I want to suggest that we recast the immigration debate, by asking ourselves the following question: What is the price that one country must pay for destroying another country? This is not a simple question but it is actually central to the current discussions on immigration and it is something that few people want to actually address.
The facts are these: There are about 150 million people who are globally considered migrants. The lion's share of them originates in the global south (Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean), which was the target of Western colonialism beginning in the 15th century. To this, of course, should be added the African slave trade and its impact on the continent, as well as years of further intervention.
So, my first point: The economies and social structures of most of the global south were turned upside down by the West for several hundred years. In this, the United States was directly complicit. Looking only at Latin America, for instance, self-determined economic and political development efforts were derailed by the United States through a history of what was once called "gunboat diplomacy" (sending in ships and troops), and later by indirect intervention through the propping up of local dictators as well as separate, covert efforts, to overthrow regimes the United States frowned upon. If one looks at Central America alone, then, it should be no surprise that refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua would come north to the United States seeking a better life as the United States was cooperating in destroying their homes. This is not rhetoric, but historic fact.
My second point: In light of this situation, how does the United States repair the damage? Well, we must begin by acknowledging our role in this. In other words, treating civil wars in Central and South America as strictly internal affairs of countries in those regions, or ignoring the impact of the U.S.-led North American Free Trade Agreement on the people of Mexico, blinds us to the consequences of these policies. One of the major consequences has been the flow of refugees north to the United States as life has become intolerable in their homelands.
Some people will respond that this is not the fault of people in the United States, but we have to do something about this, and that means insisting on a different U.S. foreign policy.
We African Americans who support reparations for African Americans (as a result of slavery and Jim Crow segregation), argue that central to this demand is the recognition that a fundamental wrong was done to us and that the damage has never been fully or even significantly repaired. Thus, we — African Americans — live within the specter of slavery and segregation today even if these systems have formally ceased to exist. To put it another way, we live with the consequences of these systems, a fact demonstrated time again when one looks at issues such as racial differentials in wealth, health, housing, income and jobs for African Americans compared with White Americans.
The same question, albeit with different facts, applies when we are thinking about people coming from the global south to the United States. We simply cannot pretend that people are coming to this country because of the dream of golden-paved streets. They are coming here in large part because their chance to live their own lives in their homes —where they would rather stay — has been undermined by what government after government in the Western world, including but not limited to the U.S. government, has done to these regions.
Let's start with the truth of the situation and then take steps to repair the damage. Do we honestly think that people easily and with very little forethought, simply pack up and leave their homelands to come here for the hell of it?
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a labor and international activist and writer.