Monday, February 23, 2009


A brutal year for immigrants closes, possibly opening up another

In the eyes of many Central Americans, US immigration policy is as perplexing as it is heartless. In any case, immigrants may find the coming year even more difficult than the last. The recession will almost certainly deepen; work will become scarcer.
Central America Report

According to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), of the more than 210,000 people deported from the US in fiscal year 2008, 80,448 were Central Americans. This is only a slight increase over the year before when 79,632 were deported, but it represents a continuation of a radically heightened enforcement effort that began only several years ago.

In 2004, 7,049 Guatemalans were deported; by the end of last year the number spiked to 28,344, which is consistent with the regional trend. In 2008, as in past years, Hondurans topped the list, with 29,307 being deported, while 20,516 Guatemalans were deported, along with 20,516 Salvadorans, and 2,281 Nicaraguans.

Cheap Labour

Illegal Pakistani and Sri Lankan immigrants arrives at the port of Santa Cruz on the Spanish Canary island of Tenerife.

Given President George W. Bush’s close relations to business interests that desire cheap labour, it may seem contradictory that his government would deport so many immigrants. After all, between 2005 and 2007, Bush pushed for legislation that putatively offered “a path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, and that moreover, proposed a massive guest worker program.

The bill was criticized by immigrant rights advocates, who argued, among other things, that guest worker programs are inherently abusive. But its most vocal opponents by far were the anti-immigrant forces. Two years ago, goaded on by media personalities and politicians, citizens overloaded Congress’s phone system, complaining that the government should be enforcing the law and not rewarding those who break it. The Senate voted the bill down.

Many observers say the rising deportations under Bush are a response to the public’s clamour for enforcement. More specifically, in the October edition of The Nation, David Bacon, a journalist specializing in immigration issues, argued that the Bush administration has expanded enforcement, particularly work place raids, in the years before and after the Senate vote as part of a campaign to push for a guest worker program.

Bacon points out that Michael Chertoff, the head of US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), justified workplace raids in July 2008 by telling the New York Times that “we are not going to be able to satisfy the American people on a legal temporary-worker program until they are convinced that we will have a stick as well as a carrot.” Chertoff has made similar comments since 2006.

Although guest-worker programs are sometimes pitched as a compromise with hard-line opponents of illegal immigration, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has called them “close to slavery”. In a 2007 report, the SPLC noted that foreign workers are tied to a single employer under the current guest worker regime; if they don’t like the workplace conditions, they must go home. “In practical terms, employees are much less likely to complain about safety or wage issues (than native employees),” the report argues.

Bacon argued that it is for precisely that reason that guest worker programs have long been favoured by US industry. In 2001, the Essential Workplace Immigration Coalition (EWIC), a group created two years earlier by corporate trade associations, sent a letter to Bush arguing that labour shortages require the programs’ expansion. According to Bacon, the Bush administration’s immigration proposal in 2004 was identical to a plan backed by the EWIC a year and a half earlier.

In the years since, enforcement has exploded, with workplace raids in particular multiplying. While there were only 850 workplace arrests in 2004, there were more 6,200 in 2008. Of course, under the administration of President Barack Obama, all of this may soon be irrelevant.

But according to Tom Berry, an analyst for the Center for International Policy, a US think-tank headed by former State Department officials, the Democratic Party, including Obama himself, has largely ceded to the right-wing approach of framing the immigration debate. This approach stresses the “rule of law,” which, in effect, means increasing enforcement. As Obama said of his own aunt who was living in the US illegally, “if she is violating laws, those laws have to be obeyed. We’re a nation of laws.”

Berry contends that Obama’s decision to replace Chertoff with former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano as head of DHS is consistent with this tendency. “While realistic. about the impossibility of completely sealing the border, “ Berry writes, “she has called for more border patrol agents, s, deployed the state’s National Guard, and supported in- creased federal-state cooperation in immigration law enforcement.”

Bush administration
Similarly, David Bacon wrote in December in The Nation that Napolitano “has publicly supported most of the worst ideas of the Bush administration, including guest-worker programs with no amnesty for the currently undocumented, and brutal enforcement schemes.” He adds, however, that Obama “does not have to be imprisoned by the failure of Napolitano to imagine a more progressive alternative.”

Plan Mexico and Migration
Whatever may happen under the Obama administration, arrest and abuse at the hands of authorities is not only a menace to Central American immigrants living in the US. As Jorge Bustamante, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, said in March, Mexico “does worse things to Central American immigrants than the US does to Mexican immigrants.”

Despite the abuses, the number of Central Americans deported from Mexico has actually fallen since 2007. While almost 40,000 Guatemalans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans were deported from January to November of 2007, that number dropped to about 30,000 during the equivalent period in 2008. As is true for deportations from the US, Hondurans suffered the most, followed by Guatemalans, Salvadorans and finally Nicaraguans.

Next year, though, it may be more difficult for Central Americans to pass through Mexico: it has come to light that one fifth of the US$400 million destined to Mexico under Plan Merida, a US anti-drug initiative, will be spent on strengthening migration control. In December, the government of Felipe Calderon received an initial disbursement of US$197 million, US$22 million of which went to the National Institute for Migration.

The Mexican newspaper Excelsior reported that this money will be spent, in part, on the “search and capture of Central Americans who crossed irregularly into the country” (Excelsior, December 4, 2008) The Calderon government will also use the funds to build a laboratory that specializes in detecting false documents, and there are further plans for Mexican authorities to take biometric measures of frequent border crossers, such as temporary workers from Central America (Jornada, December 12, 2008).

Although the US and Mexico insist that the Merida Initiative is primarily meant to fight the traffic of drugs, high-profile skeptics have expressed doubts. The Guatemalan ambassador to Mexico, Jose Luis Chea, has said that “in the end (this) is a strategy to halt the flow of human beings and not drugs. (It) obviously needs to be discussed in greater depth by the Guatemalan authorities” (, December 11, 2008).

Human Rights
Days earlier, UN official Jorge Bustamante wrote an editorial blasting the Mexican Government for “selling Mexico’s obligation ( ... ) to protect the human rights of Central American immigrants in exchange for the dollars coming from the Merida Initiative.” Bustamante argued that in past years “the US has virtually tried to transport its southern border to Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Now they have achieved this ‘in the dark’ with the Merida Initiative” (El Sol, December 7, 2008).”

In another editorial, Laura Carlsen, an analyst for the Center for International Policy, noted that the Merida initiative happens to coincide with efforts by Mexico to improve its treatment of immigrants. In April 2008, the Mexican congress decriminalized undocumented immigration, and throughout the year, human rights training for migration officials was expanded.

But these efforts, Carlsen argued, will be overwhelmed by the Merida Initiative, which enforces the “security paradigm for migratory policy.” Much like Bustamante, she notes that this is just the latest chapter in a long push by the US “to control immigration over its southern border as part of stretching the US security perimeter.”

Public Eye
According to Carlsen, the Merida Initiative is part of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), an agreement reached between the Bush, former Mexican President Vincente Fox, and former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2005.

The SPP’s agenda has largely been set by the corporate interests assembled in the North American Competitiveness Council, whose dealings have been obscured from the public eye. Carlsen notes in another article, published in the NACLA Report on the Americas, that the SPP defines itself as “a White House-led initiative among the US and the two nations it borders - Canada and Mexico - to increase security and to enhance prosperity among the three countries through greater cooperation.”

As Thomas Shannon, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, has said, “To a certain extent, we’re armoring NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).”

- Third World Network Features

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