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Whatever Happened to Immigration as an Election Topic?

Today is a watershed period in our history: the decline in our economy unseen in generations, an ongoing war in Iraq, and a historic election that may result in an African American as President of the United States.  To add to this historical moment, we daily read about factories being raided, about families being separated, about children being torn from their loving mothers and fathers, and about innocent workers being forcefully deported to Mexico and Central America.  Yet, in the debates between these candidates, the issue of immigration has not been discussed, nor have any questions been posed to the candidates regarding the relationship between economies and immigration.  Indeed, the noted observer of immigration, Marcel Suarez-Orozco of Harvard University has noted that “the best predictor of anti-immigrant sentiment is the economy,” thus underscoring the direct relationship between the national economy and the question of immigration reform.  Thus, the outcome of this current election may decide how these problems and polemics get resolved.  In just a few short weeks the people of this country will decide between John McCain and Barack Obama.

According to a 1993 piece in Foreign Affairs entitled “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing,” “ethnic cleansing can be understood as the expulsion of an ‘undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.”  The recent workplace raids throughout our country and the thousands of Mexicans and Latina/os that have borne the brunt of this exclusion are evidence that the process of “ethnic cleansing” via deportation raids is alive and well today under a Republican administration.  The numbers are difficult to ascertain, but recent reports from Mexico estimate that a million deportees have now returned to Mexico and that 90,000 children have been abandoned at the border as a result of these recent raids.  An examination of the historical record illustrates, following the words of Marcelo-Suarez, that when the economic situation is tough it is often the immigrant workers—both “legal” and “illegal”—that become the first victims of this government response. 

After the Great Depression of 1929, Republican President Herbert Hoover implemented the forced repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.  This history is not well known in our country, and certainly not taught in local high schools.  Some might argue that such expulsions happen only to those who entered “illegally,” yet in 1929 more “legal residents” were deported to Mexico than those considered “illegal.” It is a well documented that these expulsions led to the well over one million people being deported to Mexico, sixty percent of whom were actually US citizens! 

In 1954, under another well known and very beloved Republican President, Dwight David Eisenhower, Mexicans were forcefully removed and repatriated under a program known as “Operation Wetback.”  According to the most comprehensive study of this event entitled “Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954,” Juan Ramón García notes that according to US government estimates, approximately 1.4 million individuals were forced or coerced to leave for Mexico.  Paradoxically, it was between 1942 and1964 that the governments of the US and Mexico established the well known and periodically lauded “Bracero Program” as a way to augment the loss of labor due to WWII.  So, not only did Mexicans and Mexican Americans participate and die during this war, but their families and relatives were being deported as they fought to save the world from the grasp of fascist dictators and the false notion of “racial superiority.”

In this contemporary era we are at war with Iraq and Latina/os of all countries and ethnicities have taken the frontline in this war against “Global Terrorism.”  Once again, while Mexican Americans fight on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, their families are being threatened with deportation and their communities are being terrorized by an agency that has as its mission this species of “ethnic cleansing.”  Numerous stories have appeared about soldiers fighting both terrorists and the deportation of their loved ones at the same time.  One such story was published by the Associated Press on August 10, 2007 was tellingly headlined “GIs worry illegal relatives will be deported; GIs fear about family could lower morale as immigrants swell military ranks.”  In that piece, the author noted that Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Eduardo Gonzalez is a citizen whose wife entered the country from Guatemala and currently in “deportation proceedings.”  Gonzalez’s reaction to this case sums up the contradictory stance of these policies when he noted “If I'm willing to die for the United States, why can't I just be allowed to be with my family?”

Some of the first casualties of this war, in fact, were migrants (legal and illegal) from Mexico and Guatemala.  Marine Corporal Jose A. Garibay of Costa Mesa and Pfc. Francisco A. Martinez Flores of Los Angeles were both 21 year old Mexican migrants who lost their lives in Iraq in March 2003.  Their deaths, however, represent only the first casualties among a longer list of ongoing sacrifices by both legal and “illegal” migrants.  According to a September 2007 piece by Domenico Maceri of New America Media, “Figures from the National Center for Immigration Law show that one in 10 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq have been immigrants.” 

Today, we have a decision to make and we have an observation to dissect when it comes to the political stance of the two candidates.  Just two weeks ago, Senator McCain’s attack on Senator Obama regarding immigration generated a vicious exchange between the two obligates us to examine the longer history of Mexican migration and Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  In fact, although McCain had a long history of bipartisanship with immigration reform, we know that he is now against his own bill sponsored in 2006.  Senator Obama, in this regard, has condemned the recent deportation raids but voted for a bill to extend the border wall. 

Today we must ask ourselves, as Americans of all backgrounds, whom should we vote for?  Who will uphold our greatest tradition of being an “Immigrant Nation”?  This election will determine the future of all Americans, but it seems that McCain’s continuing contradictions only threatens to further the Latino struggle to become full citizens in a country that today faces the question of what it means to be a “Nation of Immigrants.”