Sunday, May 02, 2010

On Immigration

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, for over a week I've been wanting to write about the issue US immigration, a contentious topic that has festered for years before exploding over a week ago, on April 23, when the GOP-dominated Arizona legislature passed one of the most extreme and extremely racist anti-immigrant laws the US has witnessed in decades. Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law the next day.  To quote the New York Times, this law "would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally." In fact, it basically requires them to do so if they suspect someone is in the country without documentation; in fact, Republican Congressman Tom Bilbray (CA) suggested, without irony, that you could tell undocumented immigrants by how they dress!

This element of the law particularly sparked a furor, leading to boycotts, yesterday's marches, withdrawals from the state's higher educational system, and cancelations of events scheduled to take place in Arizona, yet Brewer and those behind the law have claimed, in bad faith in my opinion, that it would not lead to racial or ethnic profiling. The White House, many leading Democrats and some Republicans have condemned the law, as has Mexico's government. The overly broad law caused such an uproar, in fact, that the Arizona legislature passed amendments, signed by Brewer this past Friday, that qualify the pretext for stopping potential suspects, requiring that it occur only if the police were enforcing a law or ordinance. Nevertheless, the ACLU and others note that the law still allows racial and ethnic profiling, while also making it a crime to live in or pass through the state without documentation (meaning that everyone had better have a passport, birth certificate, or other required government ID, such as proper visas on them, at all times). On top of this law, the Arizona Education department will now bar teachers with pronounced accents (!) or who speak ungrammatically from teaching classes for students still learning English, and is sending out auditors to evaluate teachers. While I do agree that people teaching English, especially English as a Second Language (ESL), should be able to convey standard, proper English-language grammar, the arbitrariness of this dictate smacks of yet more racism and ethnocentrism.  Yet another bill, pushed by Republican attorney general candidate Tom Horne, now the Arizona superintendent of public education, awaits Governor Brewer's signature: it aims to ban ethnic studies classes in public schools, and specifically any courses that promote the overthrow of the US; promote resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for pupils of a specific ethnicity; and advocate ethnic solidary instead of treating students as individuals. So inane and dangerous is this bill that it could bar American history classes that discuss not only the practice of genocide against Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, the mass deportation of Latinos under Herbert Hoover, and the internment of Japanese Americans, but the centuries-long political and economic disenfranchisement of White women or the White working class!

Yesterday all over the United States, people marched to protest the truly horrendous new Arizona law, which violates civil rights, human rights, and, as I imagine will be proved when legal challenges play out, the United States Constitution, but also to call attention to the attitudes behind it, and to push for comprehensive, fair, and forward-looking immigration reform.  The current muddle serves no one except powerful business interests, who benefit from open and unsecured borders, disempowered and undocumented workers, lower wages and salaries, and a government that talks out of both sides of its mouth.  This has got to change, and we must demand that the President and Congress, whether they have the courage or stomach for doing so, act instead of dithering and passing the problem down the road, so that it can be demagogued for the benefit of extremists. We're all harmed the longer this goes on.

Almost exactly four years ago on this blog I posted a longish series of thoughts on the immigration issue. (I've posted many times on the immigration issue, and searching the blog will pull these up.) Though we have a new administration, the issues remain almost the same as when George Bush was president, though the rhetoric has gotten harsher in some ways. We still are witnessing foot-dragging from the federal government, conflicting messages instead of policies that will benefit US citizens and undocumented immigrants, and a rhetorical vacuum that racialists and supremacists, many of them rooted in the Republican Party, freely take advantage of.  Here's what I wrote years ago (note the commentary about the anti-Latino component), and unfortunately, nearly all of it still is relevant.

