Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Bunch of Misguided Souls

Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken a principled stand in favor of the "Minutemen," a patriotic organization sworn to protect America from those dusky-hued fiends who are - at this very moment! - plotting to work for the low wages offered illegally by American agribusiness and suburban homeowners:

"It's no different than if you have a neighborhood watch person there that's watching your children at the playground. I don't see it any different....(The) key to the whole thing that we have no violations, and we have no one carrying guns, and no one is harassing people," he said. "But they notify the border patrol if they miss somebody -- end of story."
Interestingly enough, these are pretty much the same words Tom DeLay used when asked on April 14 about the Minutemen:
It's no different than neighborhood-watch programs and I appreciate them doing it, as long as they can do it safely and don't get involved and do it the way they seem to be doing it, and that's just identifying people for the Border Patrol to come pick up.
Great minds think alike! Unfortunately, an article from the Brownsville Herald, dated September 18, suggests that they also think inaccurately:
"The group has been infiltrated by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and slightly unstable gun types," said Heidi Beirich, the deputy director for the SPLC.
You can't really trust the SPLC, of course...they're partisan. However, these charges are echoed by actual members of the Minutemen:
Janet Ahrens was one of the original Minuteman organizers in Goliad, a chapter that dissolved earlier this week. Her letter is rife with criticism of the group's leadership, truthfulness, regulations, sexism, racism and intentions.

"This operation has been based on deceit," Ahrens wrote. "I find it deceitful for such an important cause (to) cast the shadow of racism." She called the group "just a bunch of misguided souls" who want to "shoot the taco meat."
I must say, most of the political outrage over illegal immigration seems to me to be spun from the finest, frailest gossamer. In my neighborhood, virtually every house sported one or more pro-Bush banners in the weeks prior to the election. And virtually all of these households hire illegal immigrants on a weekly or even daily basis. Even in cases where they hire white contractors, much of the actual work tends to be done by Mexicans and Central Americans.

To be fair, I personally know contractors who pay skilled illegal workers the fair market value for their work (which is between $30 and $50 per hour, in this area). But this is much more the exception than the rule.

The American economy doesn't just like cheap, disempowered, non-organized labor...it literally relies on it. The political noises to the contrary are, in most cases, a cynical recognition that this is an issue to which lip service must be paid. As with abortion, GOP politicians must promise much, and deliver as little as possible, while pretending that liberals are tying their hands.

It seems to me that the only consistent libertarian or free market position would be to view immigration controls as a non-tariff barrier to trade. Services are clearly tradeable goods, and regulating trade - to say nothing of the freedom to enter into contracts - is supposed to be an inherent evil.

If the brutal sweatshop conditions in Saipan aren't a moral issue for global capital's fearless advocates, than I don't see why illegal immigration in the United States should be. If we're to sacrifice all our ideals to the bottom line, with the understanding that what's good for business is good for America, then it's clear that illegal immigration - which fulfills the capitalist wish-list of low wages, limited human rights, and little or no regulation - is an inestimable boon to our nation. The fact that the blame for any negative effects of this system can be deflected away from the businesses and politicians who profit from it, and onto the immigrants themselves, is the cherry on top.

The protectionist arguments that illegal immigration depresses wages, increases healthcare costs, and enables terrorism are all true, to varying extents. But many other corporatist policies depress wages, and increase healthcare costs and the risk of terrorism without exciting complaint from the anti-immigration crowd. This makes one suspect that the latter group is driven less by patriotic concern than by garden-variety xenophobia and scapegoating.

At any rate, our reliance on illegal immigrant labor is simply another example of our preference for short-term profits over long-term sustainability. The people who are getting most upset about it may want to rethink some of their pet theories and political affiliations.

11 comments:

albion said...

the roots of the minutemen:

http://www.freedomsite.org/pics/duke6.jpg

that's david duke, btw.

Steven Lagavulin said...

But why do the Minutemen have to be cast in a "racial" light at all? Is is possible they might have aims that have nothing to do with xenophobia?

I mean, let's assume we know nothing whatever about their feelings for other-than-Americans.... What we might say for sure is that they're a citizens group volutarily helping a Federal agency (Border Patrol) which has itself repeatedly voiced concerns since 9/11 that they are receiving no extra funding, and that in fact are having their hands tied repeatedly in doing their nominal duties.

The Mexican border leaks like a sieve. Now I'll grant that maybe that's how things should be in a fair and equitable world, but regardless, we live in a world of laws, and the policies for enforcing those borders fall to the Federal Government. And yet the government not only does not effectively honor those policies, they actively impede them.

