Conversation Of The Week XXV: Immigrant Rights As Human Rights

March 19, 2012
Written by Tanya Golash-Boza Assistant Professor of Sociology, Douglas Parker Professor of Sociology in
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Tanya Golash-Boza, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas.

Current global policies and immigration regulations of the United States result in violations of the human rights of migrants. These policies and regulations are designed to maximize profits for corporations and minimize the prices of consumer goods for customers in the Global North with little if any consideration of the human costs inside and outside US borders. Multinational corporations increasingly are globalizing their operations, moving their factories from the US to Mexico, to China, and to other countries, constantly in search of the cheapest source of labor. This corporate border hopping creates displaced worker populations which are often forced to emigrate to survive. Yet, while current international laws often allow for the free movement of capital, they do not allow for the free movement of labor. This leads to high levels of undocumented migrants and temporary workers in the Global North who are frequently separated from their families that have been left behind.

This chapter explains how temporary worker programs prevent immigrants from becoming full and equal members of the communities in which they work and live, and how the criminalization of undocumented immigrants transforms these migrants into dehumanized individuals. From a human rights perspective, all human beings should have rights to jobs, to safe working conditions, to food security, to decent health care, to education, to a family, and to a cultural identity. Temporary worker programs that permit workers to come to a country only to work for low wages with no benefits, and do not permit them to bring their families, to send their children to school, and to form communities are a violation of these workers’ human rights.

Globalization is a set of social processes that is bringing the world closer together. One of the central processes of globalization involves the international trade in and movement of human labor. This includes both transnational corporations setting up production facilities as well as sending out recruiters around the world in pursuit of cheaper labor, and immigrants leaving their countries of origin in pursuit of employment in other countries and thus better lives. These processes are intimately linked and are a fundamental part of what we might call the human face of globalization in the contemporary era. Recognizing the interconnectedness between corporate migration and recruitment on the one hand and human migration on the other is the key for thinking about the rights of migrants.

From a human rights perspective, all men and women, both those who live in their countries of origin as well as those who reside in other countries, share a common human dignity and deserve certain human rights. As Blau and Moncada (2005) point out, these rights apply to all persons, not just to citizens of certain nation states. Human rights also involve the recognition of the rights of others, and generally require states or other organizations to do something to ensure that rights are realized. Article 23 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies that “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment,” and Article 25 stipulates that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services” (Blau and Moncada, 2005: 39). These statements seem hard to disagree with, yet they raise the question of who is responsible for providing these fundamental rights. More specifically, in a globalizing world, as the actions of states and private corporations often adversely affect the globe’s population, whose responsibility is it to ensure that human rights are ensured?

The Great Wall around the US

Political leaders in the United States have been reluctant to recognize human rights for all men, women and children. For example, in Rome in 2002, the United Nations called on countries to recognize the human right to food security. Although delegates from 182 countries affirmed the right to food, the United States objected. US delegates stated that they had no problem with the principle of food security but also indicated that they did not want to endorse food security in a way that was legally binding for governments .

Inasmuch as the rights discourse in the United States has primarily revolved around negative rights which limit the powers of the state such as the freedom from search and seizure or the freedom of the press, it should come as no surprise that the current debates over immigration do not usually involve much discussion about the rights of migrants. Instead, these debates focus primarily on border security and the threats posed by illegal immigrants as well as terrorists. It could be useful, then, to consider how we plan to protect our borders from illegal immigrants and terrorists, as these two groups are frequently referred to by some of our political leaders and the media in general.

altDuring 2005 and 2006, and up to mid-2007, a number of bills dealing with immigration were introduced in the Congress, some of which were endorsed by President George W. Bush. Although their strategies differed, all of the proposed bills attempted to regulate the flow of immigrants into the United States. The only bill dealing with immigration that was passed in 2006, the Secure Fence Act, had as its main goal a reduction in the number of undocumented immigrants entering the United States. This Act authorized, but did not appropriate funds for, a 700-mile barrier (sometimes involving double or triple fences) along the US border with Mexico.

Congress did provide the Department of Homeland Security with 1.5 billion dollars for upgrading technology at the border but no funds were allocated specifically for the 700 miles of fence which the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimated would cost as much as 49 billion dollars over the expected 25-year life span of the fence (the CRS estimate did not include the costs of acquiring private land along the border or the labor if the construction is done by private contractors). The CRS questioned the effectiveness of the fence in preventing illegal entry into the US, particularly if the fence was not extended to cover the entire 1,952 mile-border . Others have asked whether some of the construction might not be feasible as the fence would have to climb rugged rocks and plunge into deep ravines. The partial fence’s primary effect may be to force people from the Global South to use more dangerous ways of crossing the border such as through the treacherous desert in southern Arizona .

