By Noah Martin
David Bacon, photojournalist, author, and immigration rights activist, spoke at George Mason yesterday as a part of the Fall for the Book program.
Bacon came to speak specifically about his new book Illegal People but addressed the larger issues of immigration rights today, the current credit crunch, the War On Terror, the immigration policy of both major party presidential candidates and the housing market collapse.
Bacon explained that there are currently more than 200 million people living outside their country of origin, approximately 5 percent of the world’s population. He emphasized the effect that North American Free Trade Agreement has had on people all over the world, not just the population movement between the U.S. and Mexico.
NAFTA was intended to create free movement of labor and goods across North American borders. When it came into effect, U.S. corporations able to cover overhead costs either moved their manufacturing out of the country or out-sourced to foreign contractors in order to take advantage of lower labor costs. Zero-sum logic and popular sentiment suggest that if people lost jobs in the U.S. then people in other countries gained an equivalent number of jobs. However, Bacon claimed, unemployment increased in both countries. When NAFTA came into effect, American workers lost jobs, primarily in the manufacturing sector, while Mexico also lost over a million jobs.
The Clinton Administration delivered a $20 billion bailout to Mexico. According to Bacon, the money was cycled through subsidiaries of large U.S. financial institutions in Mexico City and back into the U.S. market. Mexico’s oil revenues, which account for the largest percentage of Mexico’s gross national product, went to pay off the debt instead of towards Mexico’s social infrastructure – schools, hospitals, public housing, etc.
In addition to collecting oil revenues, said Bacon, Mexico was forced to cut subsidies on corn production. Because of subsidized agribusiness in the US, it became cheaper for people to buy imported corn from U.S. Farmers. Mexicans who could no longer make a living wage off of corn farming became dislocated workers. “That tells you something about the inequality of trade agreements,” Bacon said.
Bacon claimed that NAFTA has caused the displacement of peoples and the migration of over 6 million people to the U.S. “If you go to Mexico today, the saying goes, that not one family doesn’t have someone working in the United States,” said Bacon.
Undocumented, rather than illegal, is the term that Bacon prefers to describe migrant workers who come to the U.S. This preference, he claimed, is not a simple matter of semantics. 12 million people work in the United States without documentation. The relatively small group of people that would use the term “illegal” do it to demonize immigration into the U.S.
While undocumented simply connotes being unaccounted for, illegal connotes a difference in status and value as a human being. “Is that difference in status a benefit to people in this country?” Bacon asked.
He cited the civil rights movement as an example of the point he was trying to make. English speakers do not use the words “colored” or “negro” anymore. This is not simply because the language changed but because the civil rights movement challenged the social reality of citizens and caused a change in language as a result. Colored and negro could be used only as long as an oppressed voice was excluded from the social reality. But during and after the civil rights movement, terms used by members of the movement to describe themselves became part of the language spoken by citizens of the changed social reality.
“The important thing is to change the reality of the social situation in order to change the terms used to describe a difference in status,” Bacon said.
He continued his address by tracing the history of how certain races and nationalities were excluded from the social reality by not being recognized by the law. The trend he claimed, was that immigrants were recognized as workers but only as workers, not as human beings.
“Today, this same idea is being replicated. People are increasingly being charged with criminal violations for working or crossing the border in the United States,” Bacon said.
Formerly working without the proper documentation in the United States was a civil offense. Violators were required to leave and if they did not do so voluntarily, they were deported. Today, working without proper documentation is a criminal offense. When arrested, violators are taken to court and then ushered off to privatized federal prison where they serve as a free labor force.
The crime of misusing social security numbers associated with migrant workers is different than popularly presented, said Bacon. 12 million people work without immigration documents. People come here to work and need social security numbers. When they cannot obtain them through the proper channels, they make up, buy, or steal numbers. Social security puts money into a suspense fund if the number does not match up with worker using the number. The money from that suspense fund is used for the retirement plans and medical benefits of U.S. citizens. In other words, social security revenue generated by migrant workers actually benefits the retired generations of U.S. citizens, claimed Bacon.
Guest worker programs are a solution to the immigration swell proposed by many legislators claiming to be pro-immigration. Under these plans, employers would be allowed to recruit people and bring them to the United States. Under these programs however, workers cannot bring their families and are forced to leave if their job is terminated.
Walmart, Marriot Corporation, and other industries relying on immigrant labor have supported guest worker plans. The goal of these programs, said Bacon, is to convert the workforce into a controllable workforce in industries dependent on undocumented labor. Guest worker programs create a workforce tied to their employer without recourse to legal rights or political voice.
“Do we want immigration policy that recognizes people and their families or only people as workers,” Bacon asked.
Our focus, Bacon claimed, should be on the social status we want for people working in the United States. It determines the status of people when they are here, it does not dissuade or prevent people from coming here.
When asked how best to deal with a predatory system of immigration policy Bacon responded, “Face the reality, don’t debate immigration policy on the one hand and then pass free trade agreements. I like a diversity of people but immigration should be a voluntary process. First we need to deal with the status of migrant workers. They need to have a status. We have to make it possible for people to come here legally and not cross the desert. We have to figure out an immigration policy that will allow people to come back and forth [across the U.S.- Mexico border] without fear of reprisal. We have to protect the rights of people.”
To find out more about David Bacon, his work, or to obtain a copy of his book Illegal People, go to http://dbacon.igc.org.