Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Monday, August 11, 2008

the crossing

(this following piece is to go in conjunction with the short story "Gods of the Spiderhole" currently posted to Fantasy Magazine, so go read that first.)



Can’t Walk Away From Omelas

The editors of Fantasy Magazine, in their boundless folly, asked me to write a follow-up bit about my story, “Gods of the Spiderhole”. Again, in their boundless folly, they didn’t really provide any strict guidelines.

Let it be known that all opinions and ideas expressed in my short story and in this little follow-up bit are mine alone. Fantasy Magazine did not ask me to write out my political beliefs about the undocumented workers of the American economy. They just asked me to write something, anything, about the story. I probably could have written about how anthropologists conduct field work among migratory populations, or the various symbolisms of insects across cultures. (Anthropology would have been very dull and inappropriate for a non-anthropologist like me, but insects would have been fun!)

Fantasy Magazine also asked me to make myself available in the comments to discuss this written-thing-about-the-story further during the week. I will be as available as I can in the comments to discuss the issue further.

All opinions expressed are not only just mine, but they might as well be considered entertainment only. No politician has ever asked me for my opinion. I have never managed to change anyone’s voting patterns. Every letter to a politician I have ever written only accomplished the venting of my own spleen, and a polite “I’m going to ignore you, you cute, fuzzy, little Democrat” response from my Texan Republican overlords. Not one law in this nation owes its vote to my pen, or to my big, fat mouth. Not even a little tiny vote - for instance “District Selectman” and “Shirts or Skins” - has changed because of the expressions of my political beliefs. My sister’s cats ignore me when I call them, or try to convince them to do anything, ever. Also, girls usually don’t like me when I’m trying to convince them to like me. My words, no matter how passionate, no matter how erudite, exist merely for entertainment. I am wind. I am futile, futile wind.

Since I don’t find expressing my politics particularly effective at shaping public opinion, I don’t write very many political fictions. Usually, I just bury my politics into the deep bones and hope the fundamental ideas behind the beliefs leak into the subconscious of my readers. In fact, talking about “Gods of the Spiderhole” with just my Fictionist hat on, I’m not convinced I found the right balance between politics and story in the piece. I consider it too political to be truly great writing - passable, and forgivable writing, maybe, and hopefully interesting despite the flaws.


After writing a story that struggled to keep my political beliefs oblique, I interpreted the editors’ invitation at a follow-up article as an opportunity to explicate my somewhat educated opinions about the undocumented workers from Central and South America (and Canada, if they ever start doing it on a large scale, too…). Everybody loves a heated political debate, yes? It should be more fun than a dissertation on anthropological methods from a non-anthropologist. (Though, it won’t be as much fun as the bug symbolism.)

Let me find my soapbox… Ooh, I’m taller. And you’re balding, over there. Yes you, in the “Guns and Roses” shirt. You look like Satan’s Mullet Monk from this higher angle. Weird. Okay, somebody hand me my megaphone…

*Horrible squealing noises*

Ooh, let me turn down that gain… Okay… Okay… I think I got it working-orking-orking.

Now, I’m ready to rant like a street-corner preacher.


The global economy is built on the blood, sweat, and tears of an exploitable labor force.

This has been true for a very long time. In American history, our economy has been totally dependent on an exploitable labor force since the first European settlers turned the first discovered native tribe into slaves – approximately five minutes after first landing. Whether the exploited workers of subsequent generations were called indentured servants, slaves, wage-slaves, Braceros, undocumented workers, railroad workers, contractors, etc. etc, doesn’t matter. Our economy doesn’t run without people on the bottom working extremely hard in bad conditions for minimal compensation.

Economists in the American Old South that wanted to justify slavery referred to “the mudsill”, after a home-construction technique wherein a plank of wood - the “mudsill” - formed the foundation of a house. Some group of laborers, argued these economists, had to be the ones exploited by everyone else, so that everyone else could live happily in a nice house upon that bloodied, ignorant mudsill. Though the terminology has changed, and slavery – on paper – has been abolished, the basic belief remains the same. Someone has to be at the bottom of the economy, doing unpleasant work for minimal compensation. Stay in school, all ye children, lest that exploited worker be you.

