THE BLOG

The Dry Bones of Slavery in the Earthquake Over Immigration Reform

05/24/2007 06:12 pm 18:12:34 | Updated May 25, 2011

Beneath the heaving topsoil of the present earthquake over immigration reform, has anyone noticed the dry bones of slavery?

They are of course obscured by ethnic differences. Unlike the Africans who first came here to work our plantations nearly four hundred years ago, the estimated twelve million undocumented workers we're fighting about now are overwhelmingly Latin American and mostly Mexican. But all you have to do to see the bones of slavery poking up through the soil is to imagine those workers as black. If we knew that twelve million black workers were doing jobs that nobody else wanted for the subsistence wages being paid to illegal immigrants, and if we also knew that these same black workers had little or no hope of ever enjoying the rights of citizenship (not even three-fifths of those rights), might we not recognize a form of exploitation all too uncomfortably close to what we thought we had abolished almost 150 years ago?

Oh no, you'll say. The immigrants we're talking about today are worlds apart, in every sense, from the millions who came to us as slaves. Unlike those poor men and women who were seized, bound, manacled, delivered to us (if they survived) from slave ships, and made to sweat their lives out for any master who chose to buy them, every single immigrant came here willingly and is perfectly free to leave anytime he or she wishes.

But as citizens of a nation that prides itself on a host of liberties, we know very well that true political freedom means far more than having the right to leave this country. It means, first of all, having the right to stay here as long as you wish. It means freedom from fear of being deported for lack of proper documents. It means freedom to seek education and training for yourself and your children, freedom to compete for the best kind of job you can find for your talents and energies, freedom to build the best possible life you can have. In the words of our Declaration of Independence, freedom means the right to pursue happiness.

What then do you call someone who comes to this country to seek a better life by means of honest work but is compelled to live in the shadows -- almost like a runaway slave -- because he or she has come here illegally.

Unlike the grandparents of Alberto Gonzales, who came here illegally but managed to stay and beget a descendant now holding -- however precariously -- the highest offices in the land, today's illegal immigrants are threatened with new laws meant to expel them, or at the very least tighten the screws with which we exploit them. If the new guest worker provision becomes law, illegal immigrants who hope to scale the path to citizenship will find it only slightly less daunting than climbing Everest in a bathing suit and sandals -- without oxygen.

First, they've got to be among the lucky 200,000 (just cut from 600,000) who qualify for the program each year. Then, as I understand the program, they've got to work for a couple of years and return to their native country. Then, after THIRTEEN YEARS of back-and-forthing and payment of almost ten thousand dollars from their meager wages, they may attain their cherished goal.

Like slavery, the whole program aims to reconcile two contradictory aims: importing the bodies we must have to operate our farms (we tend to avoid the word "plantation" now) while keeping the people who inhabit those bodies firmly in their place -- lest they rise up and demand to be treated fairly in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal. Sixty-five years ago, we actually launched a program called bracero, which literally means "arm man" in Spanish and which was meant to attract Mexican arms -- body parts, not weapons. Except for the lucky few who manage to scale the Everest of our new requirements, all we really want from these "guest workers" is their arms. We'll take these body parts on condition that the workers themselves leave their families at home, bury their hopes for a genuinely free life in America, and get out of the country once they have picked our fruit and vegetables, paid their taxes, and done their bit for Social Security without ever expecting anything in return.

I've got a better idea: robots. To take the place of those twelve million illegal immigrants once we've kicked them all out (and what fun it will be to do that!), we can manufacture twelve million robots. Before the illegals leave, we'll ask them to train the robots to take over their jobs in return for one-way bus fare back to their native villages.

Thus trained, the robots will solve all our worker problems. Solar-powered and brilliantly engineered, they will require no maintainance and make absolutely no demands on our school systems, welfare departments, or public services of any kind. They'll never even ask for the right to vote, or settle in your neighborhood, or clog the schools with their children, or demand bi-lingual education.

O brave new world of shining metal sub-human arms! Bring them on!