Reducing undocumented immigration might only be possible through an aggressive militarization of all of our borders, or through a comprehensive immigration reform that took into account the global processes that produce migration flows. The military approach would be difficult given that we have two extensive borders to the north and south, as well as a large number of ports and sandy beaches where boats could dock or land. Currently our northern border is largely unprotected, with the exception of a few border patrol stations at certain key junctures, and there are not enough Border Patrol agents or National Guards to patrol either the northern or the southern border. Decreasing undocumented immigration by use of the regular military would involve deploying tens of thousands of troops along our borders and this possibility appears unlikely given the current shortage of troops. This shortage is exacerbated by the increasing practice since World War II of positioning and maintaining units of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in Europe, Asia and other locations abroad for possible conflicts with foreign countries and, more recently, terrorist groups in some of those countries .

In the Middle East and elsewhere, the US has resorted to using private contractors for various military services. According to Source Watch, private military contractors are the second largest force in Iraq with more than twenty thousand active personnel in the country . A recent Democracy Now! report affirms that 48,000 people work for private security firms in Iraq . But the use of private military contractors does not seem to be a viable strategy for securing substantial parts of our borders unless an enormous amount of money is poured into the effort, and would likely require recruiting workers from abroad, as is currently being done to rebuild New Orleans . Placing either regular or private military forces along the southern border may only be appropriate and feasible in areas where the drug cartels and their paramilitary forces are creating problems such as around Nuevo Laredo which resembles “a Sunni town in Anbar Province,” according to one conservative analyst .

altEvery time the US government has implemented a plan to deter immigration through enforcement, the efforts have been costly and ineffective. In 1993, the Clinton administration made a decision to get serious about border enforcement. This meant building more fences and increasing the numbers of Border Patrol agents along the border. The tripling of the amount of resources spent on border enforcement led to a temporary decline in the rates of success of would-be border-crossers. However, it did not take too long for migrants and people-smugglers to figure out new ways to cross the border. These new ways tended to be more dangerous and more clandestine than previous ways. Organized groups dug tunnels under fences to smuggle people and drugs. Between 2001 and 2004, 14 such trans-border tunnels were found along the California-Mexico border (Cornelius 2005: 779). Between 1995 and 2005, there were reports of 3,218 migrants who died trying to cross the border. The actual number is probably much higher because this number only includes those people whose bodies were found by the Border Patrol or the Mexican police. The peak year for deaths was 2000, with 491, up from 59 in 1996 (Cornelius 2005: 783-4).

Migrants seeking employment or reunification with their families increasingly risk their lives in attempting to cross the border. Of those who died trying to cross the border in 2002 and 2003, approximately 75 percent died of heat exposure (Sapkota et al. 2006). Prior to 1994, heat-related deaths were almost never reported along the border (Cornelius 2001). And some of the migrants from Central or South American countries have been robbed, raped, injured or even killed during their journey through Mexico . Their absences from their families have had adverse economic and psychological effects on their relatives and children. In Ecuador, for example, suicides by children left behind have been increasing .

The difficulties in crossing borders have also meant that undocumented migrants are more likely to stay longer in the United States. In the case of Mexican migrants, in 1992, about 20 percent returned home from the US after six months; by 1997, this figure had gone down to 15 percent, and by 2000, only 7 percent of Mexican migrants went home after six months (Cornelius 2005). Circular migration between the US and Mexico has been common since the border lines were drawn up in the nineteenth century (Massey et al. 2002). Efforts to increase security along the border have not stopped this migration; they simply have made it more dangerous for people to cross the border and more likely for people to prolong their stays once they are inside the United States. Attempts to further secure the border will only result in a more dangerous and deadly crossing for migrants. Efforts such as the Secure Fence Act can thus be characterized as inhumane.

Migrants and the American Dream

Do we really want a physical or military wall between ourselves and the rest of the world? Pat Buchanan does. Buchanan (2006: 44-45) argues that the United States is being invaded by immigrants, legal and illegal, primarily from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He claims that these migrants come with considerably less education than European, Iranian and Asian immigrants and bring with them an array of diseases such as malaria, polio and the type of tuberculosis which is resistant to multiple drugs. Buchanan states that Mexicans substantially outnumber all other immigrant groups so that “The core of the crisis is Mexico” and insists that we must halt the Third World invasion by building twin fences “along the entire 2,000-mile border with Mexico, defining, sealing and securing it forever” (2006: 45, 254).

