As the son of poor Mexican immigrants, I'm skeptical about comprehensive immigration reform aimed at helping undocumented workers in this xenophobic climate.
While both Republicans and Democrats speak about America's dysfunctional immigration policies and the desperate need for immigration reform, the primary consensus between both political parties focuses on the need for tougher enforcement. The focus here is to criminalize undocumented immigrants, deporting them and preventing future low-wage immigrants from entering this country.
Where's the humane discourse in this political debate? Are we not talking about human beings with ambitions and dreams to better themselves and their families? Are we not talking about vulnerable individuals who sacrifice so much with their bodies and labor power so that Americans can live more comfortable lives?
Instead of having a civil conversation based on justice, dignity and respect, too many elected officials and Americans talk about immigrants like extraterrestrial invaders who come to this country to threaten the so-called American way of life.
This anti-immigrant hysteria usually escalates in times of economic and political crisis, when some Americans seek out scapegoats.
During the Great Depression, the U.S. government engaged in a vicious campaign to deport Mexican immigrants. In 1954, the anti-immigrant agenda reached a climax with "Operation Wetback," when the government deported hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants, including U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.
While mass deportations of this scale remains part of America's dark past, anti-immigrant campaigns continue to the present. Throughout the country, we see federal, state and local authorities, as in the case of Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, violate the human rights of immigrants on a routine basis.
Operating under the false assumption that undocumented immigrants represent lawbreakers who should be treated like common criminals, elected officials and many Americans conveniently ignore one simple fact: America's dependency on low-wage immigrant workers.
Like drug addicts, Americans are hooked on cheap immigrant labor from Mexico and beyond. Immigrants, for instance, play a major role in almost all aspects of America's economy. This includes agriculture, manufacturing, food processing, textiles, construction, retail, restaurants, electronics, tourism and domestic household industries.
It's this contradiction that needs to be considered while Democrats and Republicans ponder comprehensive immigration reform. While it's easy to blame the supply side of this equation, elected officials also need to consider the demand side.
In other words, immigrants are here because there's a demand for their labor, where both employers and consumers benefit in the forms of cheap labor and low-cost goods and services.
Immigrants are also active entrepreneurs. By starting ethnic businesses, immigrants hire workers and provide low-cost goods and services for local economies. This not only includes Koreans, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, but also Salvadorans, Cubans and Mexicans in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Miami and New York.
It's a shame that Americans have taken the low road in a highly globalized economy, where markets have become more open, interconnected and fluid. If the United States can have free trade agreements with Canada and Mexico, such as NAFTA, along with other Latin American countries, why not take the same approach with labor?
Unfortunately, members of both parties continue to cling to creating a temporary guest worker program, an archaic proposal that doesn't position our economy for the future.
We don't need more programs aimed solely at benefiting American interests at the cost of the less fortunate. For instance, during the mid-20th century, the U.S.-supported guest worker program, the Bracero Program, recruited more than 4 million Mexican immigrants – including my father, several uncles and grandfather – to meet the major labor shortage in the agricultural sector.
Instead of being appreciated for their labor and efforts, these hard-working men faced racism, exploitation and humiliation. Not only did they work long hours and live overcrowded housing facilities, they were also treated like livestock. For example, upon reregistering for the program in Mexico, these proud men were forced to strip naked without any privacy and sprayed with chemicals prior to entering the United States.
Now that the Democrats recently introduced a new immigration bill, spearheaded by Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, we see the same language of heavy enforcement and a proposal for a temporary guest worker program.
The bill includes a potential pathway for citizenship for some of the 12 million undocumented individuals in this country, but even this is not guaranteed. As with the case of the health care reform bill, there is a potential for mischief at the last moment. What guarantees do immigrants have that, at the last minute, a Blue Dog Democrat won't remove the most promising aspect of this latest immigration bill?
Thus, while the current immigration system may be dysfunctional, the odds of a more punitive immigration system remain high in the current environment. That will not change until more Americans make a break from their xenophobic roots.
By Alvaro Huerta, PhD student in the Department of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley and visiting scholar at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA. Originally published in The Sacramento Bee.
Credits: Picture of Salomon and Carmen Huerta in Morelia, Mexico, circa 1954, provided by Alvaro Huerta.