The Roots of Today’s Immigration and Refugee Crisis

This week the Seattle City Council passed a resolution (PDF) on immigration reform rooted in the work of El Comité. I used this opportunity to place the immigration crisis within its proper historical and economic context. Watch my speech in Council Chambers and see the transcript below.

Transcript of Speech as Delivered

While speaking out in support of this resolution calling for urgent immigration reform, I think it is absolutely crucial that we place the problem of immigration reform in the correct historical and economic context.

Many of you are probably aware that most of the more than 57,000 unaccompanied children mentioned in the Resolution are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

It is no coincidence that these are the exact same countries which received large amounts of U.S. military funding during the 1980s to annihilate peasant and worker supported movements fighting for land reform, fighting against foreign control over their natural resources, and fighting for socialism.

In order to preserve capitalism in Central America, the U.S. government has supported and trained paramilitary death squads which recruited child soldiers and targeted civilian populations, massacring indigenous peasant populations with impunity.

The effects of these U.S. supported civil wars were horrifying: the UN reports an estimated 75,000 were killed in El Salvador and up to 200,000 died or went missing in Guatemala.

The social movements were largely destroyed, and in their wake, there were millions of weapons and an obscenely unequal economic structure condemning the majority of the population to abject poverty.

This created fertile ground for the gangs and violence which now compel the parents of tens of thousands of children to, in an act of sheer desperation, send their children to the U.S. unaccompanied.

I would also like to remind everyone that the larger problem of undocumented migration is also a direct product of economic policy that serves the needs of big business at the expense of working people both in the U.S. and around the world.

Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in 1994 more than two million farmers in Mexico were forced to leave their farms, unable to compete with U.S. subsidized corn. A corresponding rise in food prices has left 25% of the Mexican population without access to basic food. One fifth of Mexican children suffer from malnutrition.

Since NAFTA was signed into law, the number of undocumented migrants in the U.S. has exploded from under 4 million to more than 12 million.

Immigration without documents of this kind is a product of this poverty, this inequality, this desperation that working people feel every day in a capitalist world that puts the profits of corporations over the needs of ordinary people.

Its beneficiaries of this system include, of course, the many corporations who benefit from a labor population forced to live in the shadows with practically no legal rights and who are forced to work often at sub-minimum wages.

Also included are companies like the Geo Corporation, which is a for-profit detention center which made headlines when its prisoners in Tacoma, with whom I stand in solidarity, went on hunger strike to protest the $1.00 per day wages they receive and to call for immigration reform.

It is my hope that we pass this Resolution, calling on President Obama and Congress to put families and workers first when setting immigration policy, with this historical and economic context in mind.

And with this resolution, limited though its impact may be, will hopefully be provided a continued motivation for working people to keep getting organized and build political movements to change the U.S. foreign and economic policy from one that caters to the interests of multinational corporations and foments poverty, inequality and desperation to one that serves the needs of working people and peasants and improves their lives to the point that they no longer have to flee their home countries in desperation. And I am grateful to Councilmember Licata for championing this, and for all of the community activists, their work and their determined and courageous advocacy for some of the most oppressed people.

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