By Nick Winnie
Carolina Gonzalez is a 33 year-old mother of two who came across the border 11 years ago with her husband and baby daughter. She has been living as an undocumented immigrant in California and working as a domestic servant ever since.
Gonzalez explained that she desperately wants to return to Guatemala in order to visit her mother and the rest of her family, but is unable to do so because she is in the process of waiting to attain U.S. citizenship, and it is now too dangerous to risk crossing again without documentation.
She has been waiting six years for the U.S. government’s response to her citizenship request.
Despite the enduring optimism of her words, Gonzalez’s facial expressions betrayed a deep feeling of frustration with the government that has continually denied her citizenship.
Along with the rest of America’s estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants, Carolina Gonzalez’s future remains uncertain.
President Bush has repeatedly stated that he is attempting to overhaul America’s current system of immigration, looking for a new "middle ground" between the two extremes of "amnesty" and "mass deportation" for this demographic group which composes approximately 12 percent of total U.S. population.
Bush’s proposal originally included tightened border security, a guest worker program, and a process to give millions of undocumented immigrants legal status in America. But Bush was unable to gain approval of this broader, more moderate piece of legislation due to opposition from House Republicans, and signed into law a very different bill Oct. 26.
The controversial bill provides for the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and lacks provisions for undocumented immigrants’ eventual attainment of citizenship in the United States. Focusing almost entirely on border security, the bill increases the number of barriers, checkpoints, and new technology along the border aimed at deterring the flow of undocumented immigrants into the United States.
The bill represents House Republicans’ "get tough" attitude on illegal immigration, and has brought to the surface the sometimes conflicting interests of different sectors within the Republican Party.
Paul Ortiz, UCSC professor of Community Studies and an immigrants’ rights activist, spoke of the division between what he called the GOP’s "right-wing, frankly racist base, opposed to civil rights" and its "corporate constituent".
While the right-wing Republicans tends to advocate for strict, uncompromising crackdowns on immigration from our southern neighbors, Oriz says, other GOP members favor a broader reworking of immigration law, including a new Guest Worker Program.
Ortiz spoke of this corporate sector’s desire to use this vast population of undocumented immigrants as what he called a new low-wage "Jim Crow" workforce which, through the implementation of Bush’s proposed Guest Worker Program, would create what he called a "permanently disenfranchised group of people."
This group of temporary workers, Ortiz explained, would lack the fundamental rights of organizing unions and engaging in collective bargaining with their employers, keeping these workers from demanding medical benefits and higher wages.
"If you can create this class of people, you will drive down wages for everyone else," Ortiz said.
Dana Frank, UCSC history professor and labor activist, also criticized Bush’s proposed guest worker programs, comparing it to the "Bracero" program instituted during the second World War.
"So-called guest worker programs have historically been a cover for egregious abuses of immigrant workers, in which people come here but have no citizenship rights," Frank said. "They are a recipe for exploitation."
While many immigrants’ rights groups and political liberals are questioning the recent immigration legislation on moral grounds, an even larger group of people-liberals and conservatives included-are challenging the bill’s ability to effectively stem the tide of undocumented immigration.
"People who can either starve to death or move here will find a way to get across the border," Frank said.
Kelly Hayes, president of the UCSC Republicans, echoed Frank’s sentiments.
"Building a fence is like putting a band-aid on a shark bite," Hayes said.
This image of the fence’s inadequacy is likely to resonate with U.S. border patrol agents, judging by their unions’ recent public protest about what they are envisioning as an easily penetrable 700 miles of fencing along a border which stretches over 2,000 miles.
Jonathan Fox, a Latin American and Latino Studies professor, doubted the effectiveness of the fence for an additional reason.
"The proposed fence is unlikely to affect the flow of undocumented immigrants, since it does not address the causes of migration," Fox said.
Fox’s view of the legislation’s shortcomings is shared by Lupe Zamaro, a member of the Watsonville chapter of the Brown Berets, a local immigrants rights’ group.
"As long as there is demand for low-wage labor and U.S. companies and contractors are hiring undocumented workers, the United States will be unable to stop the flow of immigration," Zamaro said.
While it is widely agreed that the construction of this fence along the border will not keep large numbers of undocumented immigrants from entering the country, some, such as Professor Frank, say the new legislation is certain to affect them adversely in a variety of ways.
