All Over the World, Migrants Demand the Right to Stay at Home

A global consensus is emerging on immigration policy--and the U.S. isn’t heeding it.

David Bacon

Immigrants, workers, union members and community activists marched on May Day in San Jose. Marchers protested attacks on immigrants, unions and the rights of workers, and called on Congress to pass a just immigration reform. (David Bacon)

The United States has become home to a large number of people born outside its borders — there were some 40 million as of 2010, according to various estimates. That was up from approximately 20 million in 1990.

Such voices here in the U.S. and abroad deserve a greater audience. If there is no effort to examine the impact of trade agreements, or to look at the danger of the growth of new international guest worker programs, a decade from now, the world we live in will be one we will hardly recognize.

The immigration debate in the United States usually treats the migration of people into this country as something unique. But it is not. The United Nations estimates that 232 million people worldwide live outside the countries where they were born — 3.2 percent of the world’s population. In 2000 it was 175 million, and in 1990, 154 million. The number of cross-border migrants has grown by 78 million people in just over 20 years — enough to fill 20 cities the size of Los Angeles.

U.S. exceptionalism — the idea that this country is somehow unique and different — has no basis in fact when it comes to migration, which is a global phenomenon. And the big questions are why are the number of migrants increasing so rapidly and what should be done about it.

As people around the world try to come to terms with this reality it is clear that Congress and the Obama administration are at one pole of an international debate. At this pole the Tea Party and Democrats find common ground. They may disagree on legalization for the undocumented, but they agree on the other basic elements of what is called comprehensive immigration reform.” Both support trade policies benefiting corporations, while turning a blind eye to the havoc and displacement they cause. And their shared solution” is to channel displaced people into labor programs, while coming down hard on those who migrate outside the approved framework.

The European Union also calls for preventing the employment of undocumented people, and a humane and effective return [deportation] policy,” in the European Council’s Return Directive” of 2008. It does, however, emphasize the rights of migrants more than U.S. policies.

There is another pole, however. In New York in early October, organizations from countries producing the world’s migrants, as well as from communities of migrants in their destination countries, shared a very different vision, at the civil society meetings surrounding the U.N. High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development. A comprehensive migration policy must have at its core the protection of the full extent and range of migrant rights,” says the IBON Foundation in Manila, in an October report, Migration and Development - A Matter of Seeking Justice. Labour export policies must be replaced by a rights-based approach to migration.”

The U.S. solution,” however, is not just a proposal debated in Congress, but a reality on the ground, implementing long-standing policies.

Last year 409,849 people were deported from the United States, bringing the total to about 2 million for the first five years of the Obama administration. According to the Department of Homeland Security, current deportations average 30,791 per month, including more than 8,500 parents of U.S. citizen children. The government spends more today on border and immigration enforcement than on all other Federal law enforcement agencies combined.

In addition, authorities annually audit the records of more than 2,000 employers, ordering them to fire hundreds of thousands of workers who lack legal immigration status. And while firings of those without papers increase, so does the number of workers brought to the United States by employers with visas that tie their ability to stay to their jobs — guest workers.” A recent report by the Global Workers Justice Alliance, Visas Inc., says between 700,000 and 900,000 migrants are working in the United States on temporary work visas. The most notorious of these visa programs, H2A and H2B, are called close to slavery” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Michael Chertoff, President Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, explained the apparent contradiction between mass deportations and importing guest workers as closing the back door and opening the front door.” Heavy enforcement would deter undocumented migration, he said, and would force migrants into contract labor programs.

Less discussed, but just as much a part of migration policy, is the impact of global economic policies in developing countries that are the source of the migration. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted in 1993, 4.6 million Mexicans lived in the United State. By 2008, 11 percent of Mexico’s population lived here — 12.7 million people.

Again, the United States is not alone. France today, with about 66 million inhabitants, has 8.3 million migrants, up from 5.9 million 20 years ago. Italy went from 1.4 to 4.5 million in the same period. In the United States, France, Italy and other developed countries, migrant workers are an essential part of the economy, laboring in the lowest-paid and least secure jobs.

