This is a hard post to write.
There are so many negative connotations about this floating around in the the American consciousness right now. You only need to read the comments section of an article about Obama's push for immigration reform to see some of the sheer hatred, racism, and misinformation that many Americans feel. From where I sit right now, it's hard to see the justification for some of these comments, if there even is one. Everyone has a story of crossing to the U.S., of trying to earn a living wage, of walking through the desert, of applying for visas at the U.S. embassy.
One of my previous co-workers was shot and paralyzed while trying to help someone being robbed. He was shot while being in the U.S. without papers. Does this mean that he is an evil individual without regard for U.S. law? I don't think so. Was he taking an "American" job? Sure. Was it a job that a U.S. citizen wanted to perform? Probably not. This issue is complicated and far more muddled than most people want to see.
Let me help you clear up some myths about Mexican immigration, as I see it:
Myth 1: Mexican immigrants take American jobs.
Yes, technically undocumented Mexican workers are working in American jobs, that theoretically U.S. citizens could be working at. But the reality is that most undocumented workers are working jobs for pay that American citizens are unwilling to work them at. Last summer a lot of the Washington asparagus crop didn't get harvested, because there weren't enough workers willing to spend all day cutting asparagus. A couple of years ago Stephen Colbert talked about immigration on his show, and put out a job application for a farm worker, doing the type of work many undocumented Mexican workers do. Only a handful of people applied. Even documented Mexicans aren't usually willing to do this work; if they can get a legitimate waged job, that's what a lot of people are going to choose.
Myth 2: Undocumented immigrants cost American taxpayers thousands of dollars a year.
Luis Alberto Urrea discusses the financial costs vs. benefits of undocumented workers in the U.S. in his book The Devil's Highway (check out the final chapter of the book for a good breakdown on these issues). According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the average adult Mexican immigrant costs taxpayers $55, 200 over a lifetime. Urrea breaks this down further though: those $55,000 equal social services that immigrants use and don't pay for. However, most migrants pay federal and state income taxes and social security out of their paychecks, and they won't be filing for a tax refund or be receiving the social security later on. Regardless of where your income is coming from, everyone pays sales tax, and everyone has to buy food and pay for rent somewhere, which again fuels the economy and pays for services that likely won't be taken advantage of. Undocumented workers are also far less likely to attempt to access social services for fear of being deported. The American Graduate School of International Management found out that in 2002, Mexican immigrants paid $600 million in taxes, but received only about $250 million in social services. That means that the U.S. financially profits from undocumented immigrants. The same study reported that Arizona annually receives $8 billion in economic impact from their relationship with Mexico.
Myth 3: Mexican immigrants are going to take over the U.S.!
You've probably heard the statistic that in 20 years or so, people of Caucasian descent will no longer be the majority in the U.S., and that Hispanics are the fastest growing minority. I have no reason to doubt these statistics, but there was actually a net loss in the number of Mexicans in the U.S. in 2012, as more people returned to Mexico voluntarily or were deported (Obama is actually the president with the most deportations, despite calls for immigration reform) than actually entered the country.
Americans need to understand the situation around Mexican immigration, and understand the role the U.S. has played in encouraging some of this migration. Minimum wage in Mexico is 60 pesos a day, which comes to 1200 pesos a month, or about $100. It's not surprising, then, that many Mexicans look to well-paying jobs in the U.S., where they can make more in an hour than they could in an entire day. For families fighting for their lives, this sort of decision makes sense, and I don't want to judge someone who has to choose whether to feed their family or cross into the U.S. without papers. As Americans, we also need to recognize how U.S. policy has played into this. (I wrote a little about this after our November retreat.) NAFTA and other economic policies screwed the Mexican economy and helped lead to some of these conditions, while at the same time U.S. immigration policy changed, which forced immigrants to go through the most dangerous parts of the desert and has resulted in thousands of deaths.
During our retreat, Andrea handed out copies of the ELCA's social message on immigration as a way to help us frame some of our thoughts and reflections. Reading this document, it was helpful to realize that my church recognizes the brokenness of the system and the need to advocate for immigration reform, along with our responsibility to care for our neighbor and those who appear to be strangers in our midst, recalling that we are an immigrant country and an immigrant church. "Recalling that our families were once the 'stranger' - and remembering our Lord's call to love our neighbor as ourselves - can expand our moral imagination, enable us to see the new 'stranger' as our neighbor, and open us to welcome today's newcomers" (2).
I'm not writing this post to tell you to support the immigration of undocumented Mexican workers to the U.S. Clearly, this is a complicated issue, but I hope we can come together anyways, and work for justice for all people.
I hope we can continue to extend support to our neighbors who have immigrated, whether they have come with papers or without papers.
I hope we can continue to advocate for economic justice for all people, including our Mexican neighbors.
I hope we can agree that separated families are a bad thing, and we should work to keep families together.
I hope we can work for better solutions than sending thousands of people to die in desert in search of a better life.