Sometimes it’s the simple idioms or popular sayings that can best help us understand even the most complicated topics. For instance, “you reap what you sow” (derived from a Biblical proverb), can help us understand immigration, the highly inflammatory and divisive topic that periodically ignites national debates and is once again a current topic of political discussion. It works like this: First-world countries such as the United States that plant seeds of economic and political interests in other, mainly third-world countries, will eventually reap the fruits of their self-serving efforts. In addition to building massive corporate wealth and international political power, their unintended and most bountiful harvest is the migration of millions of men, women and children that have followed the economic bloodlines from their own countries back to the US.
Journalist Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire puts Latin American migration to the US into a historical perspective that spans hundreds of years and contains the modern world’s most complex issue into the simple, yet profound metaphor. The documentary (airing Wednesday on KCET), is based on Gonzalez’s book that traces major waves of immigration from Mexico, Central American and the Caribbean to the U.S.’ economic, political and military interventions in each of these regions. Harvest of Empire incisively reveals the forces behind immigration that continues to play out today.
In this interview, Juan Gonzalez shares his perspectives on current immigration issues including mass migration of undocumented Central American children to the US, as well as how this and other migratory movements are part of a larger worldwide immigration crisis.
What do you think is the most pressing issue or challenge facing undocumented Latino immigrants in the US today?
Clearly for the undocumented, the issue is when their status will be regularized because the reality is that migration is a worldwide issue. We’re seeing it obviously with Syrian and Libyan refugees in Europe. We’re seeing millions of people leaving their home country as a result of the forces of war, oppression, or economic globalization. Migration is becoming a bigger problem. People being considered “undocumented” “unauthorized” or “illegal” in different countries is a worldwide phenomenon now and the economies of these countries are going have to deal with the fact that labor, like capital has become much more mobile in the 20th and 21st century. Migrants to the US are driven here by a variety of forces yet once they get here they’re in the shadows of this world, being perceived by the rest of American society as not wholly legal. If we can regularize migrant labor in this country it’ll be a lot better for the 11 and a half million people who are in this shadow world today.
What are your thoughts on the huge wave of unaccompanied Central American minors that’s taken place in the last several years, and its aftermath?
There’s been an explosion of violence and criminality in Central America. To a large degree, it comes as a result of the fact that in the 90’s and the first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. basically ships young Latinos raised in this country but that have gotten into drugs, crime or gangs, back to their countries of origin as soon as they get out of prison. In every major city in the United States, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, you have daily or weekly flights of people who are taken right out of prison and shipped back to their home countries. This new criminal element is neither from that country nor from the US. They’re in this world of not being integrated into either society and they have fueled a lot of the rise in crime and violence and terrorizing of the working class and peasant Central American community. To some degree, our policy of directly deporting so many of these young people has led to this new wave of violence, which is not some sort of political guerilla war. It’s more of a festering rise in crime in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Young people who don’t want to be a part of crime and don’t want to be forced into these gangs are fleeing here for safety but now they’re being punished and held in detention or sent back. At least there are some presidential candidates who are recognizing that and are saying that we have to provide some kind of method to determine which of these children that are fleeing here have a well-founded fear that their lives are going to be in danger if they’re sent back to their country.
How do you think that these surges in immigration from Central America fit into larger worldwide conversations about refugees and asylum seekers?
They are not fleeing political violence as did the refugees from the region in the 1980’s when the civil wars were raging in all those countries. But they are fleeing violence and trying to save their lives. So I do think that each of their cases has to be adjudicated properly and according to our own asylum laws and we can’t treat children in the same way we might treat adults. I can’t understand why we continue to detain so many of these children and deport them.
It’s clear to me that first-world western countries including the U.S. are in a state of crisis in dealing with migration from war-torn, economically ravaged third-world countries. Is there a moment of reckoning at hand in which these countries are going to have to make some hard decisions?
If you look at the migrations for all these European countries in France they don't know what to do with all those folks who originally came from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco. In England they don't know what to do with all the Indians and the Pakistanis and Jamaicans. In the United States they don’t know what to do about all the Latin Americans and the Caribbean people that have come in the last 30-40 years but if you look at it, these people are coming precisely from the regions that these powers once held in some sort of colonial relationship. The reason there are so many Tunisians and Algerians and Moroccans in France is because those were the colonies of France. The reason there are so many Indians and the Pakistanis and Jamaicans in England is because those were the colonies of England. The reason there are so many Latin Americans in the United States in the last 40-50 year is because Latin America was the incubator of the American empire where all of the major multinationals first went. It was were are military first stretched out to occupy foreign lands to prop up or take down rulers. People are coming precisely from the lands that are conquered by these advanced countries. Only no one ever expected that where we were pulling all these resources, all the sugar and bananas, and copper and all these other products, that eventually they would create commercial, communication, and transportation circuits that would end up bringing the actual people from those countries to the US. That's why I say that Latino presence in the US is the harvest of the American empire. It is the unintended harvest. It was never expected to be that that way but when you start huge economic and social forces in motion you can’t necessarily patrol how they’re going to turn out. It’s what England, France and Germany are currently facing with Syrians.
Watch the "Link Voices" documentary "Harvest of Empire" on Wednesday, April 6.
Many people are outraged by Donald Trump’s views and comments towards immigrants and immigration yet he seems to use language that is part of a long trajectory of xenophobic, anti-immigrant attitudes in the U.S. What are your thoughts on discussions about immigration in the current primary debates?
The huge outcry, not just by Trump but also other current Republican candidates, to somehow beat back migration or to somehow get the borders under control comes from a fear that the country is changing in a way that they’re not going to be able to maintain the same kind of domination that they have in the past. The reality is that it’s too late at this stage to try to change the economic forces that are driving people across borders.
It you want to reduce mass migration, you have to remember that two-thirds of most undocumented migration comes from one nation -Mexico (with smaller groups from Central America and the Caribbean). If you want to stop mass migration, raise wage levels in Mexico and watch how quickly it stops. There’s already been a sharp drop in Mexican migration. The reality is that when you have such disparity in wage levels with countries that are right next to each other, you’re going to have all the businesses move down there trying to take advantage of the cheap labor and all the labor moving up north trying to take advantage of the higher wages. You cannot continue to tear down the barriers of the free flow of capital while you erect barriers to the free flow of labor. They are two sides of the same coin of world economy. Somehow or another we have to have comparable wage levels between Mexico and the US and once you do that, people will stop coming because people would rather live in their own country and make a life with their family in a culture and a land that they know, than to take this huge risk of going to a completely new and alien place. But the problem is that the disparities between the first world and the third world are so huge that it’s unleashed all of these people, on top of violence, wars and political dislocations that have occurred in their countries. No political candidate is going to stop this. These are forced beyond the control of any individual. It’s a question of being able to adequately manage how the US will deal with the continued influx of migrants.