Despite this growth in migration, however, there is almost no discussion in developed countries of the reasons for it, and the high cost of migration to migrants’ countries of origin. At the other end of the migrant stream, trade agreements like NAFTA and structural adjustment policies require countries like Mexico and the Philippines to cut the social budget for education, healthcare and other services in order to make debt payments, while opening their economies to foreign corporations. Those countries then become increasingly dependent on the money sent home by migrants working abroad.

In 2012 worldwide remittances reached $401 billion, 5.3 percent higher than 2011. Top recipients include India ($69 billion), China ($60 billion), the Philippines ($24 billion) and Mexico ($23 billion). They are rising even during a worldwide recession.

Countries dependent on remittances become labor reserves, exporting people to make up for the lack of sustainable economic development that could give them a future at home. This is called circular” migration, since migrants aren’t supposed to settle in their destination countries — just work there, send money home and eventually return.Periodically, under the aegis of the UN diplomats and government representatives meet to discuss migration and development at what is known as the High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development. In a contribution to the UN publication for this year’s meeting, Douglas Massey, professor of Sociology at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University writes that international migrants are not desperately seeking to escape abject poverty but are purposeful actors acting strategically to improve their lives and adapt to change using one of the most accessible tools at their disposal.” Instead of trying to restrict circularity,” he says, policy should manage the … flows that follow from each country’s particular pattern of integration within the global economy.”

Similar arguments have increasingly dominated the international debate over migration in organizations like the UN and the International Organization on Migration. In July the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reported on previous sessions of the High-Level Dialogue. His report reflects the desire by many countries to treat remittances as a source of economic development, and assumes that migrants should serve as an international labor supply. In other words, poor countries should send people to rich ones in organized labor (guest worker) schemes, and then use the money earned by those workers to alleviate poverty or develop economically. Member States should mainstream migration into national development plans [and] poverty reduction strategies,” he writes. These are euphemistic arguments for a labor export policy in developing countries, and guest worker programs in developed ones.

But Ban Ki-moon cautions against some of the most extreme anti-immigrant provisions being considered by Congress, and by rightwing parties in Europe. Migrant workers, irrespective of their status, should be protected from abuse and exploitation,” he writes, with steps that include enforcing child labour laws, enabling migrant workers to change their employers after arrival in the destination country, [and] ensuring equal treatment in terms of wages and working conditions.”

While diplomats engaged in gentlemanly exchanges at this October’s High-Level Dialogue, however, migrant organizations, unions and other grassroots groups marched across the Brooklyn Bridge and through the streets of Manhattan, criticizing this global perspective.

The Peoples’ Global Action on Migration (PGA), a coalition of civil society groups from different countries advocating for migrant rights, broke with the view of migrants as a labor supply, shared by the High-Level Dialogue and the U.S. Congress. Instead, in its Declaration and Recommendations” given to the High Level Dialogue, it put forward a critique of the circular migration/​temporary labour model, which includes guest-worker and labour export programmes as an economic development model, reliance on remittances and models that treat workers as commodities.”

According to Monami Maulik, Executive director of New York City’s DRUM-South Asian Workers Center and the Global South Asian Migrant Workers Alliance, We challenge the focus on remittances within this neo-liberal model of managed, circular migration. We call for people over profits and a focus on human rights.”

DRUM became one of the most active organizations in the United States during the war on terror,” opposing the wholesale detention of people from South Asia and the Middle East and the treatment of migrants as security threats. Criminalization,” Maulik says, is the other side of the coin of neo-liberalism — a tool for repression and control to force migrant labor to accept abysmal conditions.” She and other PGA organizations campaign against the migration-criminalization industrial complex, to end privatized, multinational profiteering from migrant labor.”