"The goal is to make the border more militarized and dangerous; to treat human migration as a military question," Frank said.
This new treatment of immigration as a "military question" seemed equally problematic to Professor Ortiz.
"The result is more deaths on the border, and also the U.S. will be seen as repressive and hypocritical," Ortiz said.
According to Fox, the very terms of debate used by House Republicans and seem to imply that these undocumented immigrants have increasingly been viewed as criminals by the U.S. government. House Republicans, many of whom were voted out of office during the midterm elections, turned "amnesty" into what Professor Fox deems a "dirty word."
UCSC Democrats’ publicist Heather Stephens said that the term "amnesty" is misleading and heavily loaded. When conservative politicians state their refusal to grant this amnesty to "illegal immigrants," Stephens said that the language used implies that the "twelve million nonviolent, hardworking people" are criminals and must not be rewarded for their unlawful actions.
According to Zamora of the Brown Berets, local undocumented immigrants are being criminalized by not only the U.S. government’s words, but also its actions. She spoke at length about the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raids which recently took place in Watsonville, when government officials came at 4 a.m., "in the dead of night", to demand documentation from many Watsonville families, taking over 100 people into custody.
As it turned out, Zamora explained, less than one-fifth of those taken into custody had been taken in lawfully with official warrants for their deportation.
Ortiz, Fox, Frank, and Zamora all agreed that while the recent legislation will not lessen the numbers of undocumented immigrants entering the United States, the increased danger along the border will cause many of them, like Carolina Gonzalez, to remain in the country once they arrive.
Zamora made reference to undocumented agricultural workers in Watsonville, whose seasonal occupation has in the past allowed them to return home across the border. This year, Zamora said, most of the workers have decided to stay.
Another important effect of the recent legislation, many believe, has to do with the specific working conditions undocumented immigrants face in the United States. According to both professors, this legislation will undoubtedly have the effect of keeping greater numbers of undocumented immigrants from demanding rights and medical benefits in the workplace.
Many in favor of the recent immigration bill argue that America’s large undocumented immigrant population is a burden on American citizens economically, but this idea is the subject of great debate between opposing sides of the issue.
Hayes, like many Republicans, argues that it is unfair to U.S. citizens for this large group of undocumented immigrants to receive the benefits of our society (including, for example, government services such as public education) while they do not invest in our society as other citizens do by paying income taxes.
Among those opposed to this specific argument are many prominent American economists who argue that the overall effect of undocumented immigrants on the American economy is extremely positive.
A comprehensive study of immigration’s economic effects conducted by the National Research Council in 1997 concluded that undocumented immigrants actually pay far greater amounts of money in taxes-through sales tax and occasionally even payroll taxes-than they consume in public services.
This summer, 500 American economists, including five Nobel Prize winners, composed an open letter to President Bush and Congress, arguing that immigration allows a net economic gain for America and calling it "the greatest anti-poverty program ever devised."
Looking at this question of immigrants’ economic effect locally in Santa Cruz is very revealing as well. According to Ortiz, Santa Cruz’s entire local economy would collapse if undocumented immigrants were removed from the picture. Ortiz argues that the California’s Central Coast, whose economy is extremely reliant upon agriculture and tourism, would be unable to function without this large, low-wage labor force. In particular, Ortiz says, immigrants fill an important economic niche, playing an especially vital role in the farming, construction, and food service industries.
In the aftermath of the recent midterm elections, many Democrats are of the opinion that voters are ready for comprehensive immigration reform allowing for undocumented immigrants to attain citizenship, and that the passage of this sort of legislation is their only avenue to equality in America.
"They will be trapped in a permanent under-class status unless Congress makes possible a pathway to residency and citizenship," Professor Fox said. "Because of recent elections, this is now possible. Many hard core anti-immigrant congressional representatives lost their seats."
The exact substance of such a policy, as well as the probability of its passage in the near future, remains to be seen. Immigrants’ rights groups, labor unions, business interests, and many Republicans-Bush included-share most congressional Democrats’ view that a change must be made, but they all possess very different visions for the future of immigration in the United States.
Most political analysts agree that any legislation confronting this complicated and controversial issue must be carefully crafted and negotiated over an extended period of time for it to be passed.
Until such a day comes, when their hopes of citizenship in the United States are again addressed by a comprehensive reform of current policy, as many as 12 million undocumented immigrants will continue, like Carolina Gonzalez, to wait.