Since 1942, and the Bracero program, the overwhelming majority of our agricultural “mudsill” is comprised of Hispanic laborers. An amazing amount of transportation infrastructure from roads to railroads were built and maintained by Hispanic laborers, and continue to be built and maintained by descendents of the original Braceros. An amazing number of buildings and homes are built and maintained by people who would not be welcome inside after the completion of the job. Foreign laborers are this generation’s exploitable labor force. They pay in sweat, despair, and death for the comforts the rest of us enjoy. (I’ll talk mostly about Hispanic laborers in this bit, but we must remember that we’re also talking about sweatshops and factory workers and miners and others all over the world. For instance, “Made in China” is synonymous with “Made With Electricity Derived From the Deadliest Mines in the World”.)

Unfortunately, the world has no place for the ones that would walk away from Omelas. If we went to Europe, the same system of exploitation would be true with some new and some same exploitable groups. If we went to a third world nation, the local wealthy cronies would be doing the same injustice to the general population. We could go anywhere in between and get the same result. Our global economy seems stuck in a cycle of human exploitation. (I hope we build our inexpensive robot slaves soon, because I don’t think there’s any other answer to the problem. Honestly, I don’t.)

When I hear pundits and local, politically-interested people discussing the issue of our border with Mexico (I live in suburban Texas, by the way) I don’t get the sense that the people who desire to kick out all these undocumented workers have any rational grasp of the issue. Too many people often refuse to see beyond the mere fact that some fellow hadthe gall to illegally walk a hundred miles over unforgiving, deadly deserts with all his worldly possessions on his back just to do manual labor for minimum wage. How dare he come here without permission and voluntarily enslave himself!? (No terrorist has ever entered this nation at the Arizona-Mexico border, by the way. Why would anyone with drug and oil money try something so amazingly dangerous when the airport is a vastly easier border to cross? More on airports and illegal immigration, later…)

I’m very sorry to tell you this if you’re already frothing at the mouth because of my liberalism, but no labor force is competing with that undocumented worker for the kinds of jobs undocumented workers pursue en masse. Individual cases exist, always, but no competing labor force exists on a scale large enough to meet our economic demand. (The construction workers might be an exception, but in this case, the contractors that hire illegals often do so because of reasons that have little to do with the availability of a labor force, and lots to do with the ability of an unscrupulous manager to abuse and exploit the illegal labor force.)

And for God’s sake, do you have any idea how unpleasant the trip is across our southern border?

Crossing the border is really fucking dangerous. People die of heat stroke. People get hit by cars on poorly-lit, poorly-constructed roads. People drown in flooded streams, and flooded rivers. People die in the care of callous, and/or incompetent coyotes. People are robbed and/or murdered by unscrupulous coyotes. (Unscrupulous cops and border guards from both sides do their share of robbery and murder, too).

Women and children face an exceptional amount of danger. The greatest shame at our nation’s doorstep is the number of women and children who are kidnapped, raped, and murdered in these border towns, and whose cases remain unsolved, under-investigated, and often, completely undiscovered.

Why would anyone face this danger? You’ve got to be either crazy, foolish, desperate, or courageous to try to make that crossing. Every step of the way you are robbed, abused, and imperiled, until you get over that line where Mexico ends and America begins. If you came from farther south than Mexico, the Mexican government was not happy to have you, and was far crueler to you than any American border guard. I ask again, why would anyone willingly face this dangerous middle passage?

Answer: Because the moment a worker arrives on the other side of the Crossing, the opportunities for work seem endless. Everywhere a man can possibly make money with the strength of his own arms – whether picking crops or changing flat tires or mowing lawns – someone is there who will hire an undocumented worker, or somebody knows somebody who will hire an undocumented worker. Since the Bracero program introduced a generation of Mexican workers to a generation of American farmers and railroad bosses, undocumented workers know where to go and who to ask and how to ask. Enough generations have made the Crossing so that new avenues of work are opened up everyday by employers that recognize the value of an exploitable labor force. We’ve got ourselves an underground economy that’s been going like gangbusters since 1942, and the trend shows no sign of stopping.

