Colbert and Congress, Migrant Workers and Illegal Aliens

So, when I first saw the Tweets from @Reuters and @nprnews* about Colbert on Capitol Hill, I assumed that it was because he was doing some live shows from DC. How silly of me.

Since when do satirical TV show hosts testify before Congress in character?

Congressional circus aside, the issues of migrant labor and illegal aliens have been floating around in my mind, just waiting for the right catalyst to help it come into the world. Apparently Colbert is said catalyst.

“I’ll admit, I started my workday with preconceived notions of migrant labor. But after working with these men and women, picking beans, packing corn for hours on end, side by side, in the unforgiving sun, I have to say, and I do mean this sincerely, please don’t make me do this again.” –Colbert to US Congress

USians have become so pampered that it is true; we are not made of badass enough stuff to handle hard labor. We have 9% unemployment, but how much do you want to bet that many of those unemployed would not be willing to do the same labor the migrant workers are doing? Even my own mind recoils from it: I’m educated! it yells. I’m educated and experienced in many different fields. Why should I do that hard of work for so little money?

And yet, once I shut up that little voice (not one of my favorite voices), I realize something else. Can a person ever really be above good, honest work that provides such a necessary thing as food? Of course not. Someone has to do the work, or we starve. (Possibly while still ingesting highly-processed food-like products** a la Famine’s new modus operandi in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.)

So let’s say we give migrant workers legal status and force the giant agricultural corporations to pay them minimum wage and treat them with dignity. If that was forced upon them, employing a migrant worker would suddenly be no more cost effective than employing an US citizen. But how many US citizens would apply for the jobs? Few if any, probably.

We would then be in the peculiar situation of outsourcing ourselves. While vilifying corporations for sending other jobs overseas, we would then choose to do it within our very borders. I find irony amusing in almost any situation.

More importantly, however, we would thus create a legal second class: a group of people who are legally present (for certain months of the year) but not citizens. They would not be able to vote or participate in our government, yet that government’s choices would affect them directly. There would certainly be some benefits for the workers: a legal presence means they would have protection under the law and could not be exploited so easily. And obviously it’s better than the current system of illegal workers.

But as pragmatic as the choice may be, I would urge everyone to consider what it means to create a legal second class in a democratic country that is supposed to value liberty and equality. Must we really do it? Are we really incapable of working to provide our own food within our own country? Is the problem with the work itself, or the bloated, disgusting nature of the modern food industry? What do we become if we refuse to do our own hard work and rely on a legal second class to do it for us?

I have no answers for this. Like most problems facing the US, I find that in looking for a solution I can only come up with more questions.

This issue, of course, is inextricably linked to the problem of illegal aliens, since most migrant workers are here illegally and many illegal aliens are migrant workers. When you widen the problem of illegal migrant workers to include all illegal aliens, the whole thing becomes much dicier. On the one hand, they’re here illegally and according to some, should be thrown out of the US lock, stock, and barrel. The other side of the spectrum argues for the illegal alien’s essential humanity and their desire to seek a better life, like the ancestors of most USians.

Of course illegal aliens are people too, and therefore they have certain human rights. You might call them inalienable. You might say those rights were endowed by their Creator–or if you shy away from such gloriously simple yet irrevocably spiritual language, you might say their human rights were given by nature, that they exist because a person is human, and thus no government can give them to you or take them away (without your consent). All of this is true.

However, recognizing a person’s essential humanity does not automatically lead to giving them legal status in a country they have purposefully and knowingly entered and/or lived in illegally. I feel like many arguments on this side of the case start at Point A, everyone’s essential humanity, and skip to Point 539, legal status for illegal aliens, without tracing the logical path between the two. In fact, I’m not certain such a logical path exists in most cases.

There are, of course, exceptions there to prove the rule. You might wonder about children who were brought here by parents and didn’t know they were here illegally, for instance. But for the sake of this argument, I am going to focus on the specific group I named above: people who have purposefully and knowingly entered the US illegally or have purposefully stayed long-term in the US after their Visa expired.

