Let my people stay

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Article Immigration
How to deal with the immigration “problem”? Give people a real choice on migration.

It may surprise red-white-and-blue Americans fixated on preventing the Hispanic reconquista of the Anglo Norte, but many of the folks they howl most about agree with them. They don’t want to come to America any more than these Americans want to let them in.

In the occasionally hysterical debate swirling around immigration, U.S. citizens often demand the right to protect their borders and prevent people from moving in. Often not discussed is another right that ought to be afforded to the world’s potential migrants: the right to stay put.

The people who walk, hitch, hop trains, or smother in the trunks of overheating cars or unventilated trailers just to reach the U.S.-Mexico border­—so they can make a treacherous night crossing through a desert—aren’t exactly coming because they enjoy “roughing it” while bon-voyaging. They come because human rights conditions in their home states have become deplorable and their lives are in danger. They come because free trade policies have wiped out their subsistence farm economies. They come because there is no work, no health care, no educational opportunity. They come because their children are hungry. They come because there is no future if they remain. They come because they are desperate.

The “choice” they make to migrate is the choice between getting hit in the head with a hammer or a hatchet. This is a choice in our hi-tech, affluent, globalized age that no one should have to make anymore.

Studies of Latino undocumented migrants in the United States are often satisfied with capturing gross figures and perhaps countries of origin. Those numbers don’t tell us much about the culture, language, or history of the people who have found their way into North America or the lifestyle and community they left behind.

There are about 7.5 million undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America currently living in the United States. Surely a large percentage of these migrants have departed from indigenous communities that have endured 500 years of European intervention only to succumb to the latest onslaught of free-market forces.

At a July gathering of indigenous people in Oaxaca, Mexico, participants didn’t demonstrate for higher U.S. immigration quotas or against proposals to turn our shared border abstraction into an actual cross-hemispheric fence. They demanded a new human right: el derecho de no migrar, the right to not migrate. Just as sojourning for survival ought to be respected as a human right on the individual level, el derecho de no migrar needs to be established as a right aimed at cultural and communal survival.

The United States could do much more to help make this right of not migrating a reality. While Congress debates spending billions on a fence, the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2008 directed a paltry $29 million in aid toward our closest neighbors on earth.

El Norte has been a great safety valve for the governments of Mexico and Central America for decades. We have the right to demand more of them on behalf of their own people; they have the right to expect us, entwined as we are in economics and history and fate, to do more to help them become the kind of nations that people want to remain in.

Who knows? Maybe the “no migrar” indigenous can join hands and political action committees across the border with the U.S.’s anti-immigrant agitators, demanding just trade policies, practical and responsible immigration reform, and judicious cross-border economic investments.

This hands-across-America movement could force our NAFTA co-signers to establish and enforce minimum health, labor, and educational standards and demand government transparency and respect for human rights in both Americas. It could be the beginning of an anti-movement movement: a bilateral campaign that could propel the kind of reforms that would liberate people who need to be on the move to be on the move and allow the people who want to stay to stay where they want. 

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 9, page 46).