So I think it's possible to view this Minutemen group as the emergence of a true citizen's government. They're not taking the law into their own hands (since they are not breaking any laws), but they ARE assuming duties of self-government in the face of one that is failing in those duties.

And whether this act is controversial or not, to me it is echoed exactly by what we discovered in the wake of Katrina: that for all the talk of "National Security" and the resulting deprivation of individual rights, this U.S. administration has done nothing whatsoever to either make America more secure or to prepare for catastrophe (as a perceptive blogger remarked, "if FEMA wasn't prepared for a hurricane traveling at 15 mph over the course of 4 days, how could we think that they had ever made a plan to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?). Maybe you and I know that "terrorism" is all a smoke-and-mirrors circus for the masses who think with their emotions, but a lot of people genuinely fear that some of those estimated 4000/day illegal border-crossers might actually have a vial of super-scabies on them.... And therefore, they might be willing to trade cheap homebuilding labor and housekeeping for the safety of their family.

I just present this as an alternative viewpoint. I really have no idea what their motives are, myself. Plus, I don't really believe borders matter anymore, anyhow...

(BTW, great weblog!)

Phila said...

Steven,

Thanks for the comment! I'll try to get to at least a couple of your points.

But why do the Minutemen have to be cast in a "racial" light at all? Is is possible they might have aims that have nothing to do with xenophobia?

Well, as I noted in my post, one Minuteman organizer specifically stated that the groups were being taken over or unduly influenced by white supremacist groups. And IIRC, other members have made similar complaints.

I wouldn't dream of suggesting that every person or group interested in border control is racist, or even xenophobic. That said, such groups do seem to be a magnet for people who are. And if they're pointing that out, I don't see why I can't.

What we might say for sure is that they're a citizens group volutarily helping a Federal agency (Border Patrol) which has itself repeatedly voiced concerns since 9/11 that they are receiving no extra funding

That's of no particular interest to me, though, because the fact that BushCo has funneled trillions of dollars to cronies is a criminal matter. The tendency lately is to use the extraordinary corruption of the U.S. Government to attack the concept that government is viable. I'm not accusing you of this, but it seems to me that the proper focus here is on corruption, cronyism, and misappropriation of funds.

So I think it's possible to view this Minutemen group as the emergence of a true citizen's government.

That's your right, but I'm not convinced. To my mind, the malfeasance of the Bush administration is a far more serious problem than illegal immigration. Hysteria over the latter problem - compounded by the failure to see the connection between economic doctrine, governmental de-funding, and illegal immigration - seems to me to be misplaced at best.

A "citizen's government" that struts around in the desert West looking for abject, low-wage laborers to harass, while the Administration bankrupts us with a self-serving spending spree that our descendents will still be paying off 75 years from now, doesn't seem to me to have quite the right priorities.

Maybe you and I know that "terrorism" is all a smoke-and-mirrors circus for the masses who think with their emotions, but a lot of people genuinely fear that some of those estimated 4000/day illegal border-crossers might actually have a vial of super-scabies on them....

The threat of terrorism's not "smoke and mirrors," by any means. It's a perfectly legitimate worry. That said, chemical and biological weapons are easy to produce in-country (as the neo-Nazis know very well), and even if they weren't, AQ (for instance) is certainly capable of finding better ways to smuggle in toxins. Frankly, I'm more worried about a partnership between AQ and one of the neo-Nazi groups that've infiltrated the Minutemen, than I am about smuggling over the Mexican border.

At any rate, having a "genuine fear" isn't a all-purpose license for foolish, counterproductive, or extra-legal behavior.

And therefore, they might be willing to trade cheap homebuilding labor and housekeeping for the safety of their family.

They might indeed. But unfortunately, they live in - and in many cases, rabidly support - an economic system that isn't willing to make that trade. So they're kind of screwed. Illegal immigration is a problem for any number of reasons; it's often a disaster for the laborers themselves, perhaps even more so than for the people you're talking about. But it's not some glitch in an otherwise problem-free system; it's integral to the system. The Minutemen aren't symptomatic of problems with government; they're
symptomatic of the problems with modern economic theory, the dictates of which our government seeks to justify and enable at any and all costs. They're not a "solution" to anything.

That's how I look at it, anyway.

Engineer-Poet said...

One problem is that those "abject, low-wage laborers" are driving down the wages for unskilled citizen laborers, cutting their earning power and driving many into poverty.  Another is that the "undocumented" worker is also an uninsured worker, and when they get injured or sick they go to hospital ER's where Federal law requires them to be treated despite their inability to pay.  Everyone else absorbs this cost in higher hospital fees, or the hospitals simply close.  (Noticed that lots of hospitals in areas serving lots of poor people have had to shut down?  It's one of the unintended consequences.)

