Why America Now?

Deportations are up.

Angry anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise.

The U.S. economy isn't shrinking any more, but the number of jobs isn't growing.

And yet, the United States is still a magnet for people around the world, and especially from the rest of this hemisphere. Sure, estimates of the number of people who've already gone home are heading toward two million. Yes, the industries where Latino immigrants... legal and illegal... have been working have been in decline: restaurants, hotels, construction, home improvement, and landscaping.

At the same time, the statistics say, Latin American economies have been doing pretty well. They've diversified their export markets well beyond the United States, and many have even managed continued economic growth as wealthier countries swooned. However, as guests on HITN's Destination Casa Blanca pointed out on this week's show, Latin American countries also have some of the worst-distributed national wealth in the world. So while big nationwide statistics may show rising incomes, strong balances of payments, and higher per capita GDP, the have-nots have not been getting their share of the new wealth.

In the poorest agricultural villages, in the light industrial or garment industry towns throughout Central and South America, life can be as desperate as it ever was, and even a slumping United States can remain a beacon. That is a reminder of how different immigration, legal and illegal, can look from both sides of the border. U.S. citizens, enamored of their country even at the worst of times, sometimes talk as if they think every Latino between Ciudad Juarez and Tierra del Fuego would come pouring into America if only they could. They talk about immigration as if they believe any quality of life in America is better than any quality of life in Mexico, El Salvador or Peru.

If you aren't one yourself, talk to an immigrant. They'll tell you about the struggle of getting to the U.S. They'll tell you about sacrifice, loneliness, and disorientation... of the unexpected hardship of being far away from everything and everyone you've known until now (especially as so much immigration, in this case, especially illegal immigration, involves young people traveling alone).

There are mistaken impressions from the other side of the border as well. Higher wage rates act as a magnet ... but many who had planned to support families back home while working in the U.S. didn't count on how much more expensive rent, utilities, food, and clothing can be in the North. From afar, a rented apartment in a big American urban area looks a lot better than a cinder block home with a corrugated tin roof in Central America. The reality of leaky plumbing, lousy heat, roaches, and collapsing plaster in the Bronx or Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood can come as a shock.

The communications networks between Latino communities in the U.S. and people back home are generally pretty good. People thousands of miles away know who's hiring in Atlanta, Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles. Home town relatives and friends know who's been picked up by the immigration authorities and which bosses are less likely to stiff a worker at the end of the week. Pattern migration has established long-standing links between particular towns and regions in Latin America and specific destinations and industries in the North. Legal and illegal immigrants have created a web of relationships and mutual dependence that has worked for the participants.

Here's what I mean: Whether Jose is killing pigs in Iowa, hammering shingles in Georgia, or tending fruit trees in Michigan, he knows people back home who want work. If he sends for a brother or a cousin from his home town, he has to vouch for the new worker. Jose gains status inside his family, helping send more remittance income home, and showing the newcomer the ropes.

The boss like the arrangement because he knows that bonds of obligation mean the new worker will not want to humiliate the family member who vouched for him. He also knows Jose will roust the new guy from bed if he's overslept or had a boozy weekend. In many places in America, these kinds of arrangements have prevailed for decades, with a steady circular migration of sojourners heading back and forth from communities in the U.S. and Mexico.

There's a paradox embedded in that arrangement: As crossing the U.S. border and evading capture has become tougher and tougher, the old system of migrants working for a part of the year and going home has been wrecked. Now men won't go home for fear of not being able to get back. Instead of looking for work for 26 weeks of the year, they look to work all 52. In addition, the tougher border increases the number of illegal migrants by encouraging men who can't get back and forth to try and get their wives and girlfriends into the country. Unwilling to face permanent separation, unable to simply spend several months of the year apart, these couples instead have U.S. citizen children and complicated further the already daunting task of arriving at some solution for the millions of illegal workers in the U.S.

I should mention here that I have no idea what the best solution is for the challenge of some 11 million illegal residents. Americans have a tendency to pick the outcome they prefer and then turn away from the real complexities of making their desires real. Improving economic conditions south of the border will help, but not solve the problem, since the wage differential between U.S. and Central American jobs is likely to remain huge. Besides, gradual wage increases in Latin America make labor there more expensive in relation to wages paid in competitor regions in Asia and Africa.

Immigration to the U.S. took off in the years after the Hart-Celler Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The trend is not a product of these few years alone, or likely to be reversed by changing just one thing. Political arguments do have a context however, and a much shorter time line. Will Americans simply kick the can down the road, again, or try to find a solution that works ... and lasts?

Listen to the excerpts of our final installment in a series on immigration marking Hispanic Heritage Month on Destination Casa Blanca, at www.hitn.tv/dcb