By Hook or By Crook

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Patrick Haab probably wishes right now that he’d never pulled that gun.

Sitting in the regulation black and white stripes of the Maricopa County Jail (operated by long-time friend of "law and order," Sheriff Joe Arpaio), Haab, a sergeant and civil affairs specialist in the Army Reserve, told The Arizona Republic last week that he "acted in self-defense" when he pulled a gun on a group of men he said we going to attack him while he stopped at an Arizona rest stop.

According to the Republic, Haab prevented the men — identified as illegal migrants from Mexico — from entering a Chevrolet Suburban and then detained them for a half-an-hour while he and another motorist waited for the Border Patrol to arrive.

“I never patted any subjects down,” Haab told the Republic. “I never pulled the (gun’s) hammer back."

Maybe. Maybe not. I wasn’t there at that rest stop on I-8 the night this all reportedly went down, so I don’t know. Apparently, the "authorities" are trying to, in their own special way, portray Haab as a "mentally disturbed" man on anti-depressants (to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Republic) who had only shortly before been turned down for a job by the very sheriff’s department now holding him in custody.

Whether Haab was simply overreacting to a frightening situation in the best way he knew how — by using the highly effective "people skills" he learned while dealing with Iraqis — without knowing what he was dealing with, or whether he knew he was dealing with illegal border crossers and thought this would be a good way to be a hero, we’ll probably never know.

(Arpaio was one of those heroes of the 1980s whose commitment to casual cruelty and humiliation of those in state custody earned him many accolades among law and order types. My brief sortie into Blogistan on this issue, however, shows that this arrest has tarnished Joe’s shine. Further probing shows the tough sheriff has been out of favor with a few for quite some time. So lesson number one to all those "law and order civilians" out there: law and order is whatever the state and its official hirelings say it is. And not what you and your political ideology think it ought to be.)

Maybe Haab was trying to show off for the Minutemen, the all-volunteer force currently patrolling the Arizona-Mexico frontier. "This call for volunteers is not a call to arms, but a call to voices seeking a peaceful and respectable resolve to the chaotic neglect by members of our local, state and federal governments charged with applying U.S. immigration law," the group’s web site says.

For what it’s worth, the media in Tucson said the Minutemen pledged not to detain anyone, and the web site promised that volunteers would follow illegal border crossers until the US Border Patrol showed up, and that they will "not violate anyone’s civil rights, and will not abuse anyone from any country."

But as I drove along Arizona Highway 82 between Bisbee and Sierra Vista (yes, in an automobile, a big Ford Explorer to boot) early last week, I saw a group of men with weapons who did not look like Border Patrol agents appear to be detaining two or three men who looked like they could have been from Mexico or Central America. I could not tell because I tend not to slow down for men with guns unless they tell me to. I wasn’t about to stop and ask. (Another reason I am no longer cut out to be a journalist…)

The only Border Patrol I saw along the entire drive were a few vehicles skulking around like cockroaches in a dimly lit room.

I am ambivalent about immigration, legal or illegal. Ambivalent because twice in my life I have gone abroad for work, once to the United Arab Emirates (1995) and more recently (2003) to Saudi Arabia. So I know, both personally and by seeing migrants in societies where the majority of workers are migrants, what it means to cross national frontiers to find work and what it means to work in a country where the laws, customs and society are not yours.

I’ve even been an illegal alien too.

In the case of Dubai, that was my first serious job out of college, and I got that job after sending several resumes and cover letters to English-language newspapers in the Middle East. The Khaleej Times was the only paper to bite, and the process needed to get my work permit and visa was excruciating. It took eight months, from the time I sent them a certified and authenticated copy of my Ohio State diploma until the time I received a visa and airline tickets.

