Storied wealth, culture, and aristocratic society. Massive mansions full of servants next to scenes of unspeakable poverty. Vast green plantations capable of feeding entire nations. And supporting it all, the Peculiar Institution that is slavery.
But this is not old Virginia of which I speak.
No, this is California, and what’s more, it is the California of the present day.
Do not mistake me: I am not making light of the great evil that was African slavery in this country, a national shame and disgrace beyond compare. Neither am I using a metaphor when I call the present situation slavery. It is slavery in fact, and it is happening now, today, in a nation that once bragged it was the Land of the Free.
I do not refer only to that inescapable trap which is poverty in the inner cities, though indeed it does qualify as slavery in a very real sense. As Dr. King often said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” And when the only clear path of escape is trade in illegal drugs or illict flesh, is it any wonder that so very many of our young people — of all colors, certainly, but disproportionately black and brown — enter their majority as convicts, forever marked as second-class citizens by the condition in part imposed upon them by their enforced economic starting point.
But it must be said that California leads the nation in social programs, in offers of aid both concrete and in terms of hope, specifically in education. No, this is a national shame, not one specific only to the vast cities near Los Angeles. That it is not my target today does not for one moment undercut the great importance we must attach to it.
Nor do I speak now solely about that neo-Fascist innovation known as for-profit prisons, a twisted abomination in which California continually engages while still deploring the flawed morality of the rest of the nation. The state profits from the excessive criminalization of its underclass, instituting stricter laws and tighter enforcement while encouraging illegal immigration — which inevitably results in imprisonment if not deportation. The situation is appalling, and if inmates cannot be said to be enslaved, than who ever can?
But again, it must be admitted that this is not California alone; several states engage in this same abhorrent practice. Additionally, it was only recently that Tennessee experienced a rash of property seizures by those entrusted with their protection due to the foolish wording of the state’s laws. No, once more we have a national shame, not a problem with a specific locality.
Those I speak of are the Mexicans, enticed to cross the border illegally by the promise of high-paying jobs but then compelled to backbreaking labor harvesting the modern plantations that once were Lake Tulare. It’s true that they are there by their own choice; the chains that hold them are economic. But the conditions are awful, the wages slight. Families are often broken up by the very system that permits their passage. And, while California does have laws and organizations to protect the workers, abuses are frequent and include, among other things, employer-prompted INS raids timed conveniently the day before payday.
Migrant farm labor is common throughout the country, paradoxically prevalent in states like Connecticut and Florida. And many of these laborers are here illegally as well: California doesn’t hold a monopoly on employing the nationality-challenged. However, it does hold the record for the most illegally employed in other fields; according to a recent LA Times article, California employs half of the undocumented non-citizens in the nation. Another explains why; from what were arguably the best of motives, California has made it both legal and lucrative to hire illegal aliens by removing the word “aliens” from their labor code.
And it would be a potentially wise and generous thing to do, were it not that by changing their laws, California has created a perpetual underclass which unscrupulous employers can continue to exploit. Their nebulous legal status denies them many of the rights of citizens, including the ability to travel; they dare not leave the jurisdiction that keeps them safe. They cannot benefit from many government programs. They are not guaranteed basic human rights. In a state that loudly trumpets the virtues of democracy, they cannot lawfully vote. The chains are invisible, but they are no less real.
They. Are. Not. Free.
This status is arguably better in certain ways than that afforded them under a more stringent employment code. But by usurping the rights and powers of the Federal government, the state has created a nominal haven but an effective trap for those who would come here for advancement and improvement. And California is reaping vast profits by so doing, with some of the widest income inequality in the industrialized world — ever-cheap labor, willing servants, booming agribusiness, massive tax revenues — and I’m not even mentioning the lucrative sex trade and the accompanying human trafficking.
This is a condition indistinguishable from perpetual slavery. A group of people with no hope of citizenship are perpetually barred from legal immigration, denied basic rights, and positively encouraged to remain as a socially disempowered labor pool. They cannot leave, and at the wages they’re paid they cannot profit. The best they can hope is for future generations to join the underclass in the inner cities of which I’ve just spoken. The worst is imprisonment and forced relocation.
It is the responsibility of the nation to properly address illegal immigration. Our failure to do so with effect has created a situation akin to the slavery of the old South. It is no less the responsibility of the State of California to assist the federal government in their efforts to address this problem. Good intentions are not enough. And, while California profits, I must categorically reject any claims to the moral high ground made by their policymakers.
Instead, the Republican Party is using the fearful specter of lawbreakers entering our country at will — lawbreakers they create — in order to gain votes. And the Democratic Party, by embracing pseudo-humanitarian ineffective reform, is creating a pool of perpetual second-class citizens who will forever remain loyal to the party that is exploiting them by failing to provide real solutions. Not just California but the nation as a whole must do this, putting aside mere partisan differences to effect real change.
We must end the War On Drugs. We must end for-profit prisons. We must provide a legitimate path of escape from the perpetual poverty of our inner cities.
And we must, absolutely, address the problem of illegal immigration.
Until we do, we have no right to call ourselves the Land of the Free.