The immigration debate is everywhere. Not just in the
Quite frankly, after eight long and grueling years in which the administration of George Bush (The Lesser) systematically violated, suspended, ignored and banned rights and principles that had always been considered basic to US-style democracy and decency, a lot of people elsewhere aren’t expecting much of us Americans anymore. Worse still, some Americans even had time during the Bush years to get used to the US thumbing its nose at “corny notions” like multilateral decisions on world security, due process, rule of law and respect for human rights, and started almost finding it ‘cool’ for their leaders to talk like Dirty Harry about such things – about smokin’ out the evildoers and killin’ ‘em – which, in their eyes makes Barak Obama “a wimp”.
But hopefully, the current administration – in spite of a jittery economy, a radically hostile opposition, two wars that are looking more and more like an even longer and more pernicious nightmare than Vietnam, the worst oil disaster in the history of the world and a churlishly impatient public that apparently expected President Obama to soar in like Superman and, with a wave of his hand, fix everything that was not just broken, but utterly demolished, overnight – will find the time and energy to go out of its way toward restoring the battered image of the United States as the intellectual as well as material leader of the Free World.
Like it or not, and whatever your personal stance may be, the immigration debate forms part of this context. It has for some time now, but it recently has been shoved to the forefront as a result of the unilateral decision of Arizona to impose its own rules which – despite all of the skewed logic with which the public is being bombarded by far-right commentators – are tantamount to racial profiling.
Clearly, at this moment in its history, the
An Immigrant Nation
Caption: My great-grandfather, Job Cavinder, was half Indian. My Great-Aunt Ruth (standing behind Job) demonstrated clear Native American facial features. Seated with Job is my great-grandmother, Mary Landis, and behind her, my Great-Aunt Edith.
But now, this is where our insistence on placing everybody in neat little pigeonholes gets messy and confusing. My wife, Virginia, for instance, is an Argentine national. She was born in
Right, so what am I, then? Somewhere way back, part of my family (the Newlands) came over from
We’re All Africa
My point here is that there is no such race as “Latino”. Race is all about skin color – and implicitly profiles people anyway, since there is no race but the human race, with the rest being a matter of complexion and environmental adaptation. Trace us back far enough and, if noted paleontologist Richard Leaky is right, we all started out black, on the plains of
The population of
Since Argentina’s history with its natives is much like that of the United States – the Indians were, as in North America, systematically removed, driven out, pushed westward, pursued and slaughtered in order to take their land away and give it to white European settlers – there is only a small pure American Indian population. Most of these people would probably also immediately be considered ‘Latinos’ by US Immigration (and curious police officers in the state of
People who are “tough on immigration” but who don’t want to give the impression of being racist will argue that the problem isn’t immigration as such, but the ‘illegals’. (That they are talking about Hispanics is a given). But at the center of mainstream calls for ever-tougher immigration measures in the United States is a fear not just of undocumented immigrants of Hispanic descent or from so-called ‘Hispanic countries’, but also of the exponential expansion of the Latino community in the United States. This segment of the
The fear that is motivating demands from the fundamentalist right for the deportation of all Hispanic 'illegals' (this is the height of racial profiling) and radical measures to ensure that no more get into the country has little to do with either the lax immigration policies or the shaky border security that they cite. At its core, the issue is about the mainstream white population’s fear of its eventual loss of supremacy.
Parallels with the Past
I'm old enough to have grown up in the so-called civil rights era. I was reared in a predominately (98%) white Midwestern town where there were no blacks. (I see from the latest Census that this has changed: African Americans now form 0.19% of the town’s population – or approximately 18 people out of a total of 9,474). So I can recall hearing the facile racist arguments of white supremacist fundamentalists who, upon hearing of protest marches, riots and other disturbances taking place all over the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s, as blacks sought to back demands that their civil rights be respected, would snarl, “If they don’t like it here, we can always ship ‘em back to Africa.” In many cases, this suggestion was being made about people whose presence in North America pre-dated the arrival of the Mayflower, since African slave labor was already present in the then-Spanish colony of
Nor should we forget that during the country’s long immigration history, the push by rightwing fundamentalists to close the gates to certain types of immigrants is nothing new. Today it’s the “Hispanic problem”. Yesterday it was the “Polish problem”, the “Italian problem”, the “Irish problem”, the “Chinese problem”. And the problem has always been a two-way street: people from countries in political or economic turmoil seeking a new home and new horizons in combination with greedy economic interests only too happy to exploit the cheap, sometimes bordering on slave labor that these mass movements of desperate people could provide.