My favorite analogy to use is this: There’s a big difference between one friend asking to crash on your couch and another friend breaking into your house and trying to live there without you noticing. You have every right to get angry at the friend who broke into your house and kick them out.

The problem is bigger than this, of course. Multiply your friend by millions, and there’s the problem the US is facing. Showing them all the door would be impractical, to say the least. I’m not a fan of “kick them all out” rallying cries mostly because the pragmatist in me can’t see that it’s logically possible to do so, which makes said rallying cry solely a means of emotional manipulation.

However, I do not see where the US government is obligated to provide illegal aliens with non-emergency medical care, education, or legal status. Entering illegally means that in a very real sense, the alien is not here. If the government does not officially know a person exists, how can it be responsible to that person in any way? If a person chose to come or remain in the US illegally, willfully breaking the laws of the nation s/he claims to want to join, then why should the government give that person legal status? In their first action in the US, they have shown a disregard for our laws.

I’ve started seeing another argument in favor of legal status for illegal aliens, and it’s the most personally disturbing to me. It goes as follows: once upon a time, Europeans were the “illegal aliens” in the Americas, just ask the Native Americans. Oh, wait, you can’t. Because we butchered them.

Ahem. I think Spike put it best on Buffy: “That’s what conquering nations do. That’s what Caesar did, and he’s not going around saying, ‘I came; I conquered; I felt really bad about it.'”***

Too glib?

Okay, how’s this: Technically speaking, Europeans did the first butchering, conquering, and “illegal entry”, if you want to put it that way. By the time the US was even created, generations of Euro-Americans had been born. The continued presence of said Euro-Americans was inevitable at that point. Skipping ahead to the “Manifest Destiny” that created the goal and eventual reality of coast-to-coast US, you have to recognize that as much as we absorbed Native American lands, we also pushed back European colonies and paved the way for the eventual end of the European colonization of North America.

Were we perfect and wonderful during this process? Certainly not. But if you follow this argument to its logical conclusion, it says that whatever mistakes we made then effectively destroy our sovereign rights as a nation today. This is why I find this argument so disturbing. It’s a patently ridiculous notion, as the US’ nationhood is recognized by the entire planet, including those same Native Americans we conquered centuries ago. Protecting its borders, enforcing immigration laws, and deporting illegal aliens are rights to every sovereign nation.

To be clear, I don’t think we should kick every illegal alien out. As I said, I think it’s illogical to think that such a process could actually happen. In the interest of pragmatism, I think we have to give most law-abiding illegal aliens some sort of legal status. I do not support paths to citizenship for any illegal aliens who willfully and purposefully entered the US illegally (or purposely overstayed a Visa).

For the gray areas I mentioned, with the example of the children of illegal aliens, I’m not certain yet if I support paths to citizenship. On the one hand, I think that if you grew up here, entirely unaware of being illegal, you should not have to spend your life paying for someone else’s crime. What concerns me is that if we make laws to allow the eventual citizenship of such children or other special cases, then we may inadvertently tempt even more people to enter illegally in the hopes of giving their children a chance to be US citizens. Perhaps a time-specific law of some kind? I’m not familiar enough with the law to know how to navigate that particular minefield.

What I am sick of, however, is the rhetoric that says if you want the federal government to do one of its few Constitutionally-mandated jobs of protecting our borders and eradicating the problem of illegal entry, you must be a racist, an imperialist, a bourgeois pig, whatever. String me up if you want, but at least I haven’t had to resort to slurring anyone’s character in order to make an argument.

While we’re arguing about exactly what kind of swine I am, the US Congress could be inviting even more fictional characters to testify before them. And the circus lights flash ever more brightly.

*  *  *

*As far as Twitter news sources go, @Reuters, @nprnews, and @nprpolitics have made me much happier than @AP and their increasingly mundane and irrelevant tweets.

**”Highly-processed food-like products” is a term borrowed often and with much glee from In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan.

***I fully believe there is a Joss Whedon quote for every occasion.

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