The Edge of America

I just spent a few days in San Diego for my cousin’s wedding to a woman from Korea. My uncle, who originally brought his family to this area for a job doing construction along the border fence, gave a short speech tying together his ancestors’ arrival in the 17th century (including one on the actual Mayflower!) with the bride’s coming to learn English and seek “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It was her parents’ first visit to the US, and what a fascinating trip it must have been.

We stayed in the Hacienda Suites Best Western, right on the edge of Old Town, which is a state park that blends living history with tourist attractions, all predominantly staffed by Latinos. The staff at the hotel restaurant had nametags that stated their hometowns, and every single one of them was in Mexico. Not surprisingly, the issue of immigration came up once or twice.

I should make a disclaimer that I am a descendent of someone who snuck into the country. My great grandfather jumped ship in Seattle in order to avoid being drafted into the German navy. And then he had kids, and his kids had kids, and you know how it goes. My most recent direct descendant to immigrate was my grandmother, who moved from Germany to Reno as a child. My relatives by marriage include a Liberian and Korean, and I have a cousin who has effectively emigrated to Argentina, where he is raising a child.

I should also say that I know that America extends far beyond the United States, and the title of this entry is partly a reference to the mythical land of opportunity and partly a sarcastic poke at the whole idea of an international border being used to maintain such an intense difference of incomes.

My aunt and uncle live in a very small town about an hour inland, a few miles from the border. They have a major smuggling route on the hillside behind their house, and the Border Patrol is on their speed dial. Around sunset, we hiked up the hill a little ways, crossing several northbound trails until we got to a rock from which we could see the border fence. There are checkpoints on all the roads back toward San Diego, with bright lights and concrete barriers and sniffer dogs and paddy wagons. These are not border crossings; they are meant to catch people who walk in and get picked up by “coyotes” who drive them into the city. We were stopped on an Interstate Highway within the United States, where traffic was narrowed to one lane and then mostly waved past a stop sign by a guard. My dad, a middle aged gringo, was driving so we barely warranted a glance.

One evening, some of my teenage cousins and their friends got talking about the presence of illegal immigration in their lives. People hiding in the bushes, checkpoints and getting stopped by the Border Patrol are a regular part of their lives. They personally know people who have gotten mixed up in human trafficking, one of whom was caught driving someone in her trunk in exchange for $2000. They also tell an outlandish story about a friend’s sister’s babysitter’s friend’s cousin who went to Tijuana and came back dead, disemboweled, stuffed with drugs, and propped up in the car like she was asleep. It is a somewhat different reality than mine.

San Diego wasn’t always a frontier city. It has its origins as one of the central links of the Mission Trail, which was originally built by Spain to counter growing Russian influence on the Northwest coast of California. The missions extended to just north of San Francisco (while the Russkies made it to Fort Bragg, about 100 miles north), and are a very large part of the reason why so many city names in coastal California start with “San” or Santa.” My own hometown was a bit inland and not part of this system, but the name Sacramento belies its origins as a trading post, fort and administrative center for Mexico until the US seized control in 1850.

During Mexican rule, the governor once wrote a letter remarking on the flood of unsanctioned immigrants who were pouring over the Sierra Nevada in search of gold. He was concerned by this influx of people arriving with little education, no grasp of the language, and little more than the clothes on their backs; he also acknowledged that they were ambitious and hard workers. The language (although translated) precisely matches the modern sentiment of many Anglo Californians toward Latinos—even those descended from Spanish-era immigrants who lived here while my ancestors were still in Europe. I wish I could find the quote again, but it was in a respectable history of Sacramento so I believe that it was based on a real document. This flow eventually tipped the balance and so people who now worry that the Mexicans are taking over are not entirely without cause for concern.

The growing economic crisis has reportedly caused a significant decrease in the flow of all sorts of immigrants, but I suspect that this change will be matched or exceeded by a decrease in work available to all. It is not hard to see a growing nationalist backlash in which immigrants become the scapegoats for problems that are much deeper and more complex. It is quite a mess and getting messier.

