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Stephan Lessenich

Stephan Lessenich

We Progressives are quite sure Donald Trump’s approach to immigration is profoundly wrong, even immoral. We are having a much harder time coming up with our own plan. The difficulty is we’re letting him frame the problem. We need to see immigration in a much broader frame.

Lessenich says that the prosperous countries of the wealthy regions make poor societies absorb the costs of mining, plantation agriculture, deforestation, overfishing, and low-wage manufacturing. We keep them poor so we can be rich.

A recent book by the German sociologist Stephan Lessenich (Living Well at Others’ Expense: The Hidden Costs of Western Prosperity, 2019) points us to a better frame. He argues that we in the West (Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan) have achieved affluent living standards by passing the costs on to people in Asia, Africa and Latin America (the Global South). Just as a firm externalizes the costs of the pollution it creates so that it doesn’t have to pay the cleanup costs, Lessenich says that the prosperous countries of the wealthy regions make poor societies absorb the costs of mining, plantation agriculture, deforestation, overfishing, and low-wage manufacturing. We keep them poor so we can be rich.

The same mechanism operates within societies: we have our own impoverished areas that used up their resources to supply the sinews of industrialization (the coal mines of Appalachia, the iron mines of Minnesota’s Iron Range) and then sank into poverty and oblivion. This is where Trump gets many of his voters.

Similarly, a poor country like India has a prosperous, educated middle class. Even the poorest countries, like Haiti, have a tiny elite who plug into the global economy by exploiting their own population.

This is not a new argument; Lessenich does us the service of bringing it up to date.

Looking at our own immigration problem in this context, the first thing that becomes evident is that the three countries (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) from which most current migration is coming are those with the most extreme, grinding poverty and harrowing crime rates in the hemisphere. Haiti has worse poverty, but for Haitians to get to the US they have to have the cash for a plane ticket or the courage to risk their lives in leaking boats. Central Americans can just walk. These are the countries that are paying the most for US prosperity.

Those with only a bit of familiarity with Latin America will also recognize that these three countries (and Haiti as well) have been on the receiving end of a century of exploitation by US companies such as United Fruit, supported by overt and covert US government intervention to keep power in the hands of pliant local elites. As recently as 2009, the Obama(!) administration allowed a coup to overthrow the elected president of Honduras. The resultant client president is now being accused by US prosecutors of being in league with drug traffickers. This is an old and bipartisan story.

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In short, we (the United States of America) bear a very substantial responsibility for the poverty and crime in these Central American countries. That’s why it’s either ignorant or cynical for Trump to say he will cut aid to those countries unless they stop their people from emigrating to the US.

Several things now become clear. First, a progressive immigration policy needs to begin with a commitment to improve conditions at the source. If we want to reduce the numbers trying to enter our southern border, we start by improving their lives back home.

Second, since we bear so much responsibility for violence and crime in Central America, it follows that we should welcome those who seek asylum from those conditions. They often risk their lives by staying home.

Third, since we helped create the extreme poverty in these countries, we ought to welcome people who just want to live better. Indeed, one of the most efficient ways we can improve conditions back home is by having immigrants working legally here and sending money home. Remittances from emigrants are a huge part of the GNP of all these countries.

Fourth, we need to recognize that we have our own poor, whether urban or rural. Any policy to deal justly with immigration must also put thought and resources into improving the lives and prospects of people in places like Appalachia or the inner cities like Baltimore.

Fifth, and more broadly, progressives must be very thoughtful about how to regulate and control global capitalism in order to block the mechanisms that create the conditions for mass migrations.

Finally, a progressive approach to immigration must double down on the Green New Deal. We should push to get those principles implemented worldwide, so that we deal effectively with global climate change in ways that will let everyone live better.

impeachment unavoidable

John Peeler