The fact is that many of those who are the staunchest opponents to Hispanic immigration today are the descendants of people who came in droves to the
The Irish (an ethnic group that today forms about 12% of the
As Irish workers building the railroads became more consolidated and banded together to try and form unions, they were unceremoniously cast aside for newly arriving Chinese labor that would work for even less pay. The lot of 19th-century Irish immigrants in the
Can’t Have It Both Ways
There appears to be a growing tendency among far-right thinkers today to consider the plight of the undocumented Hispanics as being their problem. It is of little importance to such anti-immigration activists how long these undocumented aliens have been inside the
Caption: The Border Fence at Tijuana (Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons)
This stance tends to see ‘illegals’ as lawbreakers who have whimsically and maliciously skulked across the border in flagrant contempt for sovereign US authority, so the ostensible solution is to round them up and send them packing. But to look at it this way is an oversimplification of the facts: the fact, for instance, that although it is illegal for them to be in the United States, certain American employers – traditionally in the agricultural and textile sectors but elsewhere as well – gladly hire them at starvation wages; the fact that lax policies in the past tacitly permitted undocumented workers to stay and make a home (albeit humble) for themselves in the USA despite not having a green card; the fact that precisely because they have family members who have lived legally in the States or have been born there, it ends up being, irrationally, next to impossible for them to get permanent residence visas, and so on and so forth.
Therefore, the problem isn't theirs, at least not completely, but a problem that the
‘Tear This Wall Down’
Caption: President John F. Kennedy and his entourage survey the Berlin Wall. "Ich bin ein Berliner," JFK declared.
As I am writing this, an image keeps popping into my head of John F. Kennedy standing before the Berlin Wall and declaring: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” I was a boy at the time, but already a thinking, conscious human being and I recall feeling a thrill of excitement and pride at this admirable statesman’s declaration of war on that wall and on the totalitarian mentality on which it was constructed.
Built by the repressive Soviet Bloc in 1961 to separate East and
I was a quarter-century older and a politically savvy newsman when an American president again stood before that wall. I was no longer an innocent and had serious issues with this leader, but I still couldn’t help but identify when Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and challenged: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear this wall down.”
Now when I see footage of our border with Mexico, I can’t help asking myself how the same nation that fought so hard, so long and with such sound reason against the ideological more than the material symbol of the Berlin Wall can now be supporting the building of just as horrendous and futile a wall between it and one of its two closest neighbors. A political cartoon is taking shape in my mind that makes me sorry drawing is not one of my strong talents: It shows
Caption: A wall of our own, and every bit as futile and odious as the Berlin Wall. (Photo by Omar Bárcena. Courtesy Creative Commons. Public Domain.)
Because this is precisely what’s happening. The point that the anti-immigration (e.g., anti-Hispanic) fundamentalists are too self-obsessed and too obtuse to understand is that building a wall between themselves and the Hispanic world is as idiotic and futile an idea as the Berlin Wall was. While they are desperately seeking to plug the leaks in the illegal immigration dike with their fingers and toes, the inexorable trend toward a changing face (a pan-American face, if you will) for North America continues unabated. There were 9 million Hispanics and North American-born Latinos living in the
The worst thing that could happen is that the immigration issue should drive an ever-increasing wedge between the white and Hispanic communities. Should that happen, the future scenario could only be one of increasing tension between the two. The violence, disruptions, riots and bitterness that marked the white versus black integration clashes of the 1950s and ‘60s need to be established as a lesson learned in this respect. The Obama administration has the singular opportunity to take strides toward avoiding this kind of scenario, not by bowing to pressure for a “bigger and better wall”, but by studying creative ways to develop more rational immigration legislation and to take advantage of the extraordinary potential of a multi-racial, multi-cultural