As the U.S. Senate begins the process of considering its immigration reform bill, S 744 (The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013), and as the House of Representatives drafts multiple proposals, one of the dimensions that is likely to generate more heat than light is that of the management of future immigration flows.

Politicians, mostly Republican, who oppose any legalization of undocumented immigrants claim that to do so would open the floodgates to masses of new undocumented immigrants who would hoping for another legalization program in the future. Others insist that anybody here without papers who wants to be legalized go to “the back of the line” and wait their turn until all current applications for immigration visas have been attended to. Yet others say that immigration is good for the United States but that we have to tailor visa policy to specific needs of the economy (in other words labor demands of the corporations).

So S 744 proposes eliminating the Diversity Visa Program, reducing the scope of visas for family members of U.S. citizens by eliminating the eligibility for family based visas of brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and of sons and daughters 31 years old or older, and adding merit-based visas. The latter would be allocated on the basis of characteristics of the applicant deemed desirable, such as “educational degrees, employment experience, the needs of U.S. employers, and age.”

To some extent, this would be balanced by measures to reduce the backlog of family-based visa applications.

However, strong objections, especially by African-American leaders and organizations, have been raised to eliminating the Diversity Visa Program. They point out that this program, which distributes 55,000 Permanent Legal Resident Visas per year by means of a lottery that is adjusted yearly to allow more visas for countries which have had fewer immigrants in the past, is one of the only ways that Africans can immigrate legally to the United States.

Besides trying to regulate the flow of new documented immigrants in this way, S 744 increases repressive mechanisms at the border and within the country. The former is by demanding that before legalization can be offered to the current undocumented population, estimated at about 11 million people, certain goals have to be achieved in terms of shutting down undocumented immigration across the southern U.S.-Mexico border.

Also, all employers would, after the passage of four years, have to use the EEVS or E-Verify to check up on the authenticity of the Social Security numbers presented by their employees. E-Verify is a government data base that employers can access. The worry is that people excluded from jobs that way will be forced to seek even worse jobs with under-the table payment arrangements, and also that errors in the government data base may harm the job prospects of people who are, in fact, legally authorized to work.

All of this has an air of unreality about it, when looked at in the context of the global dynamics that are driving undocumented labor migration today.

Profit-driven globalization, spearheaded by major transnational corporations and by the governments of the wealthy capitalist countries (including, but not only, that of the United States) has had an impact of eliminating the sources of livelihood of millions of poor farmers and workers worldwide. The often-cited North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is only one of the many international treaties and institutions under the aegis of which subsistence farming in poor countries has been replaced by highly mechanized agribusiness operations which are run by transnational corporations and which drive millions of peasants off their land. Other kinds of jobs are eliminated also, as national industries in poorer countries cannot compete with major transnationals. When poor countries are forced to hat in hand to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to get loans and development aid, the price is often austerity which involves laying off government employees, and rigged “free” trade which wipes out local industries. All of these things create unemployment and also push incomes down to the level that families can no longer feed themselves. Though many categories of people are thus negatively affected, typically those who hit the migrant trail are farmers and workers with little formal education, for whom obtaining legal immigration visas is very difficult.

There is another, increasingly important dimension, which is personal security. Economic crises combine in some countries with a violent crime crisis, causing people to flee to protect their families from violence. This is especially true in Central America right now. And Central America is where an increasing number of undocumented immigrants originate, especially the countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Part of the reason is the massive drug trade controlled by Mexican cartels who have operations in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In Guatemala and Honduras, corrupt right wing governments have contributed to the insecurity crisis through their history of repression. In Honduras particularly, which now has the highest murder rate in the hemisphere, the security crisis has ballooned since the June 2009 overthrow of progressive President Manuel Zelaya. So thousands of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans risk their necks by climbing up on top of the cars of “la bestia” (the beast), the freight train that carries them from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the staging area for people trying to cross over into the United States.

The riders on “la bestia” are frequently assaulted, raped, and robbed by criminal gangs, as well as being harassed by Mexican police. Thousands of them simply have disappeared at the hands of the narco cartels. Others are kidnapped on the way North and held until their relatives in the U.S. pay ransom money. But still they come.

These are the realities which push undocumented immigration to the United States. If people can’t come across the Southern border, as long as these conditions exist, they will come down through Canada or as increasingly the case, by sea, to the Gulf or West coasts of the United States.

These things are difficult if not impossible for most of our politicians to recognize, because they call into question the whole basis of U.S. trade and foreign policy. But that is precisely what must be questioned.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.