Of course my cooperative problem-solving reflex kicks into action. It never fails.

One of the biggest problems within the larger Problem of immigration is a perception that immigrants are taking “our” jobs. Of course it is also important to keep in mind that we don’t want many of these jobs, and if we really want to live without immigrants, we’ll have to pick our own strawberries. It would mean a return to a time when the summer break from school was spent in the fields. Sorry kids.

There is also a lot of fear that immigrants are using up our scarce social services. Whatever is actually true about this, I think that some people would be less concerned if there were also examples of immigrants forming cooperative systems, particularly for healthcare and adult education.

Another big concern is that immigrants are driving down wages. I’m more inclined to blame the employers who actually make the decisions about how much to pay people, but nevertheless, decreasing wages are a problem. It would be very helpful to see immigrants develop cooperative businesses in which they set their own wage. These would hopefully be higher, but if not, then at least people can legitimately blame the immigrants for their low wages. Everyone wins!

We should also keep in mind that much of what immigrants earn here is sent back home. The flow of these “remittances” is absolutely enormous. Mexico pulled in $24 billion last year, most of which presumably came from the U.S. The more that immigrants make, the more that they have to send out of the country, and I suppose that adds some strength to the argument that we need less immigration, although I personally view this as part of the solution to the world’s wealth imbalance, which is a natural reaction to the way that colonialism drew wealth towards the U.S.

In any case, remittances lead to stronger economies in other parts of the world, which leads to more purchasing power for them to buy exports from us as well as generally less desperation and suffering and pressure to migrate here. Everyone wins again!

So what does this mean for gringos? What can people who don’t identify as immigrants do to help with this issue besides lobby government to be either more restrictive or more compassionate, depending on our political biases?  Whatever we want to do with those who have already arrived, I think that everyone should be able to agree that it would be useful to diminish the number of people who are pressed to migrate here out of economic desperation.

And so, it would behoove all of us to find ways to support economic development in other countries, and especially Mexico. Here are some examples:

Just Coffee, or Café Justo, is a cooperative that provides its members with an income far above what is usually possible for small independent farmers in the Mexican state of Chiapas—their share of the retail price has increased more than tenfold. Working together, they were able to open their own roasting and packing plant just south of the U.S. border. The raw beans are shipped to this facility at the far end of Mexico, which is operated by relatives of the members. From there, the finished product is shipped over the border and distributed. Most sales are through churches in southern Arizona.

The $20,000 loan to start Café Justo came from Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian border ministry. This investment has made a huge difference in the lives of members, and can be regarded as a positive and humane and positive way to discourage immigration. Members have better economic stability and feel less pressure to leave their homes and families in order to look for work in the United States. Their families have health insurance, and their home community in Chiapas has safe drinking water. People with health insurance and clean water are a lot less likely to wind up trying to get to San Diego in the trunk of some teenager’s car.

A bigger example is Oikocredit, which provides opportunities for socially responsible investing, giving a modest return on investment. Because its mission is to support the world’s poor, all member organizations have equal power; equal power is held by wealthy investors from the global north and by small investors from one of the nations in which loans are extended.

Oikocredit now has a total capital fund of nearly 300 million Euros, invested by hundreds of churches, dozens of banks, and support organizations with a collective membership of 27,000 individual investors. Over their three decades in operation, Oikocredit has enjoyed a default rate below 10%, which shows that the program is indeed providing financial stability for recipients. Again, business owners don’t generally sneak across borders looking for jobs.

The immigration issue is a thorny one, and I hope that rather than trying to address its symptoms—an approach that tends to deepen divisions—we can focus on the root causes for which more constructive solutions are possible.


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1 Response to The Edge of America

  1. I wonder how much they have seen through their eyes. It must be really fantastic.

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