Migrations came first. In search of food, shelter, safety. Changes in climate. Then agriculture, and people took root. Until the soil was depleted. Then floods. War. Conquest. Migration.
Only later came the boundaries. My land. Your land. Their land. A better land. Now emigration. Immigration. Legal. Illegal. Welcome. Not welcome.
People move over the earth, and always will, the borders a fiction, though one with a contract. I have always thought myself favored by fortune that I was born where I was, when I was, who I was. American. New Yorker. Jew. Man, what luck. Could have been, instead…. Why say it. No more than a pot to piss in, as my father would have put it, but if I wanted more than a pot, more than piss, I was in the country to go out and get it.
In all the history of the world, America in the second half of the twentieth century.
If I had been born, rather, poor in Pakistan, China, Guatemala, Mexico, no prospects I could see but my lot in life, an untouchable in India, if I were smart enough, brave enough, strong and industrious enough, with the imagination to see my life different and better, I would have done anything to get to the United States, packed like cargo in a hold below the water line on a ship from China, led by a mule across the Mexican border. Borders? Fuck borders. This is the only life I get as far as I can see – it’s not existential role-play for an exercise in Civilization. What’s an auto worker in Michigan, a dry cleaner in Nashville, a rancher in Arizona to me? What am I to them? This is my life.
That’s one side of it.
The other side we know. It’s not one world yet, if ever. We’re not all in it together. The United States is one ship. France is another, pretty good one, despite what those who want their healthcare a la carte say. Canada? Huge and unpopulated and affluent, and aren’t they glad there’s another big country between them and Mexico. A nation has a right to control its borders. It has an obligation to control its borders. There are risks, economic and safety risks, to not controlling the borders. There is an international national system that hasn’t yet been superseded by America-is-daddy-to-us-all, however much it may sometimes seem that way.
These two accounts of reality can coexist. The illegal immigrant doesn’t have to be Attila the Hun. The U.S. needn’t be Nazi Germany. The literary does offer instruction.
I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. (John Keats)
Fact and reason will not tell us that the border crosser is bad, that the U.S. is wrong. Only the emotion of xenophobia will do the first, only the unreason of ideology the second. We must live in uncertainties, that there are two justifiables and nowhere the Just with a capital J and hands on its hips to bestride the situation. Yet we must act. Because the border cannot be thrown wide open. Because we may welcome immigrants, but we must, like any nation, impose order in doing so. By the rules – legal. Not by the rules – illegal. Not “undocumented” so that one might have to ask what, exactly, that means: without legal documents of entry, i.e. illegal. Because one is, tendentiously, making a point, obscuring reality. Not “worker” regardless of whether a person works, because “alien” or even “immigrant” affirms a fact of otherness to citizenship and certain rights that some seek to hide.
Yet I sit in my office across the desk from students whom I know to be illegal, good students, though it hardly matters, who have lived most of their lives in the United States, and I wouldn’t even form the thought of turning them in, and I bless their fortune in the lives they now will lead instead of the lives that might have been, cheer them on in their unsentimental educations.
If we are to have, ever, a conversation about immigration, and the problem of illegal immigration – and that is the pretense, right? that we converse, and do not talk at each other? – then we will need to see, without distortion, each other’s arguments. That most Americans will not assent to live in a nation where 10-20 million people are tracked down and policed from the country: a human-made humanitarian disaster of lives uprooted and families split, people summoned to official corridors, papers of identification demanded on the streets, people chased through streets, pulled from apartments and homes. This will not be allowed to happen in any America most Americans wish to live in.
We need to see, too, despite our failure until now to govern the reality of an economic migration as old as bipedalism, that sane administration of a nation requires just such controlled governance, and that it is only an act of necessary conceptual clarity to distinguish between legal and illegal, as part of that control.
In the emotional and dishonest argumentation about the Arizona immigration law SB1070, as often, a situation that by naturally occurring circumstance predominantly involves a single ethnicity or race is distorted as arising from the race and not the circumstance. The poverty that drives the emigration into Arizona is to the Hispanic south. Of course, then,, the situation is focused on Hispanics, so cries of racism, while they may be partly true, if they are the only cries, only serve to obscure reality. Yet this same reality, and logic, exposes a truth about the law.