Thoughts on the Current Immigration Discussion (2006)

Today, over 1 million immigrants and their supporters rallied across the country, in cities from Atlanta to New York (the photo at left is from the Washington rally, Evan Vucci/AP). My own thoughts on the immigration issue are simple and may be naïve, but here they are:

1) All of the immigrants who are already here should be offered a simple and clear path to naturalization. The INS (or whatever it's called now) should address the problem of anyone who has serious criminal convictions (and I don't mean traffic violations or marijuana possession) here or in their native country, but in general, everyone else should be given a clear and realizable opportunity to become a citizen. All. Of. Them. The last I looked, all of the nativist Republicans in the House or Senate who were pushing for draconian penalties against the immigrants (Sensenbrenner, Tancredo, etc.) were descended from European immigrants, some of whom arrived no more than a century ago (and in many cases were given all kinds of opportunities at the expense of Native Americans and African-Americans), and some of whose ancestors were the objects of harsh anti-immigration sentiment and actions. How quickly and completely they forget.

2) If most Americans are concerned with the economic impact of uncontrolled immigration, and studies on the issue are mixed, though it does appear that adult American citizens who did not graduate from high school are most negatively affected (and this would include white, black American natives, and latinos), then the criticism and penalties should be laid at the doorstep of US businesses that flout the laws and continue to employ undocumented workers, which does depress wages in specific industries while increasing profits. On almost every other measure, immigrants benefit the economy. So long as the US economy keeps growing and businesses keep employing undocumented workers in large numbers without penalty, immigrants seeking jobs will try to get here. The economics seem clear to me, though I could be quite wrong in this.

3) The guest-worker program is a long-term mess waiting to happen. The guest workers will be counted for voting purposes, like Native Americans, African-American enslaved people and women once were, without voting rights and few other civil rights. This is already happening with undocumented workers, and the guest-worker program would write it into law. Again. Employers will continue to employ undocumented workers despite the numerical limits (of 400,000--is this supposed to be a cruel joke?). None of the guest workers will want to go home unless things improve in their home countries or they earn enough to create a viable life back there. Their children, if they have any on US soil, will be American citizens, further tying them to the US. Nothing will be solved. The German and other European models for this sort of program should give everyone pause, though the president [Bush], with his negative capital, was hoping that his lackeys in Congress would pass it, though they had another plan altogether in mind.

4) Since the US government, both the White House and Congress, claims to to take national and border security seriously, it needs to show that this is more than rhetoric and shadowplay. I'm not sure what's going on with the multimillion-dollar boondoggle that we call the Department of Homeland Security, but four years after 9/11, it doesn't appear that there's any real or concerted effort to control the flow of people into the country, unless they are baseball players from Cuba or a European Islamic scholar against whom the current administration has a particular ideological animus. If people can enter the country freely, legally or otherwise, they will, especially if there are available jobs here. For those immigrants who are looking for work, this is a no-brainer.

5) The US needs to revisit the NAFTA agreements and any other pro-free market international trade programs that have devastated particular sectors of treaty members' economies. Mexico's agricultural sector suffered terribly after NAFTA went into effect, and continues to suffer. Neither "free trade" nor the "free market" are "free," despite the neoconservative and neoliberal orthodoxies that the Republican party and much of the Democratic party, especially the DLC wing, subscribe to. Planned, closed economies cannot be the countermeasure, but every US "free-trade," "free market" program needs to be revisited and reworked carefully, particularly if it's only benefitting corporations and shareholders, while millions of working-age people no longer have any realistic employment options. Citizens across Latin America have woken up to the failures of neoliberalism, and Americans need to open our eyes as well.

6) Much of the hysteria involving the immigration issue is focused on Latinos, and in particular, on Mexicans. I'm sure there's no one out there who doesn't already know this, but almost the entire Southwest was under Spanish control, and then was part of Mexico, before it became US territory. Mexicans and people of Mexican heritage have lived in parts of the West and Southwest for centuries. As I pointed out about a month or two ago, Herbert Hoover oversaw the mass deportation of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans, i.e., US citizens, during the Depression, and only recently was there any apology or acknowledgment of this. This is not to imply that the current Mexican immigration is a kind of karmic payback, but I do want to note that Mexicans in particular have longstanding historical, cultural and social ties to the US. Mexicans, like Canadians and the citizens of other countries that are geographically or historically linked to the US are going to come to the US for job opportunities if they're here, as will people from elsewhere in the world. How many undocumented Canadian citizens are there in the US? I don't see any outcry against Canadians, because most Canadian immigrants to the US are, I would imagine, white.

