Daily, I get forwarded informational emails from family members. Most are constructive. They remind me of the important fact that far too many women in our country are dying of cancer. Others are not so constructive, and talk about economic problems in the U.S. focusing on one central enemy: the immigrant.
"Illegal immigrants come to this country, steal our jobs, and don't pay taxes."
"Immigrants take advantage of federal, state and local services."
"Immigrants demand everything in Spanish from the street signs to the national anthem."
These emails expose the ugly, harsh prevailing beliefs expressed by White and Black Americans alike. Whether dominantly liberal or progressive, many Black Americans have lived for generations at the back of the line, and tie the perceived threat of immigrants to their scarce jobs and resources. Although we share a similar historical condition and have worked together for basic human rights and justice, these tensions manifest themselves between African Americans and Latinos.
In this age of globalization, it is ok for everything to be transnational except poor people. Jobs can be shipped from country to country. That shirt you're wearing was most likely manufactured in multiple countries. It was woven in one country, sewn in another, packaged possibly in a third. Your shirt is not illegal.
Capital is also transnational. Once tied to the gold standard, the U.S. dollar is now tied to the international market and is traded internationally. It is affected by the British pound and Japanese Yen. This is not illegal. What is apparently "illegal" is, in response to these transnational economic changes, for the poor people who are most negatively affected by globalization to migrate. Yet, despite all the rhetoric, these undocumented immigrants are boosting, not hurting our economy. If all the undocumented workers left the U.S. tomorrow, our economy would lose $1.8 trillion a year.
We need to let go of the myth that people are coming to this country because "it's the greatest country in the world." I have traveled all over the world; I have never met anyone who wanted to leave their homeland. But because of conflict, disease and lack of opportunities people do have to leave. Trade agreements in the style of NAFTA and CAFTA have sweeping economic effects that benefit large corporations, not the workers. People in the U.S., especially in the rust belt, have social protections such as welfare and Medicaid, but still feel the crippling effects of job losses and high prices. Workers and families in poorer countries feel the brunt of the changes more severely and desperately.
From low-intensity warfare to full-scale invasions, our foreign policy has set into motion a chain of events that make many countries unlivable.
All Americans, including Black Americans, must work to make our world, and not just this country, livable. We have to create a foreign policy that makes it possible for people to live in their home, in their country and to have a promising future. Undocumented workers, the majority of whom are honest and hard working, deserve basic human dignity, decent working conditions and path towards legalization. It is with our shared histories in mind we can work together to ensure fair and just economic and social conditions at home and abroad.
Nicole Lee is executive director of the TransAfrican Forum.