Public Comment

Commentary: The Political Economy of the ‘Illegal’ Immigrant

By Steve Martinot  
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:22:00 AM

The recent outburst by Joe Wilson in Congress concerning Obama’s veracity on his proposed health care reform once again invoked that ghost so often enlisted to sidetrack real issues, the specter of the “illegal” person. It refers to those immigrant workers who labor without proper papers under substandard conditions, mostly in agricultural work that is very hard and injurious to health, both physically and chemically. Politically, they live precariously, subject to arrest by immigration authorities and the callous breaking of family bonds, often held, unconstitutionally, in indefinite detention, yet with taxes withheld from paychecks that they then cannot reclaim. They do essential work in this economy, yet face demands that they leave. They are excluded from social services, such as health care and education, that they nevertheless pay for through their labor and their taxes. From a value-added standpoint—the primary standpoint of a capitalist economy—they constitute an ideal labor force. 

Justice would demand that those who add value to this society be at least honored for it, if not granted citizenship. Yet these people are considered a threat, and are thought of as seizing that which properly belongs to more worthy people. Let us deconstruct this briefly in the context of the international political economy to which these immigrant workers belong. 

What drives the current wave of Latino immigration? Why do they come here? After all, they come with an awareness of the hardships, the dangers of dealing with violent paramilitary anti-Latino vigilantes, the anti-immigrant legislations and the impunity and brutality of immigration police with which they are greeted when found. The mainstream response is: “they want what we have.” And the hidden truth in that response is the question, where did we get it? That is a question of political economy. 

The central economic fact of the western hemisphere in the 20th century has been U.S. corporate investment throughout Latin America. As Juan José Arévalo, former president of Guatemala, revealed in his book, The Shark and the Sardines, this investment historically gave the U.S. financial control of Latin American trade and production, and through that, control of their political structure. Traditionally, before the 1970s, such investment—typically in agricultural products and mining, both labor intensive—enjoyed a profit rate of around 20 percent, owing to low wage scales and non-union labor conditions enforced by military rule. That is, its capital outlay was recuperated in a mere 5 years. 

The result was impoverishment. The profit from resource extraction, including labor, was brought to the U.S. These resources were used to manufacture products, some of which were sold in Latin America at a profit, which was then brought to the U.S. The concomitant control of hemispheric finances by U.S. banks obstructed any autonomous local industrial development. Thus, U.S. corporate investment constituted an impoverishment machine, sucking up value from poor societies and transferring it to the pockets of the rich. 

In short, the people and nations of Latin America weren’t poor; they were actively impoverished by a relational process that enriched the U.S. 

Yet people found ways of surviving. In the vast rural areas of Latin America, local autonomous economies existed or were formed—cooperatives, communal agriculture, ejidos, communes, and barter economies, etc.—some derived from ancient indigenous modes of living. Thus, people attempted to withstand the onslaught of corporate investment. Ultimately, these “alternate” economies formed a significant popular base for the national liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. 

But then, around 1975, with the beginning of the “neo-liberal” era, things got worse. And the vast floods of immigration faced by the U.S. and Europe has been one of the results. 

The term “neo-liberalism” refers to global economic policies adopted in the wake of anti-colonial movements that swept the world after World War II. Those movements, seizing control of their own lands and attempting to found autonomous and independent societies, tended to socialize public or social assets and resources, to make them available to all. The neo-liberal project sought first of all to privatize those social assets, to undo their anti-colonial socialization, so they could be used for investment profitability. Privatization means corporate control of social resources such as utilities, water, hospitals, public transportation, and nationalized industries. The privatization process was imposed through debt. The IMF would propose loans for development, accompanied by “structural adjustment programs” (SAPs) that required the elimination of price controls, food subsidies, welfare safety nets, the removal of prohibitions against sale of communal (ejido) lands, the removal of tariff barriers, protective ecological rules, labor rights, etc., as conditions for the loans. Insofar as the World Bank had centralized control of international financing, countries that refused these SAPs would find themselves blacklisted from most sources of credit needed for independent development and trade. The two primary results of neo-liberalism have been the shunting of local economic activity over to debt service, requiring new loans and austerity programs to meet debt obligations, and the destruction of the alternative economies by which rural people had survived. 

A classic example of the devastation imposed by an SAP is Rwanda. The local economy in the 1980s was centered on truck farming, including livestock, with some economic surplus for international trade produced by fishing in Lake Kiva and Lake Tanganyika. The fisherman were small entrepreneurs, whose labor intensive activity supported much of Ruanda’s employment profile. Gasoline was subsidized to support the truck farms and markets. The nation was poor, but the economy sustainable. The SAP opened the lakes to corporate fishing, removed subsidies for gasoline, and permitted imports that undermined the markets for food crops on which local farmers depended. Farmers could no longer afford to take their produce to market, and were unable to undersell the imported food. Corporate fishing pushed local fisherman aside, fished out  



Steve Martinot is the author of several books on public policy. 

the lakes, and left. The result was mass starvation, a generalized unemployment situation, and the desparation that led to the catastrophes of the early 1990s. 

Similar conditions have been imposed on Latin America through IMF loans, and “free trade” agreements (NAFTA, CAFTA, and the FTAA). 

With their economies eroded from beneath their feet, the people of Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America have nowhere else to turn but to go where their own wealth has gone. In coming to the US, Latino immigrants are simply following their money as it is taken north. They come to find work, in order to send their earnings back as remittances. Their efforts are significant. For El Salvador, for instance, some 30% of their economy depends on those remittances. For Mexico, it is 15 percent. 

For most immigrants, the average length of stay in the US is three years, after which they return. to follow their own money back to their home communities. Not all return. Some stay and seek social assimilation. They form an important core of the Latino immigrant communities, helping newly arrived laborers with employment information, and assistence in out-maneuvering the legal obstacles that the US government places in their way. They facilitate border crossings without coyotes, and help people to obtain documents—false or otherwise. Altogether, these communities form the base of an organized political movement, one of whose central purposes is returning their wealth to their home economies. And they do it not by taking that wealth, but by working for it. 

One could say that they form a vast “reparations” operation seeking to compensate for the damage done to their home economies by US investment—in other words, repatriating what had been taken from them. It is therein that the justice of the immigrant situation lies. 

Though many immigrants may not comprehend their labor and remittances in terms of a reparations project, it is an objective aspect that explains why the tremendous dangers they face in coming here appear worthwhile to them. In these terms, what the anti-immigrant movement seeks to preserve is the injustice of having taken the wealth from Latin America through economic imposition in the first place, leaving devastated economies in its wake. For them, the pillage of Latin America has been “legal.” But on a human level, to consider these documented workers “illegal” is itself illegitimate, unjust, and even criminal.   


Steve Martinot is the author of several books on public policy.