Desire is the Devil: How Buddhists Would Explain Illegal Immigration

I just watched an interview of Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.  She was giving the interview in order to push immigration reform, stating she believed it was the next major issue on President Obama’s agenda after saving us from going over the fiscal cliff.  In the interview, she mentioned that illegal immigration rates were down 40% (I didn’t hear her say from what) to levels not seen for 40 years.  She seemed to allude to her official line that border enforcement was the cause of such a drastic dip.  When asked if an improved U.S. economy would increase the number of illegal immigrants coming across the border every year, Secretary Napolitano stated, after a few seconds of nonsense, that it was “all related,” without specifically answering the question.  Although she supports immigration reform, and states the border can never be closed completely, she is unwilling to admit the truth; illegal immigration is almost entirely explained with the theory of supply and demand.  Border enforcement has little if any effect on the total number of migrants illegally crossing U.S. borders.  If there are jobs, workers will come to fill them, regardless of the risks of the journey.  Those jobs represent more than money; they also represent hope.  Right now, the American economy is depressed (in a technical sense), making jobs harder to come by.  Therefore, immigration numbers are down.  When the economy begins to improve, the numbers of migrants looking for work will improve along with it.

The risks migrants face on the journey north only mirrors the reality they face every day when they step out of their homes.  If they meet a horrible end on the road north, they will perish knowing it was in the service of making a better life for themselves and, in many cases, their families.  The risks of coming to the United States will never outweigh the risks of doing nothing.  I have visited communities in Guatemala that have over 70% of the male population away in the United States for work.  If they hadn’t left, the majority of them would have few options.  Many would be forced into subsistence farming, a move to a find work in a factory where pay can be as low as 5 dollars a day, or increasingly, work with criminal organizations.  Of course, horror stories abound about the journey north, yet the stories do little to dissuade people that the trip no vale la pena (is not worth the sorrow).

Last year, I spoke with a group of Hondurans at a soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico.  They had just been deported back to Mexico.  I was volunteering at the soup kitchen where recently deported migrants are able to get a bite to eat before going on their way.  For most, this means heading back to the border for another attempt.  I asked them why they were attempting to enter the United States in Arizona, considering how strict Arizona immigration laws had become.  They informed me that it was better than crossing into Texas, because the Zetas now controlled most of the border and the chances of being kidnapped, or worse, were much higher there.  This told me two things. One, the Zetas Cartel is whom they are most afraid of, not the U.S. Border Patrol or the laws they enforce.  Second, although the Zetas’ presence affected their decision, these Hondurans could not be deterred from crossing into the U.S.  They had options, and so they took the path of least resistance.

Even the most draconian border policies won’t stop migrants looking for work from coming.  Even if it affects the decisions of the few, it wouldn’t have a net effect on the total number of migrants willing to make the journey.  On the Texas/Mexico Border the Zetas are in control of the black market.  The Zetas control the border with sheer terror and violence.  They are obviously not attempting to stop migrants from coming across the border; they just want to rape them for as much as they can first.   The migrants try to mitigate the risk in myriad ways, but at the end of the day they understand they may end up dead, or worse, if they attempt the crossing.  My Honduran friends routed away from Texas because of the Zetas, and so “border enforcement” by the Zetas did have an effect.  However, not every person has the option to decide where he or she crosses over.  Many migrants go where they have family.  Even more do not have the finances or connections to choose their route or their coyote.  The Hondurans had a serious network and experience crossing the border.  Not all migrants will have more than one option, especially the most poor or vulnerable, including women and children.

Aside from the fact that most, if not all, Americans would agree Zeta tactics would not be an option for controlling our borders, the Zeta presence obviously does not stop illegal migrants from passing into Texas.  The Texas border, especially the I-35 corridor, remains a hot zone for illegal migrants to cross into the United States. If fear of the Zetas can’t stop migrants from crossing over, how do we expect law enforcement, or even the military, to do the job?  What is more, when the entire 2000-mile border is taken as a whole, no organization could enforce complete control.  The fear of the Zetas creates a plug in certain areas, just as border enforcement does the same.  However, the border just springs a leak somewhere else as migrants move further into remote regions of the border in order to cross.

I am not sure what to make of the irony.  The United States is a shining beacon of capitalism in the world.  Americans are, for the most part, evangelical in their love of the economic system.  Yet, for some unknown reason they, by and large, cannot grasp how supply and demand applies to issues that are considered political; and therefore, fall apparently outside the bounds of common sense.  They extol the power of the capitalist system to create wealth and improve lives, but do not grasp that the supply of cheap labor and illegal commodities will always exist as long as demand exists, and vice versa.  A poor woman will always be willing to take a job no one else wants, and a poor man will always carry heroin in his stomach.  A farmer will always be willing to grow poppy, and a heroin addict will always need a fix.  The United States has many existential problems right now, and many of them are problems of its own making.  In the case of illegal immigration, it is simply a question of economics.  Until we can take politics out of equation, we will never have the sane immigration policy that Secretary Napolitano says she wants.

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