Writer takes aim at U.S. immigration policy

Something critical gets lost amid all the hysteria and bluster that passes for immigration policy debate in the U.S., according to prominent labor photojournalist David Bacon. That something, he said in a lecture April 12 in St. Paul, is this: “We’re talking about human beings.”

If politicians really wanted to reform U.S. immigration policy, Bacon said, they wouldn’t ignore the motives that drive thousands of people to leave their homes and families, risk imprisonment and migrate to the U.S. every day.

“In a time of hysteria,” Bacon said, “I think it’s important to show and look at and talk about the migration process as it really is.”

Bacon’s speech at Macalester College, “Illegal People,” kicked off the 2012 Untold Stories Labor History Series, a presentation of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library co-sponsored by the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. The series of lectures, book readings, panel discussions and other events continues through this month. (For a list of events, go to www.thefriends.org.)

Bacon based his speech on his most recent book, “Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.” The book, published by Beacon Press, documents the failures of U.S. immigration policy, using a mix of reporting, photography and gripping first-person accounts from workers who have migrated to the U.S.

“People’s stories tell us there are large economic forces unleashed by trade agreements or immigration laws, affecting real people’s lives,” Bacon said. “Our trade policies and immigration policies are inextricably bound up with each other.”

That is a major premise of Bacon’s book, that U.S. immigration and trade policies aren’t broken – at least not from the perspective of U.S. employers. Rather, they are working hand in hand to exploit workers and benefit the wealthiest 1 percent.

Bacon pulled no punches, taking direct aim at President Obama’s “get tough” stance on immigration. The Obama administration has furthered militarization of the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and it has ramped up workplace immigration raids, resulting in about 400,000 deportations in each of the last two years.

What’s worse, in recent years immigration raids have become another tool in the toolbox for employers looking to scare off union-organizing drives.

“The fact is most of the employers who get audited these days are union employers,” Bacon said. “ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is punishing workers who make too much or who organize unions. And employers get rewarded for dropping the dime on their own workforce by getting immunity from prosecution.”

The bottom line is that nothing the U.S. government – or state governments like Arizona, which passed its own immigration-enforcement law – is currently doing has worked to slow the migration of workers into the country. “Raids don’t keep people from crossing the border,” Bacon said. “They don’t stop people from working either.”

And that’s just fine with U.S. employers, who have become dependent on exploiting the mobile workforce, forced to operate in the shadows of the economy, that U.S. trade and immigration policies have created.

“To employers, the migration system is not broken. It works really well,” Bacon said.

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