Recently, Democratic Perspective had the great privilege of discussing the immigration debate with Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritas at Massachussetts Institute of Technology’s Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy. He has authored more than 150 books and, according to Wikipedia, is the 8th most quoted author of all time.
Prof. Chomsky began by saying, “In the background, there’s a conflict of values, each of which is worth respect. One is people should be free to go wherever they want. If anyone believed in free trade, and virtually nobody does, they would pay attention to the patron saint, Adam Smith (social philosopher and author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations) who stated that a founding principle of free trade is the free circulation of labor.”
“The other value,” Chomsky continued, “Is that a community has a right to preserve integrity that is of importance to it.”
“Well, there are circumstances where these values conflict, and at that point, we have to look at circumstances as we always do on human affairs,” said Chomsky. “The US has a mixed history on immigration. In the 19th Century, it was essentially free and immigration from Europe was encouraged although Ben Franklin thought some groups were too ‘swarthy’ to be admitted into the US. He was talking about Germans and Swedes. Franklin felt only pure Anglo-Saxons should be admitted.” But, according to Prof. Chomsky, by the late 19th Century, attitudes toward immigration were beginning to shift. “The most extreme example was the Asian Exclusion Act (except for the Japanese who regarded as different),” he continued.
In speaking specifically about the current problem with the US-Mexican border, Chomsky said, “Like most borders it was established by violence – the US conquered half of Mexico in a war of aggression 160 years ago. So what is now Arizona and the Southwest in general was part of Mexico. It remained quite an open border. That changed substantially in 1994 when Clinton launched an operation to militarize the border for the first time. The same year, the Clinton administration rammed through NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) which was opposed by people in all three of the countries involved.”
Chomsky said that it was understood by its framers that NAFTA would lead to immigration from Mexico as the result of structural changes.
For example, Chomsky said, “Mexican agriculture is quite efficient, but it can’t compete with US agribusiness, which is highly subsidized. As a result, Mexican workers were driven off the farm. Furthermore, Mexican businesses are not going to compete with US multinationals which, under NAFTA, are given rights that go far beyond the rights of persons. Also, in 1980, the US was supporting massive terrorist wars in Central America that led to genocide in the Mayan highlands of Nicaragua. Remnants of those shattered societies are still flowing to the US to try to survive somehow.”
Chomsky continued, “There are lots of reasons for immigration and there are mixed attitudes towards it. Business tends to want the cheap labor. They can be hired for very little money and they can’t protest. They can’t say anything or they’ll be kicked out of the country. In some parts of the country like South Florida, they literally become slaves.”
In speaking of those most vocally opposed to immigration, Chomsky says, “I wouldn’t call them conservative because a conservative would agree with Adam Smith. Immigration does arouse all sorts of concerns. Some are understandable, but incorrect. Many feel it undercuts the domestic workforce. That’s not really true. Studies show that it actually increases economic growth and leads to more work.”
Chomsky complted the interview by offering a solution to the issue, “The answer to immigration should be to improve working conditions in Mexico. That was done by the European Union and it worked perfectly. Before the EU admitted poorer, southern countries, it spent some time trying to raise their standard of living. So when they did enter the EU and their people could move freely, they wouldn’t undercut the more affluent northern workers. Some of the proposals of NAFTA included measures like this, but they weren’t even discussed. There are ways to deal with these problems humanely.”