The pretense is that the legislation is seriously intended to attack the problem of illegal immigration in Arizona. There is even, to make that point very clear, a provision for citizens to report law enforcement officials who do not act to enforce the law. Yet the position of the state is that there will be no racial profiling, a condition that would place also under suspicion and police pressure the large population of American citizens in Arizona who are Hispanic. The claim is that people will be stopped by police only for other legitimate police actions and not for suspicion (based on what?) that they are illegal. However, consider that given that the problem population is almost exclusively a Hispanic population and that the announced intent is identify large numbers of, then, necessarily Hispanic illegal immigrants for purposes of deportation, there are only two ways in which that could result. The first is obvious racial profiling, what the state of Arizona has said it will not engage in. The second is if an inordinately large percentage of Hispanics within the state commit observable offenses or manifest questionable behaviors worthy of a police stop, thus enabling discovery of an individual’s non-legal status. (The greater the percentage of non-Hispanics stopped, since they are far less likely to be illegal, the more greatly diminished the number of illegals who will be caught.) And within that number of Hispanics stopped, a very high percentage would need to be illegal, when to the contrary it is reasonable to anticipate that under the circumstances illegal immigrants in Arizona will now be more circumspect in their public behavior. So unless the Hispanic population of Arizona suddenly becomes manifestly suspicious and questionable in it public behavior beyond all conceivable proportion, then any actual success resulting from SB 1070 will be manifestly the consequence of racial profiling. The Hispanic character of the illegal population itself, even under conditions of claimed official impartiality, makes it virtually impossible for law enforcement, if it is to achieve success, to take place on any basis other than racial profiling.
On the other side of the debate, typical of the distortion of legitimate concern about illegal immigration is that provided by longtime Arizona politician and activist Alfredo Gutierrez, who has been a significant public face in opposition to SB 1070. On television Gutierrez is a warmly engaging figure, highly and fluidly articulate, in a soft spoken, reasoned tone. He projects a very appealing humanity and intelligence. One cannot help but personally respond to him. Yet what he actually says is strikingly demagogic. He said on the Tavis Smiley show that
it’s going to be a summer of action, a freedom summer, that’s inspired by the ’60s in the southern United States where the civil rights movement took hold. This is the second coming of the civil rights movement.
Out of context this may be confusing. We are talking about SB 1070 and illegal immigration, so how did we get to a second civil rights movement? For illegal immigrants?
Well, it will unify the country. I think it will propel the issue of immigrant rights and the issue of the increasing hostility against immigrants in this country into the consciousness of everyone in this country, particularly the White House, particularly the administration, who has throughout the campaign made inspirational promises, made extraordinary promises, but since taking office the president has decided that we’re the third rail of politics, decided that we’re much too controversial and decided that the violation of our rights, the resolution to that issue, could wait till a second term.
Let’s observe what Gutierrez has done here. First, he wraps around the specific topic the more general claim that there is “increasing hostility against immigrants in this country,” a claim that, despite the Arizona law and concerns about illegal immigration, is easily, demonstrably untrue of a nation that remains among the most welcoming to immigrants in the world. I won’t waste space here offering the obvious evidence. Next, notice that never, even in the complete transcript, does Gutierrez ever acknowledge, in what he terms “immigrant rights,” the crucial distinction – the whole point of debate and concern in the country – between legal and illegal immigration. This is the persistent framing device of those who insist on characterizing immigration as a racial issue. And who is the “we” that are the “third rail” of which he speaks and who are “too controversial”? Who is the “our” in the “violation or our rights”? Immigrants, legal or illegal? No. In fact, Gutierrez himself is an American citizen. He isn’t really speaking of immigrants at all. He’s speaking of Hispanics. He is claiming that Hispanics in the U.S. require a civil rights movement like that of African-Americans in the 1960s, a claim that is patently absurd. Most importantly and profoundly, after completely obscuring the issue of immigration by excluding from the frame any appearance of illegal immigration, he is then blurring in the image any delineation between the issue of (illegal) immigration and Hispanic ethnic identity. You will be hard pressed to find a more dishonest presentation of an issue, and this is with the bounty of daily competition from the political Right.
What is uncertain is whether Gutierrez is in any way conscious of his dishonesty or if the distortion of his perceptual lens, his inability to clearly see, in disagreement, the opposing view, is so great that he is actually sincere in his misrepresentations. The truth is probably a mixture of the two. In any case, it is a condition that leaves the person who suffers from it, while it lasts, locked in his own cognitive universe. Productive conversation is not going to occur.
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