If you read some of the Minuteman stuff, you'll see that their motivations (or at least what's published) are a lot less sinister than their detractors claim.  Say what you will about the illegal border-crossers (even those who are not nasty characters like drug smugglers), they cause a lot of property damage, leave a great deal of trash and often steal and commit other crimes on their way through the major trafficing routes.  It's not right to demand that people who are just barely making it themselves endure the associated losses and stress.

Another factor is that remittances from illegal migrants remove pressure on the Mexican government to reform.  Reform might eliminate the pressure for people to leave Mexico to make a living.  I don't think that it's right to leave that festering boil unlanced, any more than the US should continue to subsidize petroleum motor fuel when it is the cause of so many of our problems.  Time to face the music, both for us and Vicente Fox.

Phila said...

E-P,

I'm confused. Did you actually read my post? It seems like we're talking past each other.

I don't think that uncontrolled, illegal immigration is a good thing for anyone involved. My point is that many of the political objections to it are hypocritical and ignorant, and that the policies that encourage it - and the negative effects that arise from it - are applauded (or ignored) in other contexts by the very same people who whine about "illegals."

And since neither you nor Steven seems to have picked up on this, let me note again that my discussion of racial animus in the Minutemen is based on complaints by members of that organization.

Engineer-Poet said...

"My point is that many of the political objections to it are hypocritical and ignorant..."

But they're places where there is some traction for changes in public policy.

In your neighborhood, what are the options for people who don't want to be "hypocritical", by your standards?  Are there any lawn-service companies which don't employ illegals?  If someone built a house using only legal labor, would they have any equity after they were done?  Packing up and going to e.g. Wisconsin or Whidby Island where there are few illegals isn't an option for most people.

"... and that the policies that encourage it - and the negative effects that arise from it - are applauded (or ignored) in other contexts by the very same people who whine about "illegals.""

When whole industries abandon cities (and their people) and move to the hinterlands where only illegal immigrant labor will follow, is it hypocritical to buy the cheap products at the supermarket because they're all you can afford?  Especially after the surge in uninsured alien drivers makes your own auto coverage cost 30% more?

These phenomena exemplify the "free rider" problem.  Someone who does their best to avoid illegal labor is still going to be competing against people who buy it, and paying the social costs.

And I find your choice of quotes revealing:

"Janet Ahrens was one of the original Minuteman organizers in Goliad, a chapter that dissolved earlier this week. Her letter is rife with criticism of the group's leadership, truthfulness, regulations, sexism, racism and intentions."

This appears to have nothing to do with the actual desirability of the avowed goals.  If the Minutemen are doing the job well, their personal flaws don't seem to be very relevant; if they're doing it poorly, it looks like there's a niche for a group with better leadership.  It didn't look like Janet Ahrens was volunteering.

Phila said...

But they're places where there is some traction for changes in public policy.

Again, you seem to see illegal workers as a failure of the system. I see it as the system working precisely as its intended to work. The Minutemen have legitimate grievances, and I understand why they'd attempt to reclaim a sense of agency that's increasingly hard to come by in an increasingly anti-democratic society.

But their efforts are futile, in my view. And dangerous. We tried this stuff in San Francisco when the railroad barons needed coolie labor...it was misguided, misapplied anger then, and it remains so today.

In your neighborhood, what are the options for people who don't want to be "hypocritical", by your standards?

Simple: Not being hypocrites. The people in my neighborhood have more than enough money to hire legal workers. This is one of the wealthier neighborhoods in one of America's wealthiest counties.

Are there any lawn-service companies which don't employ illegals?

Of course.

When whole industries abandon cities (and their people) and move to the hinterlands where only illegal immigrant labor will follow, is it hypocritical to buy the cheap products at the supermarket because they're all you can afford?

Of course not. But that's the point. Our economy relies on illegal immigrant labor (and on its handmaiden, offshoring). Like capital and commodities, labor is going to move naturally across borders in a globalized world. Anyone who doesn't like it should probably stop supporting the ideology that enables it. If you don't like illegal immigration, you need to stop making it profitable, which means enacting stringent labor laws, conducting nonstop inspections, and imposing huge penalties on agribusiness and similar industries. But what you'll get instead - I believe - is a guest worker program that'll combine the wage-depressing effect of illegal workers with the exploitation of the workers themselves.

And I find your choice of quotes revealing:

Oh, do you? I find them representative. The reason I chose a couple of quotes - instead of literally dozens - is because they explained the situation well enough. I noted that not everyone in the Minutemen is racist; in fact, some groups have taken steps to purge themselves of racist elements, which is laudable.