In fact, there is almost no outcry against undocumented immigrants from Europe (and it's as if the immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean [except for Cuba] and Asia are not acknowledged at all), even though our major cities, and many industries, are full of them. The men working on the lot next to our home in New Jersey are from Eastern Europe. Are they documented? Before I bought my car, half of the cab-drivers I encountered in Chicago were from Romania. Were they documented? Yes, the majority of immigrants to US come from Mexico, but this shouldn't surprise anyone, because the US and Mexico are historically and economically linked and many Mexicans have long had ties to the US. There are numerous immigrants from other countries--in my neighborhood and throughout Chicago, I regularly come across immigrants and refugees from Nigeria, Sudan, Haiti, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Poland, Romania, Russia, and so on. In fact, from 1990 to now [2006], as I reported before, more immigrants from Africa came to this country than all the Africans brought to the US during the period of the slave trade. The immigration issue is not a Mexican or even Latino issue--even if most of the immigrants are from Latin American countries--but a human rights issue.

6) The nativists fail to look at another issue that we should be talking about, which is that if the ideology of neoliberalism and free market globalization are what they are going to keep pushing, they need to rethink issues of nationalism, national sovereignty, citizenship, and the concept of borders altogether. We are quite far from a situation of Kantian perpetual peace pervading a united, one-nation state, yet economic free-trade ideologues seem to believe that goods and services can and should cross borders at will, but fail to acknowledge the real-world national and local issues and crises that arise when real people do so. What do national sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and borders of all sorts mean in an age of globalization, transnationalization, and global and transnational capital?

7) Criminalizing anyone who assists undocument workers is wrong. Building a 700-mile wall is ridiculous. Changing the law to eliminate birth-citizenship is outrageous. Expelling 12-20 million people is absurd and would be impossible anyway even if it weren't.

8) Finally, African Americans individually and as a whole really ought to be thinking carefully about the current immigration situation and its effects on this country. In most of the largest waves of immigration prior to 1965, immigrants of African descent were in the minority, and in places where there was a sizable African-American population, whether Boston, Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston, New York, etc., African Americans were usually been pushed to the back of the line in favor of the new, mostly European immigrants. Immigrants of African descent usually blended into the African-American population within a generation or two. With the arrival over the last three decades of millions of Africans and people of African descent from Latin America, as well as millions of other Latinos, Asians, Arabs and European people (of all races), I think that we need to revisit and challenge static views of racial prerogatives, race and racial authenticity as they've has traditionally functioned in the US. I also hope the recent waves of immigration provoke a rethinking among African Americans about how we stage racial and ethnic identities in the economic, political and social spheres. Who is black and how do we speak about blackness, and race in general? What is authentic blackness? What is the black real today? How do we and can we represent it? Must one history or set of historical narratives, or racial, national or ethnic (or any other, for that matter) identity or identification trump or cancel out another, or mustn't we begin to think with complexity about who we are? (And this is the case not only for African Americans, but all Americans.) Barack Obama is us. I also hope it will provoke active coalition building to address a number of crucial issues the country faces, and in particular, that African Americans and black people in general face. White supremacy is not going anywhere anytime soon, so thinking of ways to promote countersocialization and counter-processes of identity formation and identification that do not yet again make and reify African Americans as the absolute negative Other, and that foster dynamic cross-racial alliances and means of identification across and within ontological racial boundaries with replicating the current racialized social hierarchies, are some of our current major challenges.

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