Since we’re talking about an economic model, we’re talking about supply and demand. One current political trend seems to want to clamp down on the supply of laborers. Let’s look at what happens when law enforcement clamps down hard on the supply end of an equation without solving the problem of demand:

The war on drugs is a fiasco. More money is poured into this “war” annually than I and everyone I know will see in this lifetime. None of this expenditure of time, money, and blood is producing results. It seems like every year things have escalated to a new height of violence and misery in our inner cities. It seems like every year, our prisons swell and swell and swell with an unending glut of new criminals guilty of drug-related offenses. (Land of the free, indeed…) Simple economics explain why we seem to be exploding with drug-related crimes.

A drug user will burn their life down to get more of their preferred poison. Any action, no matter how reprehensible, is justified by the acquisition of today’s temporary fix, and no price is too high if it leads to the fix. Since the demand remains very strong, regardless of what happens to the supply, reducing the supply will only increase the cost of the product. Drug trafficking is an extremely deadly job, though the wealth at the upper echelons of drug traffickers is astonishing. Few drug dealers last more than three years without either getting killed, or going to jail for an extended period of time, but new drug traffickers take to the streets everyday to pursue the upper echelons of wealth. What happened? The street value of the product increased because demand did not sink with the loss of supply. The profits increased. The success of the violent traffickers justified more armaments, stronger organizations, and an overall escalation of violence across the field. The war on drugs has only worsened the toxic atmosphere in our inner cities. If you could make more money flipping burgers after school, why would you stand on a corner in all weather fourteen to sixteen hours a day getting shot at by rivals and hassled by cops?

The drug cancer that has gripped our urban poor like a vise could be healed by focusing our resources on reducing the systems that create drug demand instead of escalating the war on drug supply. If the demand dissipates, the money dissipates, and the violent criminals seek out avenues of wealth that often don’t involve standing on corners day and night, allowing kids to walk among the street corners and go to school in peace, further decreasing drug demand as education increases, and etc. etc. etc.

Apply supply and demand logic to our borders. Who would walk across the deadly desert if there was no oasis at the end of the trail? Who would place their lives into the hands of a disreputable breed of human smugglers if they did not have faith in the results? Who would face all the dangers at our borders if there was no reward to be had on the other side?

In contrast to drugs – and, I am very sorry to say it - undocumented immigrants cannot be stopped by combating the demand. The demand is just not going away. The demand moves around among various ethnic and economic groups all over the world throughout history that, for whatever reason, have found their place at the bottom of the proverbial mudsill. Before we were exploiting Braceros, we were exploiting poor white, Chinese, and African-American workers. The problem remains the same, and only the ethnicities change. Someday, it will be my Caucasoid-American descendents if we don’t get those slave robots built, soon.

Instead of looking for ways to end our immigrant labor force, I think we should look for ways to reduce the exploitation. The first step is to normalize the process of crossing our border to work. We should legalize it in a way where – unlike the slavery-by-any-other-name Bracero program – officials aren’t robbing the workers at every turn.

We should make it simple and transparent and a process to achieve an inexpensive work visa even if someone just stumbled up to the border with a valid ID and enough money for bus fare to San Antonio. There’s plenty of work in San Antonio, for those hard workers willing to be nothing but arms for low wages.

By pulling this underground economy into the light of the law, we can focus our energies at enforcing safety protocols, health codes, rights-education, and all sorts of things that currently are easily overlooked by unscrupulous employers – (like those construction contractors that actually could be hiring American workers if the foreigners weren’t so easy to work for 60+ hours a week without any health benefits or expectation of promotions or careful scrutiny of the amount skimmed off the paycheck in taxes… What’s that? Complaint? Why don’t I just call my cop buddy over and you can tell it to him! By the way, you’d have to show that cop your photocopied green card… Dozens of guys I could take instead of you, Bracero. Dozens.)

We can keep track of the workers as they find housing, go to work, and participate in the American economy. Our guest workers will feel safe calling the police if they are being robbed or violently attacked. They will be able to report dangerous working conditions to the appropriate authorities. We will be able to educate them in who those authorities are. Social workers will not be shunned as spies for the INS. Children will get to enroll in school. Healthcare can be appropriately administered and health insurance education can make inroads to combat the bankruptcy of hospitals. (By the by, we absolutely should make it a priority to ensure appropriate healthcare to the population group that, almost by themselves, labors in every facet of our nation’s food-chain from picking crops, to slaughtering animals, to packaging the food, to moving food all over the nation, to working in the kitchens of restaurants and wealthy homes, to busing our tables when we’re done eating... Just so you know why healthcare’s a really good idea there.) All sorts of wonderful things that you and I take for granted can be implemented to decrease the exploitation of our exploitable labor force.