(Authenticating documents itself was an amusingly absurd process. Beginning with a notarized copy of my diploma, it eventually required the California Secretary of State to certify the notary and the US State Department to certify whatever it was the State Department needed to certify. It was a pretty package, bound with ribbons and wax seals by the time I got it back from Foggy Bottom, and I wondered as I bundled it in an envelope bound for Dubai if it needed to go off to the United Nations or the Vatican for further seals and imprints…)

I enjoyed the work in Dubai, though the pay stank. I made about $960 per-month, not a lot of money in the very expensive city of Dubai in 1995 (but more than my Filipino, Indian and Arab colleagues made). Eventually, I bit the bullet and bought myself out of my contract after only six months, knowing there was no way I could provide a decent place to live for my wife and pay off my OSU student loans (then a "manageable" $20,000) while working there.

The visa process for The Saudi Gazette was just as excruciating, given the kingdom’s Interior Ministry was not happy with the idea of having a handful of American journalists wandering around the country. I was offered the job, which involved helping to edit the newspaper and teach Saudis how to be reporters, in December of 2002, though it was not until July that the frustrated managers of the Gazette came up with a solution to move the stalled visa process along — they would bring their American hires over on visit visas, and hope that with Americans in the country a fait accompli, they could call in some favors and the Interior Ministry would convert our 90-day visit visas to one-year residence visas. Thanks to Lawrence Wright’s hack job in the New Yorker in January of 2004, the Saudi government froze and no one anywhere wanted to sign off on my visa.

It lapsed, and for nearly three months I worked illegally in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, always worried that at any time a police office might ask me for my iqama (work permit) or my passport and, seeing that my visa had expired, disappear me into the Saudi prison system never to be seen again.

By this time, I’m sorry to say, I decided I had not come 8,000 miles to sit in a cubicle in front of a computer 10 hours each day for six or seven days each week. I wanted to wander around Saudi Arabia, meet more Saudis, learn more about the country, and that was unlikely to happen. So, I came home.

What did I learn during my two sojourns among the migrants? Before I get to any of my main points, I learned first and foremost that as a Westerner, an American, I had economic and social opportunities that most of the people I worked with — Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Arabs — did not have. (I also had, I learned, a government that was willing to actually help me if I was in a spot with an employer.) Most were in the Gulf because those opportunities were the best they had, because well-paying work, or even employment itself was difficult to find at home. Sometimes this was the result of stagnant economies at home (Syria, India and Pakistan up until the late 1990s), and sometimes work was difficult to find because domestic politics made it difficult. (It seems a lot of opponents of former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos had no choice to but look for employment in the Gulf, and I met more Filipino communists in the Gulf than probably live in the entire Philippines right now.)

But most importantly, any wealthy society attracts people looking for employment and commerce, and if they cannot get there legally — by waiting months for an employer-sponsored visa — some of them will do what they can, cross oceans in leaky boats if necessary, to get there. The world is full of people who cross borders any way they can if it means a better shot in life for themselves or their children.

In Jeddah, the illegal migrants seemed to come mostly from Africa, though a large number of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and who knows who else have made their way illegally to all of the Gulf states. Balad, the winding open market at the center of Old Jeddah, is full of African merchants selling clothes, kitchen goods, trinkets and cheap electronics from "shops" spread out on the sidewalks in front of them. Many of these merchants come for Hajj (the major pilgrimage every Muslim is required to do at least once in his or her life) or Umrah (the minor pilgrimage) with goods in tow to sell, to earn either a return ticket home or some extra income or both. Some use the opportunity of a Hajj visa to stay in the kingdom and work until they are caught or can leave as clandestinely as they came. It’s a practice Saudi officials are trying to end, but the Hejaz — the western region of Saudi Arabia — is big and the border police are few.

I bought two dashikis from a Senegalese woman at one such "illegal" shop tucked away in a nook of Balad one evening not long before I left Jeddah for 150 riyals, or about $40, each. I cannot imagine her getting that price in Senegal.

