Yearning to Breathe Free…
Features, Law and Politics, National

Yearning to Breathe Free…

July 15, 2018

By Jane LaTour

Editor’s Note: This is Part II in a series putting U.S. immigration into historical context. 

Now that attention is focused on our southern border and the complex issues surrounding immigration, let’s look at some history.  The immigration reform acts of 1965 and 1986 had unintended consequences for Latin American immigration.

Demonstrators in Brooklyn call for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) earlier this summer.

The 1965 Hart-Cellar Act placed a cap of 120,000 a year on the number of immigrants from the western hemisphere. At the same time, the bracero program (imported farm labor) ended, and the ability of Mexicans to legally cross the border was sharply reduced.  However, demand on both sides – Mexicans seeking work and employers seeking labor – was not reduced. Now, Mexican workers had to cross the border without documentation.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act placed the onus on employers to verify the status of their employees, and greatly expanded the U.S. Border Patrol. Consequently, without enforcement of the employers’ obligations — and under the Republican administration there was little attention paid to enforcement — employers sought out undocumented workers for their low wages. The tightened borders encouraged the undocumented to stay in the U.S., rather than travel back and forth.

Now, ask yourself: What would induce you to set out on a dangerous journey of a thousand miles or more, with your precious children? What calamities in Mexico, in Central American countries, especially Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, have been unfolding for decades that force their citizens to flee north and seek refuge in America? Ask yourself, what role has America played in the wars, and drug gangs that are driving this exodus? How does the demand for drugs in the United States affect the drug smuggling and violence surrounding it impact these countries? What does the long and shameful history of exploitation of peasants in Latin America by the United Fruit Company have to do with the bananas we consume? How does the training provided by the Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, have to do with the violence unleashed on countries south of our border, where graduates of this school have been linked to murder, torture, and other human rights abuses in Latin America?  

Now, ask yourself: What would induce you to set out on a dangerous journey of a thousand miles or more, with your precious children? What calamities in Mexico, in Central American countries, especially Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, have been unfolding for decades that force their citizens to flee north and seek refuge in America?

How is it that, as Edward R. Murrow asked long ago, in his 1960 TV documentary, Harvest of Shame, that migrant laborers and their families are good enough to pick our crops – those heads of lettuce, strawberries, and all those other foods we consume – but not good enough to experience decent working conditions or to become citizens? On several visits over the past two years to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I watched as an affluent community relied on immigrants to clean their houses, landscape their lawns, care for their elderly relatives. Look into any kitchen in restaurants across this city, observe the men on rickety bicycles making food deliveries, and see who is doing these jobs. Witness any number of communities across the country, starting with New York City, that have benefitted from the immigrants who have come to America. 

America for Americans? If you are not Native-American or African-American, you are an immigrant, or from immigrant roots. Today, as Lady Liberty lifts her lamp beside the Golden Door, she weeps. “Bring me your tired, your poor, yearning to breathe free?” Shame! Shall we keep faith with our better angels, or succumb to the hateful anti-immigrant voices that call for exclusion and result in such inhumane policies that this administration is visiting upon people coming to America, just yearning to breathe free.   

July 15, 2018

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