If you head down to the southern outskirts of San Diego, California, you can see the Mexican city of Tijuana on the other side of a no-man’s-land of empty paddocks. Blocking your view of Tijuana are two fences: one, a cyclone wire and steel fence; the other, a brand new concrete structure that conjures up images of the Berlin Wall. Look back towards San Diego and you see Otay Mesa, a business park where multinational companies such as JVC employ thousands of Mexican workers at electronics and components factories.
This was the backdrop one cloudy Sunday to a scene that occurs every day somewhere along the 3 000km United States-Mexico border.
Nine Mexican men and women, dressed in dark clothing, scampered across the no-man’s-land. A SUV waiting outside the JVC factory reversed in a cloud of dust, picked up the immigrants and sped off up the road to downtown San Diego.
Last year alone, 1,6-million people were arrested by border protection authorities and at least that many escaped detection and made it into the US. It is an issue that is splitting the Republican and Democratic parties as they grapple with new laws to regulate this movement of people.
California’s Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has jumped on the anti-undocumented migration bandwagon and praised the vigilante “Minutemen” of Arizona, a bunch of untrained people who have taken it upon themselves to shoot and capture Mexicans they find crossing the border. In supporting the Minutemen, says Mark Silverman of the Immigrant Legal Resource Centre, Schwarzenegger “has stooped and catered to the worst sentiments of division, fear and racism”.
Without thousands of Mexicans and other Central and South Americans doing what the group of nine did in San Diego on that quiet Sunday, California’s agricultural and service sectors would collapse. In the past year 155 000 undocumented migrants have crossed the US-Mexico border in California and the majority connect to a shadow economy. Gardeners, agricultural workers, nannies, street cleaners, processing workers — name any low-skill job in California and it’s “London to a brick” that someone who has risked life and limb to cross this border is doing it.
But for the thousands of Mexicans who take up low-wage jobs in places such as San Diego there is an upside: the wages are better than what they get in Mexico, and the money they earn heads back across the border. Last year Mexicans sent back about $20-billion to their families.
California’s governor is not alone in practising intellectual gymnastics on the issue of border politics. Arizona’s Democratic Party Governor Janet Napolitano is equally opportunistic. She used a Congressional hearing last October to vent her spleen about illegal migration in Arizona.
A Democrat in a state that votes Republican most of the time, Napolitano’s attempt to sound tough on undocumented migration flies in the face of the fact that without border crossings her state’s economy would collapse. In 2000, researchers at the Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management estimated that undocumented migrants make up more than 10% of the state’s labour force.
There are about 11-million undocumented migrants in the US today. Tamar Jacoby, writing in The Weekly Standard, noted recently: “Sooner or later we all will have to face the fact that most of the 11-million are here to stay, and it is in our interest as much as theirs to find a way for them to do so legally.”
This is exactly what Republican Senator John McCain, frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, and his Democrat counterpart, Ted Kennedy, set out to do last year with their Bill to regularise the status of migrant workers. Instead of sending workers back across the border, the McCain-Kennedy Bill enabled them to pay a fine and back taxes and apply to become permanent US citizens.
Their efforts have been subsumed by a new Bill passed this week by the Senate’s judiciary committee, in response to a House of Representatives law, passed in December, which would provide funds for a new border fence, turn all illegal immigrants into felons, and introduce heavy penalties for employers who take on illegal migrants.
The new Senate Bill adopts the McCainâ€‘Kennedy approach and gives illegal immigrants the chance to regularise their status and become US citizens. But it faces stiff opposition led by the Senate majority leader, Republican Bill Frist, who favours tougher enforcement measures.
For the moment President George W Bush is backing a middle-of the-road approach, favouring a guest-worker programme demanded by businesses which rely on the cheap labour, and an amnesty for those workers already in the US, while also backing tougher border control measures.
A temporary worker programme might help a person like Bernado, who works at a small horse-riding school north of Houston. Standing at the door of his neat but basic caravan on the farm, Bernardo says he arrived in the US eight years ago as an undocumented immigrant but wishes he could regularise his status so he can bring his two young children over the border.
While politicians and the media fulminate about the “evil” of the porous border, in downtown Houston Mark Lacy, who works with a not-for-profit education foundation, the Houston Institute, holds a photo of a 12-year-old Mexican boy who lives on the border with the US. The boy is holding a donkey in a rubbish dump, which serves as home for his family. This smiling young boy told Lacy that he thinks in the US everyone is rich and he wants to get across the border as soon as he is able to do so. He and millions of others. No amount of border control will change that reality.