However, the problem remains. If you'd like more details, you can glut yourself here. And Ahrens' comments were not isolated or iconoclastic, as you seem to suggest. Here's another article that details the problems in Goliad, as described by Minutemen themselves.

The infiltration of border control groups by white supremacists and neo-Nazis is a fact, and it's a legitimate concern not just to me, but to Minutemen who don't share the aims of these groups. You seem to feel that it's dishonest or manipulative of me to bring this problem up. To my mind, that indicates problems or inconsistencies in your thinking, not mine.

If the Minutemen are doing the job well, their personal flaws don't seem to be very relevant

What an odd thing to say. I think most people would agree that when you increase the number of people with serious personal flaws in a given organization, you increase the likelihood that they'll do the job poorly at some point.

You're an engineer, right? If you used a bunch of shoddy, unreliable materials to build a piece of machinery, could you answer complaints by saying "Hey, it's working perfectly well"?

I don't want to be insulting, and I remain interested in hearing your point of view. But I feel like the level of intelligence you bring to bear on subjects like these is consistently below what you're capable of. Your comment about the Ahrens quote is particularly foolish, in that you simply refuse to address the questions that neo-Nazi infiltration raises about the viability of anti-immigrant vigilante groups (which, by the way, have a habit of dissolving into bickering splinter groups over these and related issues, further limiting their effectiveness). The Minutemen's potential for mischief and abuse far outstrips their potential for social benefit. That seems pretty obvious to me, but you're more than welcome to disagree.

Steven Lagavulin said...

A lot of good points being made here. Ultimately I find I side with these two statements Phila made:

"Again, you seem to see illegal workers as a failure of the system. I see it as the system working precisely as its intended to work....But [the Minutemen's] efforts are futile, in my view. And dangerous."

"The Minutemen's potential for mischief and abuse far outstrips their potential for social benefit."

After giving the issue a little more thought, I'm coming to the conclusion that what is probably driving most of these Minutemen is a feeling of frustration over having watched themselves become minorities in their own "homeland". If so, then there is certainly a tone of racism in what they're doing, but also distinct feelings of anger against the government, a sense that they have no control over their lives, feelings of invalidation as democratic citizens, etc. So I still have to support my belief that they're not so much so much trying to "keep the Mexicans out" as they are trying to assert their rights as citizens in the absence of a truly representative government.

If so, then that might show why they press such a button with liberals...because absent the xenophobia (and perhaps the guns), they're pretty much cut from the same cloth (I doubt any of the Minutemen vote republican, anyway). Like you said yourself, no one doubts that ultimately the real hypocracy lies with the government. But if we choose to discredit the Minutemen for the REASONS by which they make their stand, we should at least credit them for the fact that they have indeed decided to make a stand. Which is more than can be said for the recent, supremely ineffectual "peace rally" in Washington, DC.

Phila said...

Steven,

Not sure I'd go quite as far as you in that direction, but I certainly understand your viewpoint. I think border-control folks are trying to assert themselves, which is not necessarily a bad thing...I just think the energies are misplaced, and that illegal immigration isn't the real issue. Still, you can't expect people to sit idly by when they feel like they're being threatened and victimized. But I think they're accomplices in their own victimization, and while I'm sure some of 'em don't vote Republican (or for Bush, anyway), I think they do include a fair amount of traditional conservatives, by and large.

Ultimately, the whole situation's tragic and awful for everyone...except the people who are cashing in on unregulated, dirt-cheap labor.

Engineer-Poet said...

The other thing is that these people see folks like themselves subject to repeated tresspass, property damage, theft and worse (Mexico refuses to extradite anyone subject to either the death penalty or life imprisonment), and our own government isn't doing anything to stop it.  There are many accounts of the Border Patrol being forced to do "catch and release" on illegal border crossers, ordered to stand down by higher-ups, employment eligiblity enforcement shut down by political pressure, etc.

All those are laws on the books, and they aren't being enforced.  Whatever you say, you can't say that the Minutemen aren't trying to do something to re-establish the rule of law.

Phila said...

E-P,

No, I can't say they're not trying to do something to restore the rule of law, nor would I want to...but again, my view is that you're confusing the ideal function of the group with its reality, the most likely outcome of its continued existence, etc. The fact that an ideally functioning vigilante group could coceivably lead to an ideal outcome says nothing about how the group is likely to function in practical terms, given the realities on the ground.

I don't support the Minutemen in theory or practice, thanks to my own peculiarities, and my conviction that law-breaking in other spheres is far more important to address. But even if I did support them in theory, I think it'd require an unjustifiable and somewhat childish leap of faith to support them in practice.