By David Turnoy
Now that the council has passed an ordinance protecting undocumented residents from being asked their documentation status by our local deputies, a number of folks are questioning why this wasn’t allowed to go to a vote of the people. Others are questioning the council for sanctioning “illegal immigration,” which they interpret as breaking the law. It is often (if not always) instructive to study the historical background of controversial issues to enable one to form an opinion based on fact and not emotion, which is what I attempt to do here.
Why have so many undocumented immigrants come to the United States in recent decades? An American exceptionalist point of view would answer, “Of course illegals want to come to our country. Their countries are poor, and America is the greatest country in the world.”
This uninformed naïve answer neglects historical facts; let’s look first at Mexico. Up until 1993, the Mexican Constitution protected the price of corn grown by Mexican farmers. But in exchange for getting in on the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico had to relinquish this protection. As a result, American corn flooded the Mexican market, undercutting Mexican farmers and forcing millions of them off their farms. Responsible Mexican husbands and fathers, wanting to stay in their villages but needing to support their families, began traveling to the north, seeking employment to send money home. Clearly the U.S., in implementing NAFTA and benefiting a few American CEOs at the expense of millions of Mexican people, is at least partially responsible for this.
In more recent years we have seen an influx of people from the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Gang warfare in these countries has made life incredibly dangerous. And what fuels this gang activity? Fighting over turf for dealing illicit drugs. Who are the prime users demanding illicit drugs? Americans. In addition, these countries have been beset by unstable political situations. In 1954 the U.S. CIA overthrew the democratically elected president of Guatemala because he dared to nationalize the business of the United Fruit Company, leading to a 40-year civil war. In 2009 the U.S. supported a right-wing coup overthrowing the democratically elected left-wing president of Honduras. And in El Salvador, the U.S. has for decades supported right-wing forces that kept a wealthy elite in power against the interests of the majority of the people.
As you can see, U.S. policy has had much to do with the suffering of these countries and the decision of many residents to emigrate to the U.S. Isn’t it only fair that we protect those who have braved serious obstacles to come here? But this is illegal, it is argued. Again, let’s look at history. Many of us are lucky enough that our ancestors came to this country before immigration laws and quotas were established. But later, fear of foreigners and racism led to quotas, and in the case of the Chinese, outright exclusion in 1882.
While we are a nation of laws, our laws need to be based on our principles. Are racism and xenophobia principles that should support immigration laws? That is why our council was right to establish a protective ordinance, just as other local jurisdictions around the country are acting to do what is right rather than what is “legal.” We currently have a president who does not hold the American values of the majority of us, and it is necessary that we act in the interest of what is right and fair.
One final point related to the council’s decision to adopt the ordinance rather than letting it go to a vote of the people: Charlottesville. Need I say more?
Need I say more?
David Turnoy is a retired teacher, author of a young adult history book, and current chair of the San Juan County Democratic Party