Coming to America: A Christian response to illegal immigration, part 2

border-crossingOne in twenty American workers are in the US illegally. Adding wives, children and other family members, estimates for undocumented immigrants range between 9 and 11 million. More than half of those are Mexicans, and despite a trebling of spending on border security, the number of illegal border crossings continues to rise.

In this series of posts, I hope to put a human face on Mexican immigration, to examine the forces that drive Mexicans to America, and to consider American immigration policy in light of Christian ethical principles.

My primary question is this: Does America have a moral duty towards Mexico, and if so, what polices should we implement to balance internal security on the one hand with a humane response to Mexico’s economic challenges on the other?

Do not exploit the foreigners who live in your land. They should be treated like everyone else, and you must love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God. —Leviticus 19:33-34, NLT

The amount of money sent to Mexico [by undocumented immigrants] has increased dramatically from $9.2 billion in 2001 to $13.2 billion in 2003, a growth of 43%. … The cost of sending the amount of an average remittance to Mexico, now about $400, has come down somewhat… from 6.29% of the amount sent in 2001 to 4.4% in 2004. —Dr. Manuel Orozco, Pew Hispanic Center

We are the world’s greatest economic power. We pride ourselves on being a generous people who are quick to provide humanitarian aid across the globe. We think of ourselves as a Christian nation, a moral nation, a good nation. But we find ourselves deeply divided by the challenges posed by undocumented immigrants.

Driven by a lack of opportunity, millions of Mexicans have entered America illegally. They harvest and prepare our food, they build our homes and offices, they pick up our garbage, they clean our toilets and scrub our floors, they mow our yards.

According to Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center, 25% of drywall installers are undocumented immigrants. Ditto for groundskeepers, poultry workers and dishwashers. 20% of maids, painters, construction laborers and agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants. They labor at the bottom, in some of the most thankless and difficult jobs in our economy.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, fewer than half are single men. The majority of undocumented immigrants are married couples, many with children. There are 3 million children among them who were born in the US, and another 1.6 million who were born outside of the US, according the Pew Hispanic Center. Undocumented immigrants are primarily young, most under the age of 40, and among the men, the employment rate is nearly 100%.

Undocumented immigrants are big business. Mainline banks and wire transfer companies seek them out because the transfer of earnings from US undocumented workers to their families in Mexico generates three-quarters of a billion dollars in fees annually, and it’s a growth business. By comparison, Wells Fargo bank says it generates about $50 million annually from those hated ATM fees, and analysts estimate that Bank of America takes in about 4 times that. Undocumented workers are cash cows.

Human smuggling is a growth industry, too. “It used to be your friend or uncle would smuggle you in. Now, it’s in the hands of the professionals,” says Deborah Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute. Better border security has created a market for people who specialize in beating the system. With these “coyotes” charging more than $1,000 per person, and some 800,000 immigrants entering the country annually… well, you can do the math.

How did it come to this?

From 1942 through 1964, a period of over 20 years, the United States government had a formal agreement with Mexico for the supply of seasonal agricultural workers to the US. This Bracero Program provided the labor force needed to maintain US agricultural production during World War II. To protect workers’ rights, formal contracts spelled out their wages, housing, working conditions, and every aspect of their employment. To guarantee that they would return to Mexico at the end of their contract, 10% of their earnings was paid directly to the Mexican government, to be refunded when they came home.

million Mexicans participated in the Bracero Program. Although successful, it was known to be “riddled with abuses,” according to Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute. One example: few braceros were ever paid their 10% upon returning to Mexico. The money simply disappeared.

The lasting effect of the Bracero Program, however, is that it established and institutionalized networks and labor market relationships between Mexico and the United States that really are… the basis for the undocumented or illegal migration that has characterized the decades since… [T]he fact that… the agreement between the United States and Mexico ended did not… affect the actual behavior that had been established during those 20-plus years, and that simply morphed into what we’re dealing with today. —Doris Meissner, Migration Policy Institute, in a panel discussion by The Urban Institute, February 03, 2004

To put it bluntly, at a critical time, when the US labor force was stretched to the breaking point, Mexican men left their homes, came north by the hundreds of thousands and kept America fed.

Our shared history on this continent has not always been so altruistic.

America’s vision of Manifest Destiny led it into war with Mexico in 1846. The war ended in 1848 when US General Winfield Scott invaded Mexico City and America demanded all of the present-day southwestern US. In the end, we paid Mexico $25 million for everything from Texas to California. Not a bad deal.

ninos_heroesThere remains today in Mexico City a soaring monument to “Los Niños Heroes” (The Boy Heroes), six teen-aged military cadets who failed in their defense of Chapultepec Castle and threw themselves off a cliff rather than surrender to General Scott’s superior forces.

The Bracero Program put the final nail in the coffin of Mexican/American animosity and opened a new chapter of cooperation, culminating in the 1993 passage of NAFTA, which formally acknowledges that America has much more to gain by seeing Mexico as a strategic economic partner than as a competitor.

