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Redefining the Economic Crisis As a Crisis of Inequality
For months, our collective efforts to face the economic crisis have eclipsed most other conversations about overarching issues that affect us as a nation. But last week, the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC)-Massachusetts and Jobs with Justice sponsored a forum on immigration.
Although the question of immigration reform seems to have been relegated to a quiet blip flying under the radar (at least in terms of attention from the national media), it remains very real for 40 million immigrants (particularly the nearly 12 million of them who are undocumented) who live day-to-day, trying to make a decent living in this country, and for all those who stand in solidarity with them.
Panelists Avi Chomsky, Bill Fletcher Jr., Jeannette Huezo, and Oscar Chacón gave insightful commentary on the political landscape for immigration policy reform in 2009, exploring the question, "Is a Humane and Just Immigration Reform Possible in an Economic Crisis?"
Chomsky addressed the central question through an analysis of how we define the economic crisis. She argued that it is usually defined with job loss at its center, with job loss resulting in a decline in the country's ability to produce and consume. This definition limits our understanding of the economy, confining it to the view that "the more production and consumption, the better." We should, instead, examine the conditions under which production takes place, or the full range of consequences of our consumption — including its impact on workers, our health, and the environment.
Instead, we need to redefine the economic crisis as a crisis of inequality.
It has become painfully clear — through everything from the voracious growth of the unregulated private investment system to the unethical sub-prime mortgage practices to the falling value of the minimum wage — that the combination of a growing gap between rich and poor and a frenzy of speculation is unsustainable.
Not only is there socio-economic inequality at the local and national levels, but also at the global level. The United States makes up 5 percent of the world's population, but consumes anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the planet's resources.
This inequality is not accidental. In fact, Chomsky emphasized, it is a direct result of U.S. foreign and domestic policy: everything from how international trade takes place to how U.S. corporations operate in the Global South.
And this is where immigration comes in, because as long as resources are being drained out of countries like Mexico into the United States, there will be people coming to this country to seek a better life for their families.
Many immigrants affirm that if they had the same opportunities in their home countries as they seek in the United States, they would stay at home. Home is where their families, their culture, and their roots are — it's home. Not to mention, many immigrant workers express that prior to coming to this country they underestimated how hard it would be to get a good, safe job that pays a living wage. Of course, this is a direct result of inequality of opportunity that is shaped by our current immigration policy and by race, ethnicity, class, and gender dynamics.
A humane immigration reform would both allow for people to pursue full economic opportunities in their home countries and ensure that those who choose to come to the United States can fully realize their economic, social, cultural, and political rights.
So, what will it take to change the dynamic of global inequality that leads to increased migration? What will it take to build a more just system of immigration?
Chomsky reminds us that it begins with redefining our conception of the "standard of living," which has thus far been associated with higher consumption, to looking toward building a sustainable "quality of life." That is, by lowering our consumption, we actually achieve a more just and equal distribution of resources. In this new scenario, production would be tailored to meet human needs, rather than to maximize profits, which only deepens inequality.
To address the crisis of inequality, there would need to be a reorientation of government economic policies in order to create solid jobs aimed at human needs, protecting the socio-economic rights of those "at the bottom," and instituting safeguards for low-income communities and communities of color in this country. That includes
- enforcement of labor laws on health and safety and wages,
- expanded legal rights and full human rights for immigrants, and
- expanded membership in unions, especially for immigrants and women.
Moreover, we would need to restructure U.S. trade and foreign policy to promote a redistribution of resources to the Global South, creating conditions for people to make a dignified living anywhere in the world, so that people would not have to leave their home countries.
Decreasing inequality both domestically and internationally would not only build a stronger foundation for the economy and begin closing the wealth gap, but there is also potential for a profoundly positive environmental impact. So this framework is not just helpful to understanding how to reform our immigration system: it is connected to local, national, and global issues of environmental justice. Community-led, grassroots economic development would present an opportunity to "green" the economy from the bottom-up, and it would begin to remedy the damage inflicted by the biggest fossil-fuel-guzzling economies against the least-energy-consuming countries.
For me, all of this begins to look like a spiritual shift. Over many years, the immigration debate has been framed largely in fearful, racist, xenophobic terms. Immigrants have been treated merely as tools to bolster our economy through their hard work and investment in the system, regardless of whether they had the rights to go along with their contributions and regardless of how immigrant communities bore the brunt of the crisis of inequality.
But as panelist Oscar Chacón pointed out, now we have a moment of opportunity — ironically, in the context of economic crisis — to reframe the narrative of immigration.
Author, activist, and Quaker spiritual teacher Parker Palmer has written,
Who doesn't know that a society in which the rich get richer while the poor get poorer is a society that will someday have to pay the piper? Who doesn't know that when a relatively small fraction of the world's population uses its power to command and consume a disproportionately large fraction of the world's resources, the chickens will come home to roost? Who doesn't know that an economic system that encourages us to live beyond our means and refuses to regulate greed is one in which our avarice will come back to bite us? Who doesn't know that at every level of life, from personal to global to cosmic, what goes around comes around?
The problem is not that we don't possess a capacity to know these things. If we didn't, we wouldn't have all the colloquialisms I just used! The problem is that the knowledge we need, like the seismic shifts that create eruptions, originates underground. It comes from a place within us deeper than our intellects, a place the poet William Stafford calls ‘a remote, important region in all who speak,' a place sometimes called the inner teacher or the soul.
But rarely do we allow ourselves to go to that place. Instead, we fill our lives with noisy distractions, blocking our access to insights that might scare us but could also save us. The purpose of an authentic ‘inner life' retreat is not to flee from a frightening world, but to give ourselves access to those deeper sources of knowing that can help us find our way through what we fear.