School children used to learn Emma Lazarus’s ode to the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (The New Colossus).
These words resonate around the world, so why act surprised, or outraged, when poor people believe the propaganda and risk everything to get here?
After all, globalisation’s promoters, like former president Bill Clinton and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, continue to hype the advantages of our country and its open borders for capital and goods. Their logic should also apply to people employed by capital who make the goods.
Unfortunately, capital refuses to pay them a living wage or invest sufficiently in the Third World, so people come here in order to provide for their families.
Instead of recognising these facts, mountebanks resort to cliches that each cyclical immigration debate produces: “they [illegal immigrants, mostly of colour] should obey the law and leave and stop mooching off taxpayer money”.
The debate today echoes the argument that emerged in 1994 over California’s Proposition 187, designed to deny illegal immigrants social services, healthcare and education. The proposition passed, effectively refuting Lazarus’s notion. The tired, poor and huddled became identified in the public mind with poverty and laziness.
Even though the courts ruled the proposition unconstitutional, the ugly spirit that inspired it has returned. History is the sum total of combined and uneven development and constant human migration. Tens of millions of migrants work in the oil rich Gulf states, others try Europe, while millions more labour in the US and Canada. Logically, people migrate from poverty and towards sources of wealth.
Fear based on economic competition or loss of jobs inevitably leads to racism. Hopefully, school boards will combat the resurfacing of this deadly combination by teaching the kids that migration is the leitmotif of history and can’t be dispatched by walls, fences or stupid legislation.
Immigrants made this country and have enriched it ever since.
Let ’em come!
Saul Landau is author of Pre-Emptive Empire and The Business of America