11/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What We Don't Say About Illegal Immigration

With many of us facing financial hardship in this economic drought, scapegoats abound in American minds and there are plenty candidates to choose from: the president, the Treasury, the president, socialism. However, none is more pervasive than the illegal immigrant.

The debate over illegal immigration once again rises to a cacophony with the Tea Party making it a point of contention in healthcare reform. It was the cause célèbre in Sacramento as the budget crisis in California spiraled over the spring. With Californians facing a $26 Billion Dollar deficit and unemployment soaring into the double digits, services for one of the largest illegal immigrant populations in the country seemed the obvious choice for budget cuts to some and a mere distraction to others. At this point, no matter what your point of view on the issue, the debate must be waged amongst Americans, including Latino Americans, who are struggling in this economic downturn as badly as anyone and who as American citizens must actively participate in this democracy for a more secure future. Jobs have gone - millions have gone and many won't be coming back.

The debate over illegal immigration is ugly and complex. It's ugly because there is a human component attached to the immigration issue and the right wing has a shameful history of disregarding the human component as it relates to cultural diversity. What's worse, racism has been tolerated for so long in this country that we are forced to become a bit rabid to rid it from systematic use. The debate over illegal immigration is complex because liberals have limited our language to such an extent that a discussion of accountability in the context of a minority group is seen as a lack of compassion at best and more often a symptom of bigotry at worst. This sort of reactionary thinking frowns upon honest and constructive debates concerning minority groups, thereby reserving acceptable cultural critiques for white men, and ultimately denying minority groups a status of equality.

There are many statistics and figures of illegal immigration that have been bandied about between conservatives and liberals and many may very well be accurate but what is all too often missing from the debate is any reference to the root causes of illegal immigration including federal trade policies and rampant corruption of Latin American governments, but more specifically, the pernicious caste system that is abetted by much of Latin America and international business interests.

Consider the fact that the United States does not share a border with the poorest nation in the world, not even the poorest nation in Latin America. In fact, Mexico has the second highest GDP in Latin America according to the IMF-- Brazil, the highest. Both are members of the illustrious G20 and their leaders just last week joined leaders from wealthy nations of the world in Pittsburgh to discuss financial markets and the world's economy. One can only hope that jobs for the working poor and middle-class were addressed during the two-day summit.

Anyone who has traveled to Mexico's capital, Mexico City, and happened to have stayed in one of the more upscale hotels in the more exclusive areas knows that economic viability in Mexico is not as scarce as one might be led to believe from what the Center for Immigration Study estimates is its 70% share of the illegal immigrants in the United States, ten percent of Mexico's population. There is money in Mexico, albeit concentrated in the ruling class of the country.

On my last trip to Mexico in December of 2006, I took my mother to see the ruins of the Aztec and Mayan temples with a few days of leisure on the beaches of Cancun. My mother, who is from a farming family of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, constantly remarked how lovely a country Mexico was. She had not seen the rural towns and abject poverty that much of the Indian population of Mexico subsists in as I had many years ago backpacking through the country. To her, Mexico City was a bustling metropolis with clean streets and pristine neighborhoods, nice restaurants and great shopping. We arrived at night.

We stayed at the Camino Real Hotel in the upscale neighborhood and Jewish enclave of Polanco, which hosts some of the best restaurants, private homes and landscaped parks the city has to offer. Not far, in the heart of the financial district, masses of professionals went about business, in and out of prodigious skyscrapers and elegant old world municipal buildings. The streets were lined with fine sculptures displaying the roots of Mexican art, a convergence of vibrant native and exquisite European aesthetics. What was striking about Mexico City and Cancun as opposed to Latin American communities in the United States was, no doubt, the color line. The banks, hotels, municipal buildings, and upscale residences were operated and occupied by Mexicans who looked quite different from the Latinos you see tending garden or cleaning house in Los Angeles.