Some would now like to turn back the clock. Some are suggesting it is time to hermetically seal the US/Mexican border.

Thats one solution. But it’s not a solution that honors the history of US/Mexico cooperation, nor is it a fitting solution for a great nation, a humane nation, a Christian nation.

Mexico needs jobs. America needs workers. But in the post-9/11 world, America also needs security. So, what’s the solution?

Sources: TransFair USA, Pew Hispanic Center, The Ethnologue, Urban Institute, The Arizona Republic, Migration Policy Institute, CIA World Factbook, NationMaster.

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  1. Good work, Charles.

    I appreciate your honesty in tackling this subject. Knowing more about you now gives me greater reason to respect your opinions.

    I wrote a little about this same issue last week:

    Porcine Aviator.

    In Christ,


  2. Though I appreciate your characterization of the situation between the US and Mexico, I caution that there must be a differentiation between sealing the leaks in the US/Mexico border which is crucial and mandated by law and the way in which we, as followers of Christ, are to deal with those already here.

    There are those leagal aspects that our government must deal with and deal with expeditiously and those which are of human concern that we must address with compassion and yet with wisdom. Remember that old wise as serpents, harmless as doves thing?

  3. A moving account of the undocumented workers drive to enter the USA may be found in Urrea’s book, “The Devil’s Highway.” This doumentation of the death of the “Yuma 14” in 2001 tells the story of the death of one of our undocumented friend’s uncle. Thank you, Charlie, for your sensitivity ot the issue. gb

  4. This is a complex issue. We have a relative who spent time with the border patrol in Texas.

  5. To add another complication:

    I spent some time in Southern Mexico this summer. The missionaries we lived with pointed out a bus in the city of San Cristobal. It leaves every Sunday, always full, carrying Mexicans (and other Latin Americans who have already snuck into Mexico) to the US border to attempt to sneak accross. Most are caught, some die in the attempt, but every week the bus fills up. They tell us such buses leave cities from all over Mexico.

    You’ve described some of the historical reasons for this mass exodus, but there is another reason: in much of Mexico, the process of emigrating legally is unbelievably difficult. It is not just the $400 processing fee (well over a year’s wages for many Mexicans, and it cannot be paid by a third party); the screening process itself is often unreasonable and capracious. Of 15 people our missionary friends had personally helped through the process – each of whom exceeded every requirement the state department supplies – only one was accepted. Most were rejected within 30 seconds of entering the office, without ever even discussing their qualifications. The $400 is non-refundable.

    Granted, this is anecdotal evidence, and I have no idea whether similar things happen elsewhere in Mexico (though one can hardly imagine they don’t). But if legal immigration is so difficult that many Mexicans (even if they could afford it) see little hope of being accepted, it’s no surprize they often take matters into their own hands.

    I don’t know what the solution to this complex problem is, but it cannot ignore the abuses inherent in the process of legal immigration.

  6. Ken, I appreciate what you’ve said. It reminds me of another hurdle in the path of most Mexicans who would like to come to America legally — birth certificates. Since most rural Mexicans are born at home, they rarely have a birth certificate. There are ways to obtain one, but the process is slow and can be expensive. Until they are able to obtain basic documents proving they are Mexican citizens, proving they have met their requirement for military service, etc., they cannot even apply for a Mexican passport. And without a passport, they can’t begin the process of applying for a visa to come to America.

    The legal process works at a snail’s pace, is difficult to comprehend, expensive, and is often capricious, as you’ve pointed out. These realities cause people to give up on the legal way in and attempt the illegal approach.

  7. Ken and Charlie, your comments are very helpful. Knowing why people don’t choose to enter legally is a very important part of understanding the situation.

  8. The first thing you need to realize is that contractors/company owners DO NOT hire undocumented workers because Mexicans are sum sort of uber worker or because the feel sorry for them. They are hired because they can be easily exploited. If you cheat them out of wages where can they go, read the Hoffman Plastics court case.

    Do a simple web search on Mexican drywallers and you will see that if they complain they are fired. Their only hope of fair treatment is to join a Union, see the article titled “Chicago’s Mexican ‘taperos’”

    Shame on all of you in attempting to legitimize the exploitation of workers simply because they come from Mexico.

  9. The exploitation claim is more urban legend than fact. Mexican laborers talk to each other. Cheap labor is in high demand. If a boss stiffs them, they move to another job. The employers know they are competing with each other for the same, limited pool of laborers, which gives them an incentive to play fair.

    Sure, there are exceptions. But Mexicans keep finding that even with the costs of coming to the US, even with the problems, they can earn many times here what they can back home. It isn’t exploitation in their eyes, but opportunity.

    A compassionate and just nation will give them the work opportunities they seek, while also legalizing their labor so that they have the same rights as other workers. That’s what I favor.

  10. i like this pic nice