Second, most migrants — legal and illegal — come to work. In the Gulf, there is no welfare, no 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship to anyone born in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City or Saudi Arabia, and no immigrants rights groups. There is begging and charity, but Gulf Arabs have come to despair of those who beg alms from their dwindling oil fortunes, and are suspicious of widespread scams. Balad has its beggars, and some are mighty pathetic (especially the African children who have been deliberately disabled), but there are a lot more "illegal" merchants sitting behind blankets with their merchandise spread out before them than there are beggars.

And those migrants work long, hard hours, laying bricks, pushing carts, fixing cars, digging ditches, selling vegetables, or sitting at computers and laying out newspaper pages. Educated, skilled workers can make far more in the Gulf than they can at home, and finding work doesn’t require the kind of political or social connections that I’m told a good position in India or Pakistan still demands. For unskilled migrants from rural areas of India, Bangladesh or the Philippines, working in the Gulf will pay only $300 or $400 per month, if that. They live in dormitories or work camps, wear employer-provided uniforms and don’t make enough to bring families with them. They will live and work this way for years, because that’s a lot of money where they come from, and many of these laborers can go home after a decade or more of work with a veritable fortune in the bank.

But this also makes people extremely vulnerable. Supposedly, laws exist in each of these countries to protect legal migrant workers. But no one can compel a person to behave decently, and the laws are only as good as employers are. Migrants are almost completely at the mercy of employers who sponsor their visa applications, pay all the fees, and then hold their passports once they arrive in the country. Most migrants do not know the local language, and often have their movements restricted (especially if they are domestic workers, such as maids), so their ability to get help when they need it is very limited.

Near as I could tell, most employers are pretty good, meeting both their contractual and legal obligations (annual vacations with return tickets, accommodation, salary and end-of-contract bonus). However, there are employers out there who don’t pay wages, withhold passports or return air fare, or demand workers do jobs that they are not qualified or even able to do. We’d get those kinds of stories at The Saudi Gazette often enough to make them routine.

The situation is especially difficult for maids, who are often more isolated and vulnerable than other kinds of migrant workers. Tales of rape are common, and a depressing number of maids (many from the Philippines and Sri Lanka) have wound up in Gulf prisons after being convicted of killing their employers.

Governments have tried, quietly, to help deal with the problem by giving domestics some place to run to. For example, in Dubai, one afternoon I visited an ad-hoc sanctuary set-up by both the Dubai and Philippines governments to house maids who had fled their employers. The women taking refuge there were a mixed bag — one young woman who fled claimed she had been beaten and repeatedly raped by her employer, and had the photos to prove she’d been severely beaten, while another left because she said she won $10,000 in the Dubai Duty Free raffle and her employer insisted she surrender the winning ticket to him or she couldn’t get her passport back.

Despite all that, the attraction is strong, and people still go for work, not handouts or welfare, and in the process make tremendous sacrifices to improve their lives in ways they cannot at home. I found it an amazing, and humbling, thing to witness.

And yet… As much sympathy as I have for migrants, and as much as I hate nation states and wish they would go away yesterday, something in my gut tells me that crossing an international frontier ought not to be the easiest thing in the world to do, that it isn’t a "right." Probably not a libertarian notion, I know.

I may have worked illegally in Saudi Arabia, but that was not my intention nor that of my employer. I did not desperately paddle across the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Red Sea in a dingy, land on the coast under cover of darkness, and demand food and water on my trek to Jeddah from bewildered and frightened Saudis along the way.

It is probably not wise for any society to host a large number of non-citizens without any political or social rights, few economic opportunities and no real freedom of contract. Of course, this only matters as long as citizenship — the right to participate in politics — matters. Because of that, one does not speak of citizens in most of the Arabian Gulf states, but rather of nationals, and it is an important distinction. It is also less of an issue because individuals are not directly taxed in any way, and so do not have the kinds of "social contract" expectations from government that many of us do.

But it matters here. At least right now. Legal or illegal, citizen or non-citizen, we tax everyone, directly and indirectly. There is the expectation that someone who is taxed has some right to express themselves, assemble and petition for a redress of grievances. To have a whole bunch of people in a society with those expectations who can do none of those things is to court trouble.

