Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for May 2010

Why is migration made illegal?

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There is a term in Buddhism, yoniśo manaskāra, which is translated in various ways, such as “principled thinking.” What the term refers to is focusing one’s attentions on the roots of a situation rather than on the superficial aspects. When one is trying to solve a problem or to heal an illness, then the expression means getting to the root causes of the problem and tending to those rather than trying to alleviate the symptoms. The opposite is ayoniśo manaskāra, which, of course, means thinking superficially, that is, dealing only with the symptoms and failing to tend to the root cause of a malady. Most of the avoidable forms of distress in human life, according to most Buddhist analysis, stems from the persistent tendency that human beings have of reacting to unpleasant effects rather than at eliminating causes.

One of the many examples of reactive, superficial thinking in the United States these days is the way many people are dealing with the fact of people crossing the southern border of the United States from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California to seek employment. On one level, this is not a problem at all. Mexicans and Central Americans need work, and plenty of American business enterprises need workers. Mexicans, as a rule, work hard and amply repay those who hire them. Mexicans who work for wages in the United States pay taxes and make social security contributions. Their overall contribution to the economy of the United States is substantial. By working in the United States at wages that are low by American standards but high by Mexican standards, Mexicans can send enough money back to their dependents and relatives to support them. There are many winners and few losers in this system. So what is the problem?

One problem is that the United States gives work permits to far fewer migrant workers than are required to maintain the work force that businesses in the United States need to supply their goods and services at affordable prices. This means that many workers are working without the necessary paperwork and are therefore technically not conforming to the law. When hundreds of people are not living in conformity with a law, then the community has a crime problem. When many millions of people do not operate within the requirements of the law, the community probably has poorly designed laws. If, for example, a law were passed making it illegal to brush one’s teeth before noon, millions of people would ignore the law. The law would be difficult to enforce, for many reasons, not the least of which being that it is a pointless law that serves no obvious purpose. Similar observations can be made about current laws governing the citizenship of those who work in the United States. The laws cannot be enforced for a variety of reasons, one primary reason being that there is no good purpose served by restricting who can work in the United States.

A law that cannot be enforced is a danger to a society, because it lays down the conditions for people having contempt for the law as a whole, and contempt for a government that would pass a foolish law in the first place. Much of the contempt that one finds for the Congress of the United States stems from the passage of laws that are not enforced, or are not enforced even-handedly, or are not enforced simply because they are impossible to enforce. The current immigration laws are so far out of line with reality that their inevitable non-enforcement makes people angry, disrespectful of the law as a whole, and contemptuous of legislators who, for whatever reason, fail to replace unworkable laws and regulations with viable counterparts. That America’s immigration laws are unworkable is made abundantly clear by the fact that thousands of people per day cross the borders without the legally required work permits and find gainful employment that is technically not legal for them to do. As the National Rifle Association has reminded Americans repeatedly during the past several decades, if guns are outlawed, then only outlaws have guns. Similarly, if working is outlawed, then outlaws will find work. As Americans should have learned when the constitution was amended to make drinking alcohol illegal, professional crime syndicates thrived by making alcohol available to those who wanted it. Nowadays, professional crime syndicates are thriving by smuggling people from Mexico into the United States, then prospering by blackmailing the very people whom they have smuggled into the country. People who want nothing but to earn an honest livelihood are forced by circumstances into dealing with gangsters, who then put their victims into a situation remarkably similar to slavery. Much of that criminality, and the violence that accompanies it, could be eliminated with the stroke of a pen signing into existence a well-considered and realistic law allowing the number of workers who cross into the United States to seek employment to come closer to the number of jobs there are to fill.

Having more workable immigration regulations would, however, still be addressing symptoms rather than underlying causes. A deeper solution to the pseudo-problem of workers working without proper documentation would require looking more carefully into the question of why people migrate in the first place. Even without doing any investigation at all, one can know that people migrate from places where no work is available to places were work is available. When life becomes difficult or impossible in one place, people move to places where life is possible. Mexico’s economy has traditionally been a labor-intensive agricultural economy. As a result of many factors, one of them being the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ratified in 1994, it is much easier for commodities to cross the borders that separate the United States from Mexico and Canada than it is for people. It is easier for corporations to set up operations in a foreign country than it is for workers to sell their labor in a country other than the one in which they have status as a legal resident. The impact of the agreement on Mexican workers has been harsh. In some cases, multinational corporations have acquired lands that were once agricultural and put them into other uses; in other cases, lands have been acquired by agricultural operations that are highly mechanized and require less human labor. The result has been that agricultural workers no longer have as much agricultural work to do in Mexico. Some displaced agricultural workers manage to find low-paid employment in the industrial sector producing goods, most of which are exported to more affluent nations. Others become street vendors or temporary workers. Still others end up working for organized crime syndicates. An increasing number are simply unemployed; according to a Reuters news report, the unemployment rate in Mexico hit a fourteen-year high in October 2009. The government-sponsored unemployment insurance plan is unable to compensate all unemployed workers at a level that sustains life, so workers have few options available to them. Fortunately, there are employment opportunities in the United States and Canada, but unfortunately the bureaucracies in both countries pose formidable obstacles to Mexican workers seeking work in any North American country other than Mexico.

The plight of Mexicans and Central Americans is not simply an economic and political problem. It is also a moral problem, and a spiritual problem. It is worth asking whether the NAFTA treaty serves human beings as well as it serves corporations—whether it serves peasants as well as it serves stockholders. If it does not, it is not a moral document by the moral guidelines of any of the world’s religions. Economic injustice is never moral. Any form of spirituality that does not work to address immoral situations is unworthy of being called spiritual. Any solution to a problem that involves punishing the victims of injustice by presenting them with even more hardships than they already have as a result of being victims of injustice is immoral and offensive. That so many people are deprived of the conditions that make honest and dignified work possible for them is in itself shameful enough. That shame is compounded by the superficial pseudo-solutions of sending more guards to the border to keep migrants from crossing to areas where work is available to them, or by building walls and fences, or by empowering local police authorities to inquire into whether foreign citizens are legally in the United States. The president of the United States, the United States Congress, the governor of Arizona, and the state legislature of Arizona have all done their part to compound the injustice and to increase the shamefulness of allowing a tragic situation to continue.

It is time to stop manufacturing ineffectual superficial solutions to a problem that exists in the first place because of short-sighted policies. It is time to look beneath the surface to the roots and to have the spiritual courage to act accordingly. Meanwhile, all you who have supported policies that compound the suffering of others, be ashamed.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, May 31, 2010 at 17:26

Posted in Society and polity