Along with legalization of our immigrant labor force, criminally-motivated individuals would not find our borders as easy to slip through. Reducing the flood of the undocumented immigrants down to a large river of approved guest workers through legal entry points would reduce the strain on our law enforcement personnel. We wouldn’t need to build fences or install cameras at quite the same breakneck pace. The ones who did cross illegally, for whatever reason, would be easier to track and capture without so many other bodies clogging the system.

Let’s swallow our pride and legalize the economic process that will be in place whether we like it or not. We need to normalize and legalize what we have been doing both legally and illegally, in some fashion, on a large scale, since 1942.

Continuing my theme of supply and demand, even if we managed to clamp that border down with a wall and a no-man’s land and deadly snipers that rivaled communist Berlin, more undocumented workers come through our airports everyday than ever hitchhike across Death Valley in the summer. Here’s how it works:

A manager of an average building in Middle America does not want to keep a janitor on payroll, for a variety of reasons. It is much cheaper and hassle-free to hire out those jobs to a contracting company. The manager takes bids on the contract. The low bid wins. This contractor is responsible for the legality of the labor force, not the manager. Want to guess how easy it is for an unscrupulous contractor to hire undocumented workers?

These sorts of laborers do not just come from the Mexican border. A village leader will recruit workers in their ancestral village anywhere across the impoverished nations of the world. The bright-eyed worker flies to America, with legal visas and a promise of work. Then, that village leader will work their slave labor force very, very hard while charging the plane ticket, the visa, plus room and board, back onto the worker as a debt that must be repaid at the cost of most or all profits from the work. The worker is not educated enough to know their rights – for instance the forty-hour work week, overtime, the safety and warning labels on chemicals, etc. etc. etc. The language and cultural gap is great enough that the worker does not know where to go for help.

For instance, what do you do if you’ve been raped by your boss in Omaha, NE, and the only language you speak is Latvian, and you are terrified of being arrested and raped again just for standing there, much less concerned about the reprisal by the boss’ wealthy goons upon your family back in your impoverished village in Latvia?

I hope students of history are reminded here about why African slaves were more prized than Indentured Servants or Native American slaves, beyond just the malarial survival rate. African slaves were proverbial fish-out-of-water, with nowhere to go, and no knowledge of how to get there if they escaped or faced peril. They were low-escape risks, and easier to catch if they did escape. (Think about this: the harder it is to cross the border the other way, towards home, the easier it is to exploit the people stuck here. No wonder all those Republican-voting cronies that profit most from illegal workers also seem so adamant about securing that border.)

Of course, the company claims it doesn’t know that all those non-English-Speaking people who are worked as hard as robot slaves below minimum wage aren’t in this nation legally. The contractors get arrested, if anyone finds out, maybe. The corporate overlords blame the manager that hired the contractor, and maybe the manager is re-assigned or let go. The managers that aren’t caught are rewarded for their lean operational budget, and promoted. The system promotes exploitation. The giants of industry roll forward, unashamed at the blood on the tile that falls from the skin of the ones mopping up the blood who bleed, and mop and bleed and mop and bleed and mop.

Even if we shut down our Mexican border, and not one human made the crossing illegally, the demand for an exploitable labor force wouldn’t go away. We’d just get more stories like this, this, and this. Instead of solving the problem, we’d just get a brand new kind of bad, exacerbated by the wealth involved when demand is high and supply is low, and the dangers of the situation would be exacerbated by the appeal of wealth to dangerous people willing to do dangerous things, whose tendencies are in turn exacerbated into violence and cruelty and wealth by the very system that we put in place to stop the hiring of undocumented workers.

Alas, even if everything I want to happen happens - through no result of my pedantic punditry which is purely for entertainment purposes - we’ll still have a global economy built upon the suffering of an exploitable labor force. Where would we go where humans do not exercise the urge towards human exploitation?

We can’t walk away from Omelas. There is no escape from Omelas. Everywhere we go, we’ll rediscover Omelas.


(Author's note: I actually could put up a hyperlink to every single word in this article, though I felt that might discourage the following of any of the links. Enough facts are out there. If you'd like more information about anything, just google it, or ask me in the comments.)

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