Undocumented workers are no longer invisible. Taking to the streets in March and April to protest punitive immigration controls being pushed by US Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), millions who had previously toiled in obscurity are now escaping the shadows to demand respect and a place at America's table.
The walkouts came in response to legislation sponsored by Sensenbrenner that would build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border and turn undocumented immigrants into felons, subject them to immediate deportation and bar them permanently from gaining legal status. The bill also would make it a criminal act to give aid to any undocumented worker.
Its supporters claim that sealing the borders will safeguard Americans and improve both physical security and the job security of low-income Americans. While there are legitimate concerns about the impact that illegal immigration has on low-income workers and on the cost of services, the real foundation for the Sensenbrenner bill and efforts by the close-the-border crowd is xenophobia.
"There is no immigrant crisis -- other than the one created by a small but vocal stripe of opportunist politicians, media demagogues and freelance xenophobes," the columnist Robert Scheer wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in March. "So it has been throughout the history of this country when anti-immigrant hysteria periodically reigns during low ebbs in our national sense of security and vision."
The current immigration debate is no different. Sensenbrenner and its jingoist allies are playing "to the national security and economic fears of ordinary Americans," Robert Kuttner wrote in the Boston Globe. In an atmosphere of anxiety over terrorism and concern about wages, the legislation would seem to have a ready audience.
But the Sensenbrenner bill will do little to address those concerns or make for a saner immigration policy. The legislation targets the Mexican border, though it wasn't Mexican immigrants who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. And while "wide-open immigration slightly depresses wages, especially among unskilled workers," Kuttner wrote, stanching the flow of immigrants will do little to stir up the stagnant waters.
That's because illegal immigration is only a small part of a larger and more complicated web of problems, among them an absurdly low minimum wage and lax labor-law enforcement, a broken health-care system, and a slavish adherence to the profit motive that causes employers to seek out the cheapest workers, wherever they are and wherever they come from.
"[I]n the current debate we should be discussing not only how to treat people when they get to the border but what makes them come -- growing inequality between North and South, the need to escape poverty and the hope that success will make it possible to send money home," The Nation wrote in an April editorial.
It is a sentiment echoed by the author Paul Rogat Loeb.
"[F]looding this or any country with cheap labor can and will drive down wages, especially when unions are being busted and undocumented workers live in fear of deportation," Loeb wrote in April on the Common Dreams News Center (www.commondreams.org). "If we don't create enough global justice so desperate people don't continue leaving their homes in search of a glimmer of hope, then all but the wealthiest will succumb to the worldwide race to the bottom."
In the meantime, however, we must find a way to deal with the estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented workers currently living in the United States, and that means taking them -- and their demands -- seriously.
The new "mass movement," The Nation wrote, will (and it emphasized will) transform American politics. "[W]hether it takes two years or ten, this movement, bolstered by its growing social and electoral clout, will have its demands addressed: family reunification; a solution to the visa backlog, now at 6.2 million and counting; and the coveted 'path to citizenship' that allows immigrant workers to build lives with a future."
And make no mistake, most of the people who have come here want to stay here. There is just no other way to read the signs and banners declaring, "We Are America" and "Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote."
Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press, weekly newspapers in central New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.