By DONNA SHEARER | Originally Posted in PressDemocrat.com
Published: Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 11:58 p.m.
Of all the ideas swirling around the public conversation about a potential day labor center for Petaluma, a crucial one is notably absent: The inevitability of demographic changes due to worldwide labor migrations.
The movement of people in search of food has been a normal aspect of life on the planet since the origins of humankind; but with the development of nation-states at the turn of the last century, the flow of people across international boundaries — regulated by visas and passports — is a relatively recent phenomenon. What makes this issue particularly problematic in the current era is a combination of events that are greatly accelerating the magnitude and pace of these migrations.
Globalization is one of these. The outsourcing of industry and labor to other countries not only negatively affects the wages and livelihoods of countless Americans, it also impacts the livelihoods of millions of people across the world. Farmers and small businesses who grow, process and distribute rice, beans or corn in Central or Latin America, for example, aren’t able to compete with a newly arrived Wal-Mart that can sell these commodities at far cheaper rates. The result can deprive already stressed local communities of the ability to make a living; shantytowns — where many lack employment and are malnourished — expand. A last resort then compels the well-known high-risk migrations to the United States in search of work, a story that is repeated a thousand-fold throughout the world.
But globalization is only the tip of this demographic iceberg. Refugees fleeing war and persecution feed the mix, as do corrupt governments, failing financial institutions and the unintended consequences of the industrial revolution (e.g. large deforestation projects that not infrequently leave droughts, flooding, soil erosion, and, increasingly, severe water shortages, in their wake).
It is not only the developing countries that have been experiencing these kinds of economic stresses. In the United States, a patchwork of distressed regions across the country (think Detroit) has prompted people to move to other regions in the country; and an increasing number of under-employed or unemployed Americans are currently looking for work across international borders — including Mexico — and not always with “papers.” In the end, as economic pressures on global communities mount, the eternal search for work as the primary means of survival places all of humanity in the same boat.
None of this has to mean these problems can’t be solved. Demographers (and others in the environmental and social sciences) believe there are ways of turning human migrations across the world into advantages for the countries impacted by them. Postwar Europe addressed the migrations of workers across borders by absorbing them into local communities, and providing legal protections for them. A few generations later, many of their descendants are today’s middle-class Europeans.
Randal Johnson, vice president of the immigration division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, contends that immigration, including migrant workers from Central and Latin America, “… will continue to be an important labor force needed to replace the aging U.S. workforce” — a view that explains the Chamber’s position against penalizing migrant workers. (For details, see the United States Chamber of Commerce document: www.uschamber.com/immigrationmythsfacts.jpg).
In view of the larger demographic picture, day labor centers are extraordinarily modest adaptations to the inevitability of labor migrations worldwide. The day labor centers in both Healdsburg and Graton won the approval of a coalition of merchants, residents, police and civic leaders in part because of the remarkably low impact of these projects, and in part because of the obvious gain to their communities: Alleviating the loitering of workers near s and residences, the provision of minimum protections for the workers in the form of shelter from extreme weather, a fair hiring system that cuts down on worker exploitation and a bathroom.
Petaluma has little to lose and much to gain by supporting a day labor project in town.
(Donna Shearer is a Petaluma resident and an anthropologist with a background in international relations. World labor migrations are a recent interest.)