According to the Journal of Diversity Management 2008 Report on Mexico:

Individuals of mixed European and Indian background, the Mestizos, represent 60% of the population. The rest of the population is 30% Indian, 9% white and 1% other. Income and wealth are distributed very unequally among these racial groups. The oligarchy is exclusively white, and whites are the vast majority in the wealthy social class immediately below it. Next in the economic hierarchy are the Mestizos. Within the Mestizos, however, there is a discernable economic pecking order, with those of predominantly European features, especially light skin, the white/Mestizos, ahead of those with predominantly Indian traces, like dark skin. At the bottom are the Indians, who are the majority in the two poorest deciles. That is, there is a strong positive correlation between European appearance and income in Mexican society.

In Brazil, Afro Brazilians make up almost half of the total population -- but nearly two-thirds of the nation's poor. Nonwhites were nearly nonexistent in Brazilian universities until affirmative action was instituted in 2001 and as a consequence the middle-class and the elite of the country are almost entirely white. Similarly, in 2004 The United Nations Economic and Social Council sent a delegation to Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, where the majority of the population is Mestizo, and found that trends in all three countries reveal the existence of deeply rooted discrimination: (a) a troubling correlation between poverty-stricken areas and areas inhabited by communities of indigenous people and people of African descent; (b) the marginal involvement of representatives of those communities in power structures - the government, parliament and the judiciary - as well as their insignificant presence in decision-making positions in the media; and (c) their treatment in the media as objects of folklore. Ironically, what this study also found was while the Spanish language has come to prevalence in the United States on much of the west coast, Southwest, Florida and New York, the indigenous people of Central America fear they will eventually lose their language and identity because of the shortage of bilingual education and programs there. No doubt, Latin American society has relegated much of its population to abject poverty, without a hope of ever getting out, on the basis of skin color.

Color discrimination is undeniably widespread in Latin America, a belief and practice that is tacitly promoted and promulgated through the generations. The question that begs to be asked is how the caste system in Latin America has gone on for so long without much acknowledgment from the international media or the American government? We have seen revolution over racial inequality in India, the United States, and South Africa, yet all the while Latin America has been allowed to discriminate on the basis of skin color without much protest from within the region or the outside world. Perhaps it is because there is a grave misperception of race in Latin America from the international community. Perhaps to the outside world everyone in Latin America is one race, a new race: Hispanic/Latino. This misperception doesn't equate the color bias in Latin America to the apartheid of South Africa. For the injustice of South Africa was committed by whites against blacks, imperialists against natives. But the origins of the caste system in Latin America are fundamentally the same, founded on beliefs that are indistinguishable from those that created apartheid in South Africa, or Jim Crow in the United States and the Jātis in India--the belief that physical characteristics deem mental acuity, ability and moral character and therefore justify inequality.

The caste system in Latin America may be more surreptitious but it is most similar to the caste system in India in that it is commonly adhered to by those who suffer the most within its restrictions. In 1994 with the passing of Proposition 187 by nearly 60% of California's voters, some 70,000 people showed up on the streets of Los Angeles to protest the passing of an anti-immigration policy in California. Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find such activism in Mexico, or in the United States amongst Latinos for that matter, to combat color discrimination in Latin America. Perhaps it is because in the United States, it is easy for Latinos to forget the oppression they left behind because in the United States all Latinos are relatively the same, which ultimately is the right way of thinking. However, if we are ever going to address the real causes of illegal immigration, we must apply this new thinking in Latin America and call on governments and citizens to address the issue of ethnic and color discrimination there.

Now that we have a president and a Secretary of State in the United States that may be more empathetic to those suffering under discrimination, I wonder if more pressure will be placed on governments in Latin America to address economic accessibility to their disenfranchised minorities. It would seem that if we are ever going to have a constructive debate in this country about illegal immigration that rises above the vitriol of Lou Dobbs and the Conservative Right, if we intend to address the real causes and effects of illegal immigration beyond liberal posturing, it is high time we work the very unsettling reality of discrimination into the discussion. For it seems if Mexico is any litmus test, the only solution to poverty some Latin American governments endorse is indeed illegal immigration, the export of its poor--its brown people, to the United States.