Insane About Asylum

Greg Palast

by Greg Palast

George W, of all people, has called for making a few million immigrants into citizens of the US of A. A few of his business buddies have figured out that what comes across the Rio Grande is free ‘human capital,’ brown gold. But even the grating profiteering off the business of citizenship doesn’t take away the rare chance to say something almost nice about America — if only by contrast to Britain’s swivel-eyed fear of the strangers in their strange land…

So here’s me, using one of the lowest tricks in journalism — asking a London cab driver to give his salt-of-the-earth opinion on one of the great issues of the day: asylum seekers. He couldn’t wait.

‘Well, it’s like you’re ashamed to be English today! You’re not supposed to be English!’

I had good reason to ask. As an American, I couldn’t get my head around Britain’s ‘asylum’ hoo-hah. At the last election, Tony Blair and William Hague seem to be competing for the post of Great White Hunter, stalking ‘bogus’ asylum seekers among the herd of ‘legitimate’ ones.

In America, we don’t have asylum seekers; we have immigrants. Lots of them – 29 million by the low-ball official census, with 1.2 million more coming in each year. US cities compete for prime-pick foreign workers as they would for a foreign auto plant.

America certainly has had anti-immigrant politicians. In the nineteenth century we had the appropriately named Know-Nothing Party and 12 years ago, we had Mike Huffington. Huffington’s wife Arianna famously convinced her rich husband to run for the US Senate on a rabid anti-immigration platform.

It was a perplexing campaign for California, where whites are the minority race and the only true non-immigrants are, if you think about it, a handful of Navaho Indians. Mrs Huffington herself delivered the most virulent anti-foreigner speeches … in her thick Greek accent.

After his demolition at the polls, the demoralized Huffington announced he could remain neither a Republican nor a heterosexual.

Huffington’s defeat also allowed George W. Bush to convince his party to adopt hug-an-immigrant slogans. Bush would hold open the Golden Door for immigrants, but not out of a weepy compassion for the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’. Immigration is simply good business.

In fact, it’s the deal of the millennium, says Dr Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute, a think-tank founded by big-name Republicans. ‘It’s a form of reverse foreign aid. We give less than $20 billion in direct aid to Third World nations and we get back $30bn a year in capital assets.’

By ‘assets’ he means workers raised, fed, inoculated and educated by poorer countries, then shipped at the beginning of their productive lives to the US . (The average age of immigrants is 28.)

The Cato Institute reckons that the US ‘imports’ about $25bn a year in human ‘goods’. ‘It is the lubricant to our capitalistic economy,’ said Moore (as I eschewed thoughts of the film Modern Times, where Charlie Chaplin gets squeezed through giant gears), ‘giving US companies a big edge over European competitors.’

Given the US experience, American economists would find the entire British fixation on ‘bogus’ and ‘legitimate’ asylum seekers just wacky. Instead of asking newcomers for a commitment to building Britain, they are asked solely whether they are running for their lives. What an odd standard for choosing new citizens.

American industry saves a bundle due to its access to an army of low-skill, low-wage foreign workers who can be hired, then dumped, in a snap. US industry also siphons off other nations’ best and brightest, trained at poor nations’ expense.

The habit of siphoning off other countries’ high-skilled workers, let me note, permits America’s monied classes to shirk the costly burden of educating America’s own underclass. (So far, this system hums along smoothly: Bangalore-born programmers in Silicon Valley design numberless cash registers for fast-food restaurants so they can be operated by illiterate Texans.)

To get a closer understanding of the Cato Institute studies, I talked with a piece of imported human capital. His name is Mino (I can’t disclose his last name). Mino first tried to get into the US from Guatemala 11 years ago. He paid thousands of dollars to a gusano (a ‘worm’) to sneak him across the border. The cash bought Mino a spot in a sealed lorry stuffed with a hundred other men. Mino felt lucky: he didn’t die. But he did spend three days in jail when La Migra (the Immigration and Naturalisation Service) grabbed him.

Back in Guatemala, Mino next bought a plane ticket to JFK airport – and a false visa. This time, no problems. Within days, Mino had a job washing dishes in the local cafe in my town on Long Island, east of New York.

I asked the chief planner for our region, Dr Lee Koppelman, about the role of ‘illegal’ workers like Mino in our local economy. Koppelman laughed: ‘There wouldn’t be an economy without the illegals.’ He estimates there are more than 100,000 ‘undocumented’ workers in our rural area alone. Nationwide, undocumented workers total between 7 million and 11 million.

Our local businesses, says Koppelman, ‘turn a blind eye’ to the suspect status of the workers stooping in our strawberry fields and clearing our construction sites. One local farmer tells me he gets his field hands from El Salvador – though I know this guest worker program ended more than 20 years ago.

Our business community’s ‘blindness’ goes beyond ignoring someone’s counterfeit ‘green card’. The local shop paid Mino the legal minimum wage, but worked him twice the legal number of hours.

And that’s another advantage to US-style immigration. ‘The workforce is flexible,’ says the expert from Cato. ‘Flexible’ means millions of workers too scared of La Migra to blow the whistle on illegal working hours, or to join unions or make a fuss when, at the end of the harvest season (or tourist season or production run) they are told to get lost.

By keeping the Golden Door only slightly ajar, with a third of all immigrants fearful of deportation, America’s employers profit from something that works quite a bit like the old South African system of migrant workers. ‘Workers just materialize,’ says Koppelman, then are expected to vanish, leaving neither businesses nor communities with any responsibility for their survival or their families ‘survival, when work ends.

‘Disappear’ is one way of putting it. At midnight on May 12 last year, twelve Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande on the first leg of their journey to Farmingville, Long Island, where my town’s tradesmen pick up their laborers. Lost in the fearfully vast Arizona desert, the twelve died of dehydration.

So why does Britain fear this gloriously profitable scheme of importing valuable worker-assets? The English notion that immigrants drain government resources is a laugh. The US Senate Immigration sub-committee tells me our government turns a nice profit on immigration, efficiently collecting in taxes from migrants roughly double what they get back in services. And it approves 2.5 million applications to stay a year: Britain lets in a paltry 129,000.

But what about my cabby’s fear of losing his English identity? Face it, Shakespeare’s dead. England’s cultural exports are now limited to Morris dancing, football hooliganism and Gwyneth Paltrow.

I humbly suggest you consider floating Home Secretary David Blunkett into the English Channel dressed like the Statue of Liberty with robe, tiara, torch, and a sign reading: ‘Desperately seeking new material for stagnant gene pool!’

Now for the happy American ending: today, Mino owns a landscaping business, drives a flash pick-up truck, plans to buy a home, get rid of his accent and finish a degree in accounting.

No one here resents Mino’s success. His story is every American’s story. It’s my story. Anna Palast stole across the border in 1920. Luckily, La Migra didn’t catch her until a few days before her 100th birthday.

And that’s what neither Blair nor Hague understands. It’s not where you come from that counts. It’s where you’re going.

At http://www.GregPalast.com you can read and subscribe to Greg Palast’s columns and view his report for BBC Television’s Newsnight, “Theft of the Presidency.”