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Chicago In These Times

As a national publication based in Chicago, In These Times often provides better coverage of the local scene than its rivals – but this week’s issue seems particularly noteworthy on that account.

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The Human Face of the Immigration Debate

Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-U.S. Immigration in the Global Age

by Kari Lydersen
Common Courage Press, 277 pages

The debate over immigration is one of the most vexing in America today. Opinion polls show large numbers supporting increased levels of legal immigration, along with growing numbers supporting greater restrictions.

As for immigrants who lack legal documents, many people believe they drain the nation’s resources; many others think they help build our economy by taking jobs that no one else wants. They’re either destroying our culture, or deepening rich strains that go back centuries. And there’s a major split between President Bush, who proposes legalizing many undocumented workers with a guest worker program, and his conservative base, which wants to expel the undocumented and “seal the border.”

The core assumption in the debate is that illegal immigrants are lured by visions of “the good life” in the U.S. That may not be the best way to understand it. In her new book, Kari Lydersen offers an alternative view by looking at the issue in the larger context of globalization.

“Contrary to popular opinion, most immigrants aren’t starry-eyed over making it in the land of Niketown and Baywatch; most don’t want to leave their homeland, but they have no choice,” Lydersen writes. And she talks to numerous immigrants who echo that view.

“Do you think we come because we want to?” asks a day laborer in Chicago. “We come here because we have to, to make a living.”

Lydersen focuses on “free trade” policies which have undermined traditional peasant economies throughout Latin America — especially the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, which flooded Mexico with cheap agricultural imports and drove an estimated 5 million Mexican farmers out of business. The recent approval of the Central America Free Trade Agreement will increase this displacement.

Immigration to the U.S. is just one aspect of the hemisphere-wide dislocation caused by free trade. Migrants from South and Central America are moving to Mexico, and farmers throughout the region are moving to cities and finding grueling, low-wage work at maquilas, foreign-owned factories in tax-free zones, like the large area just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Recent numbers support this analysis. Illegal immigration from Mexico doubled in the 1990s, during the economic boom here, but it has continued to climb during the subsequent slowdown. Perhaps the push is indeed a stronger factor than the pull.

The great strength of Lydersen’s book is its close focus on the vivid stories of individuals caught in the tides of larger economic and social forces — including their efforts to stand up to those forces.

She visits with fishermen on Mexico’s Pacific coast who have been displaced by pollution from a new oil refinery. They’re trying to stop a government plan to transform the landscape of delicate rainforest and idyllic coastline with a superhighway to be lined by shrimp farms, eucalyptus plantations, and foreign-owned resorts. We meet members of indigenous communities in Chiapas and in Honduras who are also fighting displacement by foreign-driven, government-backed development.

In Bolivia, we learn of massive struggles against natural gas exports and water privatization which shook the government — and we see them through the eyes of street children and the young activists who are working with them in grassroots theater groups.

We travel to the U.S.-Mexico border and meet workers who are sick and dying as a result of working with toxins and carcinogens, in areas with skyrocketing rates of birth defects. Hundreds of thousands, mostly women, work in over 3,000 maquilas south of the border, which take advantage of low wages and lax environmental and health regulation. We also meet women activists fighting “gross misconduct and neglect” by police investigating the disappearances of women workers in border factories.

On our side of the border, Lydersen accompanies vigilantes out “hunting illegals” — and she travels with religious activists maintaining water tanks in an area where hundreds of immigrants die of thirst and exposure each year.

And we meet the immigrants who are transforming society in the U.S. In Omaha, Nebraska, the Latino population almost tripled during the 1990s, with many newcomers working at the city’s three slaughterhouses. In Beardstown, Illinois, a town of 12,000 which is now nearly one-quarter Latino, immigrants work in a slaughterhouse and “whole sections of town look just like pueblos in Mexico.” Throughout the Midwest, the automation of agriculture and food-processing has meant that mechanized jobs are done by Anglos and the remaining nonmechanized work — “the hardest of the hard jobs” involving long hours of intense physical labor — is largely done by immigrants.

We meet courageous young migrant farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, who have shut down a number of slavery rings and won a nationwide campaign to get better pay from Taco Bell’s tomato growers.

In Chicago, day laborers in Albany Park are trying to create a workers center where they can organize to improve wages and working conditions, and even conduct trainings on immigration and labor law. In the meantime they congregate in a parking lot where contractors come to find them. (Their efforts finally bore fruit in December 2004, when the Albany Park Workers Center was inaugurated.)

They tell of harrowing journeys from the U.S.-Mexico border, and they talk about how much they miss their homes, their parents, wives and children. Immigration policy changes since 9/11 have made it too risky for many to return home. The militarization of the border with Mexico as part of the war on terror is misguided, Lydersen argues, since as far as potential terrorists are concerned, our northern border is twice as long and far more porous.

A Chicago-based journalist who writes for the Washington Post and other publications including In These Times and the Reader, Lydersen includes profiles of several immigrant activists in Chicago. Jose Oliva arrived here when his activist parents fled threats by paramilitary groups in Guatemala; now he helps organize day laborers in Albany Park. Political artist Alexy Lanza relates his hair-raising adventures — jail, deportation, robbery, surviving on the hospitality of indigenous communities in the mountains of Guatemala and Mexico — after he fled death threats which resulted from his union activism in a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Honduras.

Neris Gonzalez was abducted and tortured for her work promoting nutrition and environmentalism with a church group in El Salvador in 1979; over twenty years later she and two others won a groundbreaking court case holding two Salvadoran generals (themselves refugees in Florida) accountable for human rights violations.

Of life in a Latin American community in Chicago, Gonzalez says: “Here I saw the same problems as in my country — kids in gangs, drugs, homeless people sleeping in the streets, domestic violence, alcoholism. It was just like I was in a barrio in my home country.” She founded Ecovida here, continuing the work she started in El Salvador, promoting neighborhood-based organic farming and nutrition and working with hundreds of local youth.

What’s remarkable in these stories is the tenacity, the relentless hope of people who refuse to be victims. By getting to know some of these individuals, we may be less inclined to treat them as an abstract threat to our way of life, and more able to recognize what they have to offer. And by viewing their odysseys in the context of global economic forces, we may be less tempted by simplistic solutions.

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