Buchanan (2006: 265) claims that inasmuch as immigrants work for lower wages than Americans, they drive down the wages of American workers, particularly unskilled or low-skilled black, Hispanic and white Americans and recommends that employers who break the law by hiring illegal aliens should be severely punished. Some demographers, though, have found that the presence of undocumented workers does not affect the wages of native workers (See: Bean, Lowell and Taylor 1988).

altLou Dobbs, another critic, emphasizes the importance of penalizing those who do not provide adequate wages to immigrant as well as American workers. Dobbs, who also calls for heavy penalties for employers of illegal aliens, argues that “The exploitation of illegal workers must end” and that any employer “who does not pay workers at least a minimum wage should be subjected to additional fines.” He adds: “And this would be a good time to raise the minimum wage to a living wage and to establish heavy penalties for those who violate that standard” (Dobbs 2006: 207).

Another analyst contends that the most important issue is whether the world economy should continue to be regulated by corporations that are answerable only to the rich and powerful or whether it should be managed by national governments built to assess risk and to be answerable to all citizens . But Buchanan (2006: 73, 242) maintains that in the United States the corporations and their lobbyists have captured the American government and that the proposals of Republicans like Bush, McCain and many liberal Democrats to grant amnesty to twelve million illegal workers and to give pardons to businesses that hired the illegal workers constitute “economic treason” against American workers. According to Buchanan (2006: 74), immigration, for Bush, is all about “America as a giant job mart” for corporations that want to roam the world and hire foreign workers at the lowest possible wages in order to de-Americanize the better paid US labor force. A minimum wage, preferably a living one, which is enforced, as Dobbs has urged, is one response that would be helpful.

Dobbs (2006: 1, 200-206) agrees that the government is directed by the corporations and lobbyists but believes that it is possible to “Take Back America” by having us register as independents, by financing elections completely from public funds, by using initiatives and referendums, by extending the period of time between completion of government service and the commencement of service as lobbyists, by making our trade agreements with other nations reciprocal and fair, by placing tariff duties and fees on any product or service corporations produced overseas for US consumption, and in general by reinvigorating participatory democracy. Others suggest that it might be more effective to develop international agreements in organizations such as the United Nations and to work toward collective goals with nongovernmental organizations or associations such as the World Social Forum (Blau and Moncada 2005: 32-33, 164).

altBuchanan (2006), who wants to seal the borders, acknowledges that by 2050 the portion of the US population of European descent will be “aging, shrinking and dying” (37). But he does not call for American women to have more babies as has been asked of Russian women by President Vladimir Putin who has been worried about the rapidly declining Russian population and has pledged payments to mothers who elect to have a second child . Buchanan (2006: 200) points out that Russia and almost all other European nations are not reproducing their populations and are also “aging, shrinking, and dying,” and he argues that to maintain economic growth and tax revenues to fund health care and pensions for increasing numbers of the retired and elderly, these European countries will need millions of new workers which they can only find in the Third World. But Buchanan does not use the same argument when discussing the graying American population of European descent.

The United States has a higher fertility than other industrialized countries only because the hundreds of thousands who migrate have comparatively large families. White Americans have not had enough children to replace themselves since 1971 with their greater education being the best predictor of decreased childbearing (Longman 2004: 16-17). The US population is aging rapidly and very soon the federal government will have serious problems funding its three senior benefit programs. By 2030, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in addition to the interest on the national debt may consume 24 percent of the Gross Domestic Product and by 2050 these programs and the interest could consume 47 percent of the GDP (Longman 2004: 21). The US will also need millions of new workers to pay taxes which can be used for its programs for the retired and the elderly.

Continued immigration from Mexico and other countries in the Global South will help although it is not a complete solution to the aging US population. Mexico is the largest source of immigration to the United States; in 2002, of 32.5 million foreign born, 9.8 million or 30 percent were from Mexico and 5.3 million of these Mexicans were undocumented immigrants.

In 2004, the foreign born population in the United States was 35.7 million persons with 32 percent naturalized citizens, 29 percent legal permanent residents, and 29 percent undocumented migrants (7 percent were refugees and 3 percent were temporary legal residents). The undocumented migrants were predominantly younger than the native-born with 34 percent of the undocumented migrants between the ages of 18 and 29 as compared to 16 percent of the native population .

