Illegal People : An Island of Rationality

At a time when leadership in Washington has been ambiguous on this important and volatile issue, the end of summer may see the beginning of a renewed national debate on immigration reform. Now more than ever, as the nation prepares to confront its own prejudices or sympathies, it is a critical time to examine the root causes of immigration in the context of globalization. For these reasons, David Bacon's latest book Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants is timely and relevant. With a contextual focus on workers' rights and the increasing wealth gap, Bacon's book addresses several key issues that must be at the core of any immigration reform plan in order to be enduring and sustainable.

Bacon describes the migrant reality in an otherwise very difficult moment for these people in the U.S. -- a time when the concept of migration has been dehumanized and analyzed in a sophomoric way, when racial attacks against immigrants and Latinos have reached historical highs, when anti-immigrant myths are finding a place in important parts of the American society, when hundreds of migrants are dying trying to cross the border, and a moment in which anti-immigrant groups in the nation have grown like never before.

Illegal People is a deep political analysis elucidating on migration and why it has increased in the context of globalization, while at the same time humanizing migrants, a much-needed approach. Bacon's solid journalistic skills seamlessly depict the human face of pain, sweat, work and death of migrants behind his serious analyses and theories.

A key component missing in the immigration debate, mainly in Washington, is the connection between immigration and trade policies. This is a crucial mistake as the economic forces creating migration are being ignored. Migration and international trade are erroneously seen as mutually exclusive issues, but they must be analyzed as having a causal relationship because they are so directly related. Bacon's work represents one of the few progressive analyses that make this crucial connection.

Bacon also includes an important point in the bi-national relations between Mexico and the U.S. -- the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- to analyze the impact that these policies have had in the flow of migrants from the south to the north. He explains how the dumping of agricultural products in the Mexican market displaced farmers and pushed them out of their land and how consumer prices of basic products went up instead of down as promised (e.g., the price of tortillas more than doubled in the years following the implementation of such policies). A combination of all these factors increased poverty as well as the pressure to go to the north. Illegal People clearly proves that the best example of the failure of NAFTA is the drastic increase of "illegal" migration after it was implemented.

Another issue that is often ignored in the immigration debate is the systemic demand of the United States of cheap, "illegal" labor. The hostility of globalization forces corporate management to compete for the cheapest possible products at the expense of exploited workers, who are often displaced and suffer clear violations of labor and human rights.

A central concern in the immigration debate is the H-2 guest worker program. With a cool head and sound judgment, Bacon analyzes this topic and the webs of interest that are behind it. Bacon follows the foot steps of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Close to Slavery report and rightly makes the case that H-2 programs continuously exploit and abuse workers and treat them as disposable: guest workers are routinely cheated of much of their pay, they cannot protest, they do not get overtime, they get sanctions if they try to organize, they suffer from constant violations of health and safety laws and they represent the backbone of the system. On the other hand, employers benefit from such a system. They continuously get cheap labor and have uninterrupted workforce flexibility. The workers themselves have few or no rights and suffer limited access to benefits. If undocumented workers want to organize and form a union they have to consider the possibility of getting fired and also being reported, jailed and deported. This at least partly explains why U.S. agriculture is addicted to a vast reservoir of cheap, undocumented labor.

Jettisoning the values of basic human and labor rights just to satisfy corporate interests will only push this nation into a deeper crisis. Bacon argues what is needed is a progressive alternative to the big guest worker bills, in which there is a way for undocumented workers to gain permanent-resident status, enforce the rights of migrants in the workplace, and protect wages for all workers.

Bacon also brings light to an important issue that has been getting media attention with a sensationalistic approach: How unemployment and racism have pitted some minority groups against each other and against low income whites -- but mostly against immigrants. Likewise, he provides an economic view and analysis on how the current system benefits from these groups competing for low wage jobs -- while large corporations continue to reap higher profits.

This book helps dispel anti-immigrant myths and shows readers what the real causes of migration are. Americans must look at the issue of immigration without ideological predisposition. Bacon's decades of experience as a union organizer, journalist and photographer give him a unique capacity to inject the point of view of the exploited. He is a peripatetic writer who faces the reality of immigrants by traveling from place to place to be able to understand their reality and portray their pain. He is not a sojourner who tries to superficially cover a story. Bacon's book reflects a deep understanding of the history, culture and traditions of these communities and intelligently demonstrates that understanding in his book. He does not shy away from a clear goal, which is a commitment to social justice, particularly towards the most vulnerable group of people in the U.S., undocumented immigrants.

In the intricate debate of immigration, when nativist and jingoistic groups (e.g., CIS, NumbersUSA, FAIR) have carved out a space in the national debate portraying themselves as credible think tanks, the independent work of David Bacon and his book Illegal People represents an island of rationality in a sea of tumult.