Public Comment

Commentary: Immigrant Crisis is Election Issue

By Margot Smith
Tuesday May 23, 2006

I am the child of immigrants who came to the United States in 1910, at the height of the great European immigration. During World War II, my mother aided illegal Jewish immigrants who were escaping Hitler’s Germany. I as a child remember these traumatized people who were smuggled over the border from Mexico. One six-foot-tall woman was curled up in half a gas tank to get across the border, while others described their experiences under the Nazis--sterilization, and I saw the fingers with pulled out finger nails. These Jewish refugees in dire need were denied visas to the United States. 

Now we have another immigrant crisis, this time created by the right as an election issue. I hear mainly about callousness and greed—punish the poor, preserve a low paid labor force for employers, guard our borders against those seeking to sustain their lives, deny people their language, religious and cultural heritages. and profiteer in developing countries. This is not my religious, moral or patriotic view of what the United States democracy stands for, as  

found in its constitution and its history of concern for and broadening of human rights. 

Everywhere I go I see immigrants at work. I have a question. How is it that immigrants from Mexico and Latin America with often no more than a sixth grade education, come to the United States and do carpentry, construction work, roofing, plumbing, work as restaurant workers, nannies and domestics and janitors, while our poor (often with high school diplomas) do not have the skills? Are not getting these jobs? An important question we should be asking is how do people from developing countries get these marketable skills and why our own people lack them. And after immigrants are here, how is it that the immigrant family often works together to educate its young, and teaches them to succeed?  

Why have we left our own poor and uneducated to punitive and destructive social policies that destroy families and undereducate the young? If a U.S. family or person suffers a misfortune such as unemployment, crime, death or illness, and needs help, our policies make it a punishment—long waits, paperwork barriers, arcane regulations, heartless regulations.  

Why are our schools in poor areas underfunded and overcrowded? We should be concentrating our efforts there to improve the lot of the poor and work to have an educated and skilled labor force. I recently visited Venezuela, where new social programs have reduced illiteracy to less than 1 percent. This is better than the illiteracy rate in the United States. They also have free programs offering high school diplomas, job training and university degrees. They have far fewer resources than we have in the United States, but their goals for educating the labor force are clear and implemented. 

Here in the United States we are raising college tuition, creating barriers to high school diplomas, and underfunding and overcrowding schools in poor areas. In Venezuela, I heard a man say that in his Caribbean country, they have a gender problem. Boys aged 11 to 21 are dropping out of school and not getting job training and not entering the labor force. That sounds like many poor areas of the United States—East Oakland, Richmond, here in the Bay Area. How are we addressing this issue? We do not even acknowledge it as a gender problem. Are our schools missing the opportunity to educate boys? Recently, a study noted that male enrollment in college was dropping. Maybe we should have another look at gender education in Title IX. 

When I go to the symphony and opera, and the theater, the seats are filled with old people. The young often no longer have music, art and theater in the schools. Where will the audiences of the future come from?  

We are supposed to have freedom of religion, yet some of our policies are anti-religion. We closed down the Muslim banks serving the U.S. Muslim community because they were supposed to support terrorists—an undefined group that could be anybody. (Muslims do not allow usury in their religion.) Quaker groups, peace groups, religious groups opposing war are infiltrated. What happened to Thou Shalt Not Kill, the good Samaritan, turn the other cheek, charity to the poor, not coveting thy neighbors goods (oil), and so on? If we really wanted to solve our immigration problem, especially for immigrants from Latin America, we would be implementing policies that work to develop the economies of our neighbors to the south. The World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund and our foreign policies would be designed to improve the educational level of the labor forces in developing countries, increasing access to health care and improving public health, funding loans to local entrepreneurs, improving agricultural productivity, working on environmental and labor issues, and helping to make life in Mexico and Latin America economically viable for the people who live there.  

Instead, our policies only view developing countries and immigrants through greedy corporate eyes. They are the source of a cheap labor force, a potential market for arms, pesticides, herbicides, a resource for producing cheap goods, a cheap resource exploiting lumber and pharmaceutical plants. Our policies support the privatization of water, health care, education, prisons, transportation, ravaging the environment and everything that can be perceived at profit producing. These policies must change, and we can only do that by changing the leadership of our country. 

Closing our borders and ousting immigrants is not the answer. We need to look at the big picture. What are we saying about our country, our values, what are we doing to our planet? What is the constitutional, moral, humane way to treat human beings? Our religious, cultural, and legal background gives us guidelines, let’s follow them. 


Margot Smith is a Berkeley resident.