Immigration problem is about us, not them

The immigration debates always focus on small brown bodies jumping fences and scooting through the brush of our Southwestern states (land that was Mexico about 150 years ago).

Our self-righteous anger at those brown bodies is fueled by our narrow use of the word "illegal" - a term reserved only for those immigrant workers. Yet aren't there other "illegals" hiding in the American underbrush, and isn't it time to add to the American immigration lexicon a new term?


But where are those other "illegals" - the illegal employers of the illegal workers? Let's call them "illegal native employers." These INEs run the gamut from executives of hotel chains to presidents of agribusiness corporations in California, from nanny-employing parents to restaurant owners, from contractors to employment agencies. And let's not forget the INEs who own huge chicken-processing plants.

Where are the TV news videotapes of those illegals? Let's film them as they leave their homes and arrive at their corporate headquarters, their law offices, their retail establishments, their hotels, their construction sites. Do we dare humiliate them with our cameras - and call them felons?


I'd like to see the Minutemen set up a chapter far from the Arizona border and patrol Wall Street, binoculars in hand, to set their sights on those "illegals" - brokers selling stocks for INE companies.

Let's build fences outside the INE businesses, to separate and stigmatize them. Maybe the National Guard should patrol those fences. Not to worry, though, because President Bush assures us the troops will not be "militarized." (The word is still out, though, on whether there will be bullets in their guns.)

No doubt, these suggestions make us squirm. Maybe that's because many of these "illegals" are us, or our friends or relatives. If 12 million undocumented workers are employed here, thousands of employers must be signing their paychecks.

If 12 million undocumented workers toil in this country as construction workers, gardeners, housekeepers, nannies, agricultural workers, food processers, then thousands of business owners, homeowners, politicians and government officials condone or welcome their work - and look the other way at their illegal status.

Many of our political leaders talk a hard line about "immigration reform" even though they know our country is mired in its demand for the immigrant work force. We use and exploit the labor of these millions every day. In doing so, we also weaken the wages, benefits and organizing power of all our workers.

The Senate voted 62-36 to approve its version of an immigration bill, with most GOP senators opposing it. A battle with the more conservative House over its more vicious bill begins shortly. Evidently, the Senate version includes most of the so-called Ag Jobs bill, which has languished for years under the Bush administration and which has been supported in the past by the United Farm Workers.

Immigrants in the United States for two to five years would be put into a "temporary-worker" program; those here longer would be eligible for citizenship after an 11-year probationary period, with other criteria also to be met.

Conservatives describe the bill as "amnesty" for undocumented workers. So, once again, virtually all of the media attention centers on the workers, not the employers.


This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that workers have come across the southern border in great numbers to make a living and to contribute to the U.S. economy. We need to create a fair immigration program for those who want to stay, not one that separates them by creating a national caste system of "guest workers." Europeans have learned the hard way that guest-worker programs lead to further national divisions and to virulent racism.

But whatever we do, we should stop thinking the problem is just about "securing our borders" - from them. The immigration problem is fundamentally a demand for cheap labor - for a supply to fill our demand.

Noting the problems that arose from Germany's guest-worker program, which imported masses of Turkish and southern European workers, the writer Max Frisch observed, "Labor was called, but it was people who came." This - the moral, economic and political problem - is not the immigrants' problem; it's ours. I hope we have the courage to solve it humanely.

Jo-Ann Pilardi is a professor of philosophy and women's studies at Towson University. Her e-mail is