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Feature 060517 Villarreal

Monday, June 5, 2017

Illegal Immigration, the U.S. Job Magnet, and E-Verify

By Rosa Martha Villarreal

A response to Bill Maher and Chris Matthews regarding illegal immigration and the job magnet.

Bill Maher and Chris Matthews, two men with unquestionable liberal credentials, repeatedly pose a question to immigration reform advocates: Once immigration reform gets done, what’s to prevent us from being in the same dilemma in another twenty-five years?   To adequately address this question, we must examine the historical root of the problem and discern that the main sending country, Mexico, is rapidly transforming itself because of free-trade and declining birth rates.

The default explanation that Mexicans solely immigrate because they “want a better life” is, however, more complex in its historical context.  People do want a better life, but not necessarily in the United States.  Recently, Mexico has experienced reverse migration, not just from people who lost their jobs in the Great Recession (though that was a factor), but because there are increasing job opportunities at home.  Two years ago, while visiting the colonial cities in central Mexico, I got to see this phenomenon first hand.  German companies like BMV and Bosch have opened plants in the increasingly industrialized city of San Luis Potosi, gaining a manufacturing footprint along with Japan and China.  The industrialized sector is its own city, a construct of Western modernity and its comforts.  Prosperity empowers women, and birth rates have declined to 1.27% as of 2016. Thus, there is a demand for labor and, in the near future, there may even be a labor shortage.

Historically, most Mexican immigrant workers preferred to return home.  Beginning in the late 1800s, when the railroads brought new growth to the American West, workers from Mexico, mostly men but women, too, “commuted” to the United States for jobs on the railroads, construction, and agriculture, and they’d return home for the most part.  This is not to say that many families did not immigrate because they wanted to change countries.  Many of my relatives did.  Seeking new opportunities, they joined families in established Latino communities that had been severed from Mexico and partitioned to the United States after the Mexican American War.  Most Americans are ignorant of Mexicans’ relationship with the borderlands because of the willful, decades-long neglect of American historians, who marginalized the Mexican (both Spanish and mestizo) footprint in the West and Florida. My own family—the Villarreal-de la Garza clan—settled what today is northeastern Mexico, Texas and Louisiana beginning in the mid-1500s.  My ancestor Vasco Porcallo was one of Hernando de Soto’s captains during the 1539 Florida Expedition, and is credited as a co-founder of Tampa Bay.

Mexico’s conflicts—wars with the US, France, and a Revolution—and huge disparity between the rich and poor coupled with the demand for labor and the presence of Latino communities in the north became a powerful job magnet.  During the so-called Revolution (civil war), many families took refuge north of the border.  This was a dangerous time, especially for young women who were often kidnapped and raped by both the revolutionaries and the federales.  My paternal grandparents temporarily move to Texas to avoid the advancing conflict.  When the war subsided, they went home where my grandfather worked at his own business as a butcher.  But many other families stayed, and the older colonial Spanish towns like Los Angeles and San Antonio became replenished with Latinos, many of whom thrived and established the foundation of today’s Latino middle and professional class.  These events of the late 19th and early 20th century created the Latino mythologies of the United States.  For many Mexicans and Central Americans who lacked education and opportunities, going north became a rite of passage. The job magnet beckoned them.

The Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 was to end mass illegal immigration once and for all.  It not only continued but increased because American employers were addicted to cheap labor and couldn’t disabuse themselves of their greed. Employers in industries like agriculture and construction knowingly hired unauthorized workers.  Fake green cards could be obtained at any local flea market. When I lived in Salinas, California, undocumented immigrants I met said that when their social security numbers were proven to be fake, their employers told them to make up new ones.  Employers knew whose papers were phony because they paid these people less than authorized workers.  For example, the pay disparity between Americans and undocumented immigrants working as entry-level electricians where my son worked was $4/hour.

This brings me back to Messrs. Maher and Matthews and their question: If we do comprehensive immigration reform, what’s to prevent the spectacle of millions of undocumented immigrants clamoring for amnesty in another 20 years?

The answer: E-Verify.  With E-Verify, employers can no longer feign ignorance.  Most importantly, sanctions—significant fines and even imprisonment—must be imposed on repeat offending employers.  If employers need new labor, H-2A visas should be expanded to address any future labor shortage.  Immigration reform is doable and workable if we turn off the job magnet.  No solution is one hundred percent efficient.  There will always be people who will enter the country without authorization. But there will not be an economic path for millions of people to hide in the shadows.  


Rosa Martha Villarreal, a novelist and essayist, is an adjunct professor at Los Rios Community College District in the greater Sacramento region of California.  A member of PEN USA, she is the author of the PEN award-winning novel The Stillness of Love and Exile, among others.

©Rosa Martha Villarreal

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