In the 2004 movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” decades of global warming are telescoped into a few days, and the world is suddenly beset by catastrophic weather, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and the onset of a modern ice age that makes much of North America unfit for habitation. In desperation, U.S. citizens flee south; the movie depicts them wading across an unrealistically narrow and shallow movie-version of the Rio Grande River to the safety of Mexico.
This scene evoked a hilarious, ironic laugh from the audience when I saw it in a theater here in South Texas. The badly named “wetback” has occupied one of the lower rungs of our cultural ladder for decades, and it was an amusing pleasure to be reminded that, if the tables were turned, no one is above sneaking across a border if a better life can be found on the other side.
This is something to keep in mind when we think about the current immigration “crisis.” There’s no reason to believe that the people who cross the southern border illegally are criminals or welfare cheats in any greater proportions than you would find among any other population subset. In fact, one of the reasons they attempt the dangerous and expensive journey north is because they’re motivated people who are willing to work hard for modest wages to support the families that they’ve had to leave behind. For the most part, these are good, respectable people, not criminals.
Furthermore, if we were honest, we’d acknowledge that they’re participants in a symbiotic relationship that’s actually functioned fairly well for both sides. For decades, Mexicans have crossed the border and performed hard work that U.S. citizens were unwilling or unable to do at such low wages. This relationship has provided U.S. businesses with a welcome supply of diligent, inexpensive labor to staff restaurants and construction crews. And the rich have had access to reliable housekeepers and gardeners.
It’s not a perfect system because at its core it’s exploitative. Illegal immigrants die too frequently in the deserts along the border, and once they start to work here they often live in squalid conditions and are vulnerable to cheating by unscrupulous employers. Furthermore, across Mexico the social fabric of small towns and villages has been undermined because most of the able-bodied workers have gone to el norte.
Nevertheless, this relationship has worked to the mutual advantage of both sides. U.S. businesses have profited from it for years and so do the rest of us, every time we stay in a motel room that’s been cleaned at a relatively low wage by an illegal immigrant.
After NAFTA, U.S. firms moved factories across the border to take advantage of inexpensive labor. Isn’t it just as logical to allow labor to move north easily to perform jobs that can’t be exported? This is merely globalization writ small. If it costs us something to educate some of their children or treat them in emergency rooms occasionally, that expense has to be balanced against the support that illegal immigration has provided for our economy over the years.
Considering the immigration “crisis” against this backdrop may help us temper some of our rhetorical excesses; we’re not facing an invasion of brown hordes sweeping across the border and our economy isn’t on the point of collapsing under its weight. There are problems, of course, but the solution isn’t to create a fenced and militarized border between ourselves and Mexico. The Mexicans deserve better.
Immigration is the crisis of the moment. The cynical might suggest that the current focus on it is meant to distract us from bigger crises like Iraq or global warming. But let’s temper our response and avoid political, pre-election measures like fences and troops that could permanently damage relations with a valuable neighbor.
Instead, let’s think of the situation in economic terms. The supply of labor from the south is vast, but it isn’t inexhaustible, and neither are the jobs that are available in the United States. Let’s let supply-and-demand find the natural level between the two, and implement processes that allow this to happen in a humane and systematic manner. What could be more American?
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)