Guest columnist: Looking at immigration through the wrong lens

Dec. 10, 2012 @ 10:23 PM

Thursday’s do-nothing result of an North Carolina House panel on immigration left many in the state pounding their fists, while others breathed a collective sigh of relief. Just weeks ago the N.C. legislature was considering a Georgia-style crackdown on immigration, as Gov. Beverly Perdue and incoming Gov. Pat McCrory bickered over who could be tougher on undocumented workers. Now a timid N.C. House passed a resolution that essentially endorses the status quo. What happened?

Republicans finally woke up, that’s what happened, and it’s about time. Defeat in a presidential election, largely because of Latinos’ overwhelming support for Obama, is finally forcing Republicans to reconsider their portrayal of Hispanics as wanton criminals scuttling across our borders.

It’s a step in the right direction, though not a step toward the right solution. Whether or not North Carolina passes draconian immigration legislation in the future is a moot point, because in focusing on local policies, we miss the root cause of immigration, the real reason that immigrants, particularly Hispanics, cross la frontera in droves.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed in the 1990s, it bankrupted four million corn farmers who were left with no choice but to move elsewhere looking for work. In Mexico and Colombia, the failed Drug War has displaced hundreds of thousands of small farmers as their fields are fumigated with poison from U.S. planes. Wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, covertly funded by the United States, have driven hordes of innocents not to immigrate, but to flee. 

Illegal immigration is driven by our own self-interested foreign policies, and laws such as the ones passed in Georgia, Arizona and Alabama do nothing but humiliate and squeeze a population that has suffered too much already.

The United States should absolutely take steps to stem the tide of illegal immigrants, but not through policies that lead to rotten crops and fearful communities, yet do nothing to tackle the root of the problem.

If we want to stop illegal immigration, repeal NAFTA. End the Drug War. Stop funding violent contra wars in Latin America. The Hispanics entering the United States illegally are not criminals, they are refugees fleeing violence, joblessness and starvation.

It’s nice that North Carolina lawmakers are waking up to the futility of anti-immigrant policies, even if they aren’t doing it for the right reasons. Immigration will be a major issue both nationally and in North Carolina in the coming year and will do as much to rattle the tenuous relationship between liberals and conservatives as Obamacare or the current fiscal cliff crisis. But we’re talking about the problem in all the wrong ways. If we really want to answer the question of what to do with our immigrant communities, we should first ask what drove them to come.


Tessie Castillo, a Durham resident, is a board member with Witness for Peace, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that focuses on U.S. policy in Latin America. For more information on upcoming trips and how to get involved, visit