Another grassroots gathering that took place simultaneously in New York City, the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), also opposed the policy of the export of labor through guest worker programs, often called managed migration.” With member organization in many of the developing countries that send migrants to developed ones, the IMA declaration emphasized that Poverty, unemployment, political conflict and general displacement of peoples, including displacement due to environmental factors, are the major causes of migration.”

Most migration, in other words, is fueled by the need to survive. The alternative, asserted by groups like the U.S./Mexico Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations is the right to stay home” — that is, to economic development that can make migration a voluntary option instead. In Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, for instance, it calls for the government to subsidize farm prices, to produce jobs and protect labor rights, and to provide better social services. This would give young people especially an alternative to leaving home to seek work in the United States.

In its Submission to the General Assembly High Level Dialogue,” the IMA warned against the further systematization of labor export programs that violate the most fundamental of human rights of migrants, that is, to be treated as human beings.”. Governments in migrants’ countries of origin must include industrialization that generates enough jobs, where labor rights are respected, and which will foster sustainable development … The achievement of these goals will create an environment that shall realize migration as a right and not a necessity.”

Concrete recommendations shared by the PGA and IMA include human rights enforcement for migrants, labor rights, full employment and decent work, environmental sustainability, democracy and implementation of the 1990 United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Some organizations in the PGA, like the Global Workers Justice Alliance, advocate reforming the existing guest worker system, combating worker exploitation by promoting portable justice for transnational migrants through a cross-border network of worker advocates and resources.” Others, however, call guest worker programs inherently exploitative and say they should be abolished.

Majid (Majeed) Al Alawi, Bahrain’s former minister for employment, lost his job when he began to question the temporary” status of his country’s migrant guest workers. We must start to ask ourselves whether these are really temporary contracted workers,” he says. These young people are spending the best years of their life here, continually renewing short-term contracts and putting up with terrible conditions. How can a situation of this kind really be considered temporary?”

Al Alawi’s observations are far in advance of those voiced in the current U.S. congressional debate over immigration reform. Instead of considering his question — how to integrate migrants into the communities where they live and provide them a decent long-term future, Congress is moving in the opposite direction. Even its more liberal” proposals would erode the priority on permanent residence and the reunification of families — a hallmark of the way the U.S. civil rights movement reformed immigration policy in 1965. Instead, Congress is crafting an immigration system oriented towards providing a labor supply for employers, at wages they want to pay, while raising the budget for immigration enforcement by $47 billion. 

The United States has not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants and Their Families. The attitude of successive administrations, and even more so Congress, is that international agreements should not bind the government, especially if they are intended to enforce migrants’ and workers’ rights.

The world, however, is moving in a different direction. The UN General Assembly agreed in 2006 that A major principle of migration policy is that everyone should have the option of staying and prospering in her or his own country. To that end, all countries should strive to create more jobs and decent jobs for their people.”

Cathi Tactaquin, executive director of the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, told the High Level Dialogue that hundreds of civil society organizations worldwide want to make migration more genuinely a choice and not a necessity. We support the right to migrate, and the right to remain at home, with decent work and human security,” she says.

Many progressive immigrant rights groups in the United States have made common cause with the global movements of migrants. Challenging the solutions” pushed by Congress, they call for ending guest worker programs entirely, giving all migrants residence visas and protecting their ability to bring their families to the United States. These groups, which include the American Friends Service Committee, the Dignity Campaign and others, also advocate renegotiating the trade agreements that lead to the displacement of communities and the forcible migration of their inhabitants.

Such voices here in the U.S. and abroad deserve a greater audience. If there is no effort to examine the impact of trade agreements, or to look at the danger of the growth of new international guest worker programs, a decade from now, the world we live in will be one we will hardly recognize. Poverty will deepen in developing countries, the gulf between migrants and residents will widen in developed ones, and hundreds of millions of people will be trapped in a global labor system in which migration as low-paid labor is the only way to survive.

David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013), Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/​Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dba​con​.igc​.org.
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