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Which Is Worse, Illegal Aliens Or The Gruesome Oil Spill ?

by Geraldo Rivera | May 28, 2010

What does it say about us as a nation and of our national leadership that we applaud the emergency deployment of the National Guard to assist in sealing our southern border from undocumented Mexican immigrants, at the same time scores of miles of the Louisiana Gulf Coast go unprotected from the billowing waves of oils now washing on shore? Which is the true calamity, and which is the product of well-intentioned citizens being mislead by hyper-ventilating politicians trying to out hard ass the next by being the toughest on illegal aliens?
 
As I have documented in two recent books, Mexican immigrants have been crossing the southern border since our conquest of Mexico and occupation of its former national territory in the American southwest in 1846. Until then, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California and much of the rest of the American far west belonged to Mexico. Over the subsequent generations, an ad hoc, unofficial system evolved. Driven by the classic market forces of labor supply and demand on ranches, in farms, fields and later factories, varying numbers of undocumented Mexicans, (and increasingly other Central Americans), were encouraged to cross the line and work 'off the books'.
 
Over the generations, our feelings towards them varied depending broadly on the employment situation among the domestic labor force. When there was too much for Americans to do, employers reached hungrily for the Mexicans. This was especially true during the four great wars of the 20th Century, especially World Wars I and II, when the area was stripped of its noble young to defend democracy abroad; but it was also a substantial phenomenon during both the Korean Conflict and Vietnam.
 
Classically, the demand for, and the good feelings toward our southern neighbors devolved into resentment when our boys returned home looking for their old jobs. A cross-cultural tempo developed throughout the south and southwest: we loved them when we needed them, and chased them back across the line when we didn't. (During the worst of the Great Depression, we also chased Mexicans-Americans who were bona fide U.S. citizens, but that is a dark story for another time.)
 
As America's economy continuing expanding, ample jobs were available for most citizens willing to work. Over time, as the post-war prosperity took hold, particularly toward the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries, public attitudes toward hard labor low salary jobs changed dramatically. Our citizens became increasingly reluctant to work in the dirty difficult areas of meat and poultry processing, crop harvesting and low-wage factory work; and later, increasingly in child care, and food service. As our youngsters left the fields and farms, processing plants and kitchens for the big cities, the labor vacuum was filled by those here without proper documentation, and eventually market forces roughly regulated how many visitors were welcome or not.
 
What makes the current anti-immigrant wave of resentment that gained momentum across the nation in about 2005-6 unique is that it hit at a time of essentially full-employment for citizen Americans. For the first time in American history, the anti-immigrant sentiment had become disconnected from practical concerns like competition for jobs. In 2007, when the crescendo of anti-immigrant sentiment helped crush the idea of comprehensive immigration reform, the domestic unemployment rate was under 5%, the number generally regarded as full domestic employment. Even now, with the nation distressed by the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and 10% unemployment, some employers forced to fire or not hire undocumented Mexican workers are being forced to let crops die on the vine and fields go unsown; or they have been forced to hire workers imported legally from Somalia and other areas a lot farther a field than Mexico, and with none of the same historical antecedents.
 
Every sovereign nation has the right and duty to protect and control its borders, and to determine who is welcome and who is not. There is also no doubt but that the hyper, drug-driven violence on the Mexican side of the line is spilling over into this country. We must fight those criminals. But as every survey shows, the vast majority of these people are not the bogeyman the Minutemen make them out to be. They are law abiding, hard working family people who, again according to every major study, commit fewer crimes than citizens. Given those facts, remember the historic record.  These people didn't suddenly spring out of the Arizona desert. They have been part and parcel of the American scene for centuries. Many of them have long-established ties to families here; many have children born here, and most have been following the informal though long-established rhythms of cross-border life for seasons beyond counting.
 
Given that backdrop, it is heart-breaking to watch my once favorite senator John McCain, once a pro-immigration reform leader and in other ways a maverick like me, standing this morning on the floor of the United States Senate saying how the president's recent decision to send hundreds of National Guard troops to help seal the border is woefully inadequate. And he's right. As a much larger temporary border troop deployment during the Bush Administration demonstrated, if we intend to seal the 2,000 mile long southern frontier we would need whole divisions of troops, tens of thousands of GI's, not tens of hundreds. Therefore, even the number he suggests is more a political salve than a real solution.
 
And yet even if the entire 101st Airborne Division stood in their way, if a job awaited them, those Mexicans would still come. In any case, the irony is that far fewer of them are coming now than have come for decades. The economic recession has effectively halved the flow of job-seekers today compared to peak levels three years ago; as usual, the marketplace is working its customary magic far more effectively than government action.
 
Now let me ask again the question I posed at the top of this piece. Which would you prefer? To have those recently deployed Guardsmen chasing would-be apricot and avocado pickers in the Arizona Sonora desert or helping save wild life and lands in the afflicted coasts of the Gulf of Mexico?

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