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The Real Immigration Debate
Tackle Economic Security, Not Simply Border Security

by Francis Calpotura
Oakland, California


Francis Calpotura is Executive Director of TIGRA: Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action.

Immigration rights rallies around the United States over the last two years have demonstrated the political power of immigrant communities, especially those from Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Yet the rallies have not yielded the political changes for which many immigrant organizations around the country have been fighting.

Last month's failure of the Senate immigration bill must serve as an opportunity to challenge mainstream rhetoric on immigration, moving beyond narrow discussions of border security and immigrant rights to a deeper discussion of economic security. The bill's demise opens the door to renewed organizing around economic justice for immigrants.

Ultra-conservative groups pulled out all the stops to defeat a bill they considered to be lax on border security and promoting "amnesty" for undocumented workers. Their central role in the debate led the media to ignore discussions of economic security and a real assessment of what forces people to migrate in the first place. Without addressing this, so-called comprehensive immigration reform was bound to fail.

Tackling root causes of migration, including poverty and lack of economic opportunity, is where the real security debate should be anchored. People migrate to the U.S. because they see economic opportunity here, which has been devastated in impoverished countries under globalization. Unfettered trade (especially under the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA), privatization of state-run industry and services, and the ascendancy of the rights of capital over labor have together failed to reduce poverty or create economic growth. This has been the case in Latin America where economic growth has contracted over the last twenty-five years.

Since the economic model is not working, people must resort to a grassroots transfer of labor and capital. People migrate away from their families to serve as labor in the global North while continuing to send capital in the form of remittances, or money transfers, back to the global South.

These remittances have eclipsed the amount rich countries spend on foreign aid. In 2006, migrant workers sent $260 billion to their country of origin, more than three times the amount of official development assistance. Remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean last year equaled all foreign investments in private companies. In many parts of the global South, remittances account for 10% or more of the gross domestic product.

It is important to recognize the economic power posed by remittances. The Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action (TIGRA) is working in immigrant communities throughout the U.S. to unleash this economic power to work towards sustainable development and challenge harmful economic policies.

TIGRA is working in immigrant communities to form Million Dollar Clubs, where immigrants come together in local communities and recognize the power of their remittances as an effective tool for development that can make migration a choice and not a necessity for millions around the globe.

A key challenge faced by these communities is the high fees associated with remittance transactions. Spending billions while sending money back to their communities in impoverished countries is a major economic security issue for immigrants. Studies show that if money transfer fees were cut in half, 33 million people could be lifted out of poverty in the developing world. Immigrant workers spend up to a week's wages to pay these monthly fees; for families in their home countries, the fee represents almost two month's worth of wages.

This is why TIGRA has undertaken a campaign to pressure Western Union -- the leader in the global money transfer industry -- to adopt a Transnational Community Benefits Agreement (TCBA) that would lower fees and support community reinvestment in sustainable development. The TCBA would make the remittance industry more accountable to its customer base: immigrants who often work low-paying jobs with little regulation.

Now that "comprehensive immigration reform" has failed in the Senate, we must return to the hard work of asking deeper questions about why people migrate and addressing root causes. A singular focus on legislative strategies will not bring about real change; broadening the immigrant movement such that it taps into the economic power of immigrants is needed. Organizing around remittances is crucial in unleashing this economic power; the first step is to lower the cost of sending those remittances.

Published in In Motion Magazine, July 29, 2007

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