The fence of lies

The rich are prepared to pay $50 an hour for someone to clean their houses. Agriculture would grind

The United States Congress has approved the construction of a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico, which is expected to cost $6bn in total, to stop illegal immigration, and President Bush has promised to promulgate the law immediately. For someone who, like myself, is fascinated by the way fiction can contaminate reality, the news could not be more spellbinding. Why? Because this wall will never be built; and if, by some miracle, it is actually built, it will serve for abso lutely nothing. Everyone knows this - beginning, of course, with the legislators and the president.

Why then all this theatrical show? Because on 7 November there will be elections in the US to renew the whole of the House of Representatives, part of the Senate and 36 state governorships, and those who are seeking re-election want to have this law in hand as proof that they have begun to do something about the dangerous plague of illegal immigrants, who take jobs away from real Americans and suck the social security system dry (another popular fiction).

The "fence of lies" will run along the southern border of four states - California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas - and consist of two fences and a futuristic system of reflectors, grilles, sensors and radar, to make it absolutely airtight. But of what use will it be to seal off these 1,200 kilometres, if there remain another 1,200 miles (about 2,000 kilometres) of open frontier through which Mexican and central American im migrants can slip into US territory, easily circumventing the fenced, electrified sections?

But these are conjectures with no foundation in the real world, where the construction of this fence faces myriad obstacles, already anticipated in the US media, which I admit to reading and watching every day with real enjoyment. For a start, many mayors and governors in the four states the fence is to cross have already said they will demand that the huge investment be redirected to infrastructure - highways, schools, public service installations. Several native communities have raised a cry, threatening legal action to prevent the fence from dividing their grazing and farming land; while other constituencies, left to one side along the route the fantasy fence will take, threaten legal action to change its discriminatory route. But above all, it is the powerful ecological groups that have come out against it, proclaiming that they will use every political, judicial and civic resource to prevent this predatory, contaminating monstrosity from wreaking havoc on the environment. Interestingly enough, the legislators have taken the precaution of putting an escape clause in the law, empowering the government to use part of the budget to build roads.

If the fence project overcomes the variety of judicial obstacles in its way, which will at least delay its construction for many years, it will not serve in the least to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. There are countless ways of demonstrating this fact, which are visible to anyone of the least intelligence who is not blinded by prejudice, and by the malignant fiction that the immigrants do more harm than good to the host country. As I write this, the press in Washington says that according to an official report, Hispanic immigrants, over the course of this year, will have sent home to their families in Latin America the colossal sum of $45bn - some 60 per cent more than two years ago, when the last survey was made. The bigots deduce from this figure that immigrants are a fearful haemorrhage in the US economy. But the true reading is one of admiration and enthusiasm, since it means that Latin American immigrants have produced for the US an amount of wealth four or five times greater than that figure - wealth which has stayed in the country. And $200bn or $250bn is a considerable contribution to the economy - an economy that, according to all the statistics, is booming, with the highest employment rate of all the developed countries (only about 4.5 per cent unemployment).

This imaginary wall will be useless - an arbitrary rambling sculpture running up and down the canyons and mountains of Arizona, scarring the deserts of California and Texas. So, if we are to understand why, rather than cite statistics, which never convince anyone, it is better to tell the story of Emérita (not her real name, but a common one in Guatemala). I met her three years ago when I was spending a semester in Washington, as I am now. Some neighbours recommended her to us to come and clean the house twice a week. We hired her, and she did a fine job; in the two hours she spent in the house with vacuum cleaner, feather duster and other paraphernalia, she left the place as shiny as a butcher's shop in Switzerland. In those days she charged us $60 for the two hours.

We have been lucky enough to get her again, and now she charges $90 a visit. In fact, this is a discount price. All our neighbours who have cleaners (the immense majority of them Hispanic) coming to their houses pay $100. Emérita is a central American who has been in the US for ten years, and now gets along fairly well in English. She has a new van filled with all sorts of equipment to sweep, polish, clean, shake, et cetera. On Saturdays - she works six days a week and rests on Sunday - she is helped by her husband, who is a gardener the rest of the time. I don't know how much he makes, but Emérita cleans four houses a day on average, so her monthly income is no less than $8,000. This is why she and her husband have already bought a house here, and another in their country of origin.

Before they came to the US the couple barely survived. But the worst, says Emérita, was that "there was no hope of improvement in the future. This is the big difference in the United States." Yes, this is the huge difference, and this is why thousands, millions, of Latin Americans, who know the story of Emérita and her husband, are following in their footsteps, escaping from sink-hole countries where there is no hope, and coming here, crossing rivers and mountains, hiding in trucks or paying the manifold, efficient mafias that falsify passports and visas, permits and everything you need to get to the US - where, as everyone knows, they are welcomed with open arms. The proof is that they all find jobs almost immediately.

Low-level jobs

Jobs that US citizens don't want to do, of course. Cleaners, minders for old people, nightwatchmen, lettuce pickers under the burning sun, or working in factories and shops - low-level, precarious jobs. Only they are prepared to do these jobs which, for the standard of living of the country, are poorly paid. But not from their point of view: for these immigrant workers, the low wages are a fortune. This is why US citizens, even those who talk about the perils of immigration, have no scruples about hiring them, because thanks to the Eméritas their houses are shining clean, and their factories and services function.

The only way to stop the immigration is for Mexico and central and South America to offer better opportunities to their poor masses, and the same sort of hope for improvement that the Hispanics find in the United States, which is the incentive that makes them work night and day at whatever comes to hand. It is good for them, of course, but it is even better for this country - a country of immigrants, let's not forget - which, thanks to the drive and sacrifice of these 41 million Latin Americans, is still growing and prospering, in spite of the difficult political and international problems it now faces.

The $6bn that the fence of lies is supposed to cost - for a cement monstrosity that would soon be as full of holes as a Swiss cheese - would be better spent, as far as illegal immigration is concerned, on factories or credits aimed at creating jobs on the other side of the border. Or the tariff barriers could be gradually opened to Latin American products, which would also benefit consumers in the US.

But all this belongs to the domain of strict reality, and it is well known that human beings - including the gringos, who pride themselves on their practicality - often prefer the magic of fiction to the raw reality of life as it is.

© Mario Vargas Llosa, 2006

America's Hispanics by numbers

41 million US residents are Latino

25% of the US population will be Hispanic by 2020, according to predictions - up from 14% now

60% of US Latinos are Mexican or of Mexican descent

11% of Americans speak Spanish at home

40% of Latinos voted for George W Bush in 2004

$45bn value of remittances Hispanic Americans will send back to their families this year

$6bn cost of the US-Mexico border fence

Research by Anthony Lane