Birthrates, which have already fallen below replacement levels in Europe as well as in Asia, are now falling in Latin America which raises the definite possibility that the last major source of workers from abroad will yield a declining group of workers. In addition, the US also will face increasing competition from Europe for new immigrants from Latin America (Longman 2004: 24). Given that population growth together with productivity is the engine of economic growth and thus of potential tax revenues for the three major senior benefit programs as well as educational and scientific programs, is it reasonable to continue to make it so difficult for Mexicans and others to migrate to the United States? For at least graying Americans if not also for others in the United States, migrants may prolong the American Dream.

A Nation of Immigrants

We often hear that we are a nation of immigrants, but it will be useful to briefly consider the extent to which this is true, especially with regard to Mexican immigration into the US. The first Mexicans that came to be part of the United States never crossed any border. Instead, the border crossed them. Native Americans had been living in the southwestern region of the United States for thousands of years prior to the arrival of any Europeans in the Americas. Some of these…To read the rest of this paper download the free PDF by clicking the “Add to Cart” button below.

Author Bio: Douglas Parker, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, California State University, Long Beach, previously taught in the Department of Political Studies in Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario and in Sociology at Colorado College, and conducted research at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as well as at another National Institute of Health. He has published numerous articles and book chapters. His current research is on the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities, on the conditions which are associated with greater consumption of alcohol, and on the limitations of post-colonial theory as disclosed by a close reading of texts from literature and popular culture

Author Bio: Tanya Golash-Boza is Assistant Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Kansas. She is the author of three books: 1) Due Process Denied (2012), which describes how and why non-citizens in the United States have been detained and deported for minor crimes, without regard for constitutional limits on disproportionate punishment; 2) Immigration Nation (2012), which provides a critical analysis of the impact that U.S. immigration policy has on human rights; and 3) Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru (2011), the first book in English to address what it means to be black in Peru. Her innovative scholarship was awarded the Distinguished Early Career Award from the Racial and Ethnic Minorities Studies Section of the American Sociological Association in 2010.

All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the publisher. “Immigrant Rights and Human Rights” by Tanya Boza and Douglas Parker, as it appears on pages 107-126 in Globalization and America by Angela J. Hattery et al.. Published by Rowman & Littlefield.


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Our broken system of immigration.

Submitted by CSULB-PPassanti... on

I think Mrs. Golash-Boza's opening sentence best sums up exactly what is going wrong and why. "Current global policies and immigration regulations of the United States result in violations of the human rights of migrants." I have been lucky enough to have some very close friendships with several people who migrated or family migrated legally and illegally here from another country. It seems from their experiences the problem is the mess that is U.S. Immigration policy and departments. I know of two friends who spent over 15 years working and waiting to get their citizenship. We seem to have a broken system in place and the damaged caused is evident by the suffering that migrants must face when coming to America. Our immigration policy does not live up to what is written below the statue of liberty, and that makes us Hippocrates. "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!". The way we treat people wanting to come join our American dream is horrible and needs to be changed.

WE are not what you make us out to be.

Submitted by CSULB-GPerez3S2012 on

It is incredible to me how much people try to harm one another instead of choosing to help one another. I cannot believe how closely this issue is being documented and how much money the government is willing to spend to keep immigrants from coming into this country, instead of using that money for good and helping these human beings improve their current situations. I come from immigrant parents who fought very hard to come to this country and have worked very hard to contribute to this country and make something of themselves and out of us, their children. It really makes my blood boil when I read such comments as we, minorities are not smart individuals and we carry diseases across the border. That is very offensive and I can see why this world is so divided because of uneducated people like Pat Buchanan who merely assume things about others. Instead, they should take the time to really understand these people and see them as humans beings. We are a nation of immigrants and it is time people start accepting it as so. As I was reading this article I couldn't help but think, these people have so many issues with immigrants that we carry diseases and we lower the American wages, but I wouldn't be surprised if these very people are the ones that employee immigrants. We are not what the media portrays us out to be. Please take a moment to actually get to know an immigrant and see their struggles and experience, before coming to a quick conclusion and deciding not to give them the same rights that other people have in this country.

A Nation of Immigrants

Submitted by CSULBF2013-06 on

This country was founded by immigrants. Our borders and laws seem so unjust to me. Many of my peers came to this country as an infant or at an early age and can only recall this country as home. To be unable to do or be what they choose to due to lack of papers is just saddening. I do recognize the harm in lessening our immigration laws. If it were up to me to decide what is to be done with the immigration system, I don't think I could be 100% satisfied with my answer. There are so many sides to this debate that I sympathize with.