here nor abroad. Their rhetorical defense of our national sovereignty while flexing our political muscle to undermine theirs is usually laced with talk of Free Trade agreements brokered at the behest of the private sector. Policies such as these, policies both Republicans and Democrats were for until they were against, are dead ends for American jobs and overseas economic activity.
With this knowledge, an appeal to the American people, who also suffer under the boot of Hudge and Gudge, seems the only solution. If we can remember our own immigrant experience or see the global reach of Hudge and Gudge, we can join in solidarity with these refugees. If we do not, and what happened to them happens to us, we may find ourselves walking the whole world till we get back to the same place. In the interim, wherever we go, I hope there is a Casa Juan Diego.