It’s also difficult to have a society full of people who, by law, will never really be able to call the place home. Even if they settle for the long haul and even raise children there. You are asking folks to build your society who can, at a moment’s notice, be sent home. This may be perfectly okay in any school of economics — especially Austrian economics where we understand everyone benefits from every voluntary transaction — but it just feels unseemly to me. A bad basis for judgment, I suppose, but I’m not suggesting a "policy solution," just noting that it makes sense to me that people ought to invest some "sweat equity" in their own homes and communities.

Migrant workers, legal and illegal, also depress wages, though in the Gulf, government-set wages for nationals tend to be set so high that even with the visa application cost and the wait time, it is still cheaper to bring skilled and unskilled labor from abroad. In the UAE, where migrants outnumber the natives more than four-to-one, this is not so big a problem. But there are a lot of Saudis, especially unemployed men, with few skills and little education looking for work. (This is not the terror bomb many people think it is either, since many of those "unemployed" young men appear to have significant family support, work in the informal family businesses many Saudis have on the side, or help with the farm if they live outside the big cities.)

As one answer, the government in Riyadh has attempted, by fiat, to wave a wand and "Saudize" whole sectors of the economy, legally forbidding the hiring of foreigners for jobs as varied as gold merchants and taxi drivers. This has worked about as well as you expect it would, though a lot of Saudis are taking whatever jobs they can find. It’s not a bad thing, but it would be much easier for Saudis to make their way if it were not so easy, or not so cheap, to hire someone from abroad.

(In this, Saudi women understand better than their brothers and husbands what skills are necessary to succeed in the global economy — mainly mastery of English — and as a consequence, educated women have the skills employers want while many men don’t. And are being hired to put the skills to use, too.)

While there are some significant differences here in the US, near as I can tell, people come here for the same reason so many are scrambling to get into Saudi Arabia and the UAE — because they want to work and know there’s work to be had. Work no one else wants or cannot afford to take. Yes, some come for handouts, to give birth in county hospitals to brand new Americans entitled to whatever Americans are entitled to, or they come to steal and rob.

That’s how it is, too. Ask any long-time resident of Dubai about the Russians…

In this country, those agitating "immigrants rights" seem to view crossing the border as a kind of "social justice," a way to right the wrongs of US foreign policy and the seeming "injustice" of being poor in Guatemala. This view has always infuriated me. You’ll probably never get a kind word out of me about Washington’s foreign policy anywhere, regardless of who is president, but the answer to that is not to encourage people to sneak into Arizona or Texas for a piece of whatever they can get in El Norte. The answer is to put American foreign policy completely out of business and let Washington’s homeless take up residence in the State Department and then to turn the Pentagon into a giant shopping mall.

As for being poor in Guatemala, the best answer to that is an end to US farm subsidies, an end to the long control of politics in most Latin American states by competing landed and mercantile elites who have rigged the local economies against everyone else, and an end to the pretend, lawyer-managed "free trade" of NAFTA, CAFTA, and the FTAA, and its replacement by real free trade that gives room for local artisans, small farmers and others the chance to succeed in their local economies as well as farther afield.

And once upon a time, people could just move and settle, without regard to passports, visas and work permits. That probably wasn’t a bad thing, either.

So I don’t know what to think of the Minutemen. On one hand, I sort of admire them and their decision to defend their homes and what they see as their way of life. I think that took some real courage on the part of the organizers and the participants. Especially those who live on the border and deal with the real problem of illegal migration every day.

On the other hand, I probably share very little of their world view. I’m not bothered, as one San Diego volunteer was, that I’m surrounded by "people who don’t look like me." I’ve lived too many places where no one looked like me, or spoke my language well. I can understand that view, I think, I just don’t share it.

Besides, I rather like living in a country people are scrambling, by hook or by crook, to get into. It beats the alternatives.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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