Dear Senator Ted Cruz,
We share an immigrant experience. You are the son of an exiled Cuban, and I am an immigrant from Guatemala. But while I write this letter as a fellow American who shares an experience of displacement, I also address you in my capacity as an urban researcher, to make a case against your anti-immigration ideology—together with the other exclusionary policies that you and your political party endorse—because it is harming our cities.
During my 30 years living in the Tijuana–San Diego region, I have witnessed the incremental hardening of the legal, social, economic and physical walls between the United States and Mexico. Our borders have been militarized in tandem with legislation that erodes social institutions, barricades public space and divides communities. Such protectionist strategies, fueled by paranoia and greed, are defining a radically conservative social agenda of exclusion that threatens to dominate public life for years to come.
Today the future of cities depends on political leadership that recognizes our interdependence and reaches across borders
You may not think of it in these terms, Senator Cruz, but the border wall is a concrete symbol of the administration of fear behind your relentless efforts to block any reform to our unjust immigration system. These efforts take many forms. Draconian bills like the voter ID amendment that you introduced last year ensure the continued marginalization of the most vulnerable among us. Refusing to raise the minimum wage only leads to more immigrants pouring across our borders to offer the cheap labor that you simultaneously depend on and condemn. And persuading House Republicans to vote for the eradication of a program (DACA) that has protected more than half a million children from deportation over the last two years is, frankly, a denial of basic human rights and a betrayal of the American ethical promise to welcome the “poor, huddled masses.”
Undocumented immigrants are in fact one of the lifelines of our economy. If every nanny, maid, busboy, waiter, farmworker and construction worker in California who entered this country illegally stopped working for a day (picture a twist on the film A Day Without a Mexican), the state’s economy would be seriously disrupted. Immigrants are here in part because they are escaping violence back home and in part because of a large demand for cheap labor, a demand that has an economic and political context involving policies that you support, Senator Cruz.
How did we get here? What brought us to this era of forced migration, militarized borders, detainment, deportations and extreme socioeconomic disparities? Why are we living in a time when tens of thousands of children flee Central America to reach the United States, only to find themselves locked up and sent back to face the violence and poverty that they fled, which often has roots in U.S. policy?
The past three decades have seen an ascendance of neoliberal policies, yielding a culture of unchecked greed that, in turn, has produced unprecedented inequality. This period of institutional unaccountability has been framed politically by the wrongful idea that democracy is the “right to be left alone,” a private dream devoid of social responsibility. Under Reagan, for example, the income tax rate on the wealthiest Americans fell from 70 percent to 28 percent within eight years, drastically shifting the burden for spending on social welfare and public infrastructure.
Immigrants are not threats; they may in fact be our best teachers.
Then, after 9/11, a renewed division of the world—exacerbating the polarization between “us” and “them”—engendered a political climate in which terrorism and its converse, the state “administration of fear,” set the stage for the current confrontations over immigration policy and the hardening of borders worldwide. The result, heightened by the economic crisis, is an urbanism born of surveillance and exclusion. Today’s geographies of conflict are shaping the 21st-century global metropolis into a battleground between legal and illegal urbanization, formal and informal economies, top-down control and bottom-up transgression.
For me, Senator Cruz, these urban conflicts are not abstract. They are a tangible part of my everyday life in San Diego, as the forces of division and exclusion produced by global zones of conflict are ultimately localized and physically manifested in critical areas such as the San Diego–Tijuana border, which is the largest binational metropolitan region in the world. Economic disparity is of course common within every city, but at no other international juncture can one find some of the most expensive real estate (along the edges of San Diego’s sprawl) just a 20-minute drive away from some of the poorest settlements in Latin America—the slums that dot the new periphery of Tijuana.
A community is always in dialogue with its immediate social and ecological environment; this is what defines its political nature, more than the jurisdictional boundaries that contain it. When a community’s productive capacity is splintered by political borders, those communities often find ways to recuperate their social and entrepreneurial agency. This is why I have always been inspired by the poor immigrant neighborhoods on both sides of the San Diego–Tijuana border, whose residents are redefining urban sustainability and pointing to new ways of constructing citizenship. Today the future of cities depends on political leadership that recognizes our interdependence and reaches across borders to produce new strategies of coexistence. And it is precisely within the marginalized yet resilient immigrant communities flanking the border that such a conception of civic culture will emerge, one whose DNA is composed of empathy, collaboration and shared values.
A society that is anti-taxes, anti-immigrants, anti-government and anti–public infrastructure only commits civic (and economic) suicide.
We should recognize and celebrate the innovations of immigrants, because their tactics of survival and self-made entrepreneurship form the core of a more emancipatory idea of the American dream. As an urbanist I look at the complex networks of informal economic exchange and mixed-use housing in immigrant communities and am compelled to ask: How can the human capacity and creative intelligence embedded in migrant communities be amplified to rethink sustainability? Can a cross-border citizen—say, someone who lives in Tijuana and works in San Diego—bring about an idea of citizenship rooted in the shared values and interests between two divided cities? How can immigrant communities help us think about strengthening the social ties and economic landscapes of all our communities, particularly in border cities where American families go back generations?
Because of the opportunities opened up by border territories, I take a stand against your anti-democratic legislation, Senator Cruz. The extremist cultural war that you and your party have waged against the ethical imperative for shared values will only solidify our nation’s global isolation. Do you really have the audacity to claim that undocumented immigrants, the poorest and most marginalized human beings dwelling among us, are the greatest threat to our American way of life? Even after studies have shown that our current deportation program has had “no observable effect on the overall crime rate”? Ultimately a society that is anti-taxes, anti-immigrants, anti-government and anti–public infrastructure only commits civic (and economic) suicide. If we do not reverse the polarizing policies spearheaded primarily by your party, they will lead to the obsolescence of the United States as a global leader in defining how a pluralistic democracy should work.
The truth of the matter is that in today’s world we cannot go it alone—nor can we impose our will on others by force. The problems of Mexico and Central America are ours too. The problems of Ferguson, MO, and other communities with marginalized populations are not isolated from the halls of Washington. We cannot wish away the problems of such places with guns and fences; instead we must listen to, and cooperate with, those most affected by our policies.
Undocumented immigrants are one of the lifelines of our economy.
Empathy, of the sort promised on the Statue of Liberty’s plaque, must be at the center of today’s debates. I believe that an absence of empathy also entails a lack of care for ourselves, because we can always find ourselves in the place of others. For this reason, economic and urban growth cannot come at the expense of social equity. The drive to privatize cannot overrun public infrastructure. Mistrust of government cannot undermine the need to protect our shared values. And your hollow notions of freedom and progress, Senator Cruz, cannot and must not subordinate our collective responsibilities to individual self-interest.
Please consider this point, Senator Cruz: immigrants are not threats; they may in fact be our best teachers. So let’s be pragmatic and find an intelligent and just process to provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers who are already here with us in the United States. They are not returning willingly to the violence and oppression that they escaped, and they are an economic and cultural engine for our country—an engine that you and I have been lucky to be part of as immigrants, documented or not.