I started with Part 1 in thinking about how society perpetuates historical ideas (and stereotypes) and the way the media discussed the name of a parcel at a ranch that Rick Perry leases. Here, I will continue that thread, looking at the example of the recent statements that Herman Cain and Michelle Bachman made about how they would deal with illegal immigration.

The notion that our nation would kill any person for the crime of crossing a proverbial line-in-the-sand is appalling. Also dismaying is that Bachman’s promise to make English the official language of the government seems pale by comparison. Bachman referenced her Norwegian ancestors as examples of how one ought to immigrate to the US. Never mind that even the more ‘palatable’ northern European Norwegians arrived to find settlements that preserved their language and traditions, or that much like other cultural groups, the nationalistic imperatives of WWI seems to have been the driving force of ‘Americanization.’ Bachman’s building (upon) a myth that suits her interpretation of history, while reinforcing her ideals in the present. The historical reality is that ethnicity has always been a basis for some to exclude newcomers, and those that argue that current objections to Hispanic immigration are not rooted in similar stereotypes nonetheless refer to assumptions – like dependency on the state, on welfare, on emergency rooms, having a lot of children, all without learning English, contributing to taxes, in a way that is somehow distinct from what other groups did in the past – that are rooted in stereotypes of ‘lazy’ immigrants looking for a handout. They are also strikingly similar to stereotypes about other minority groups who face similar problems achieving economic parity. Moreover, Bachman’s suggestion that English should be an official language doesn’t simply target people who lack a particular document; it targets anyone who doesn’t speak English – and that includes legal immigrants, refugees, asylees, and so forth – without any data that describes the use of English, the ability to speak English among what groups, or even what the benefits might be. One can assume that such an act would reinforce an idea of what it means to be “American,” but her definition of “American” ignores the poignant and significant contribution of immigrants over years (as well as the atrocities that some of those groups committed to establish the nation).

Unfortunately, the Republican field hasn’t pointed out the inconsistencies in Bachman’s myth-making, or suggested viable alternatives. Instead, Herman Cain is on an Ayn Randian roll, knocking the Occupy Wall Street protesters for their inability to find jobs (the demonstrators are also lazy un-Americans) even while members of the Tea Party lament the same joblessness. I don’t even want to acknowledge his 9-9-9 plan; an accountant from Cleveland apparently has all the answers, surely to the chagrin of all those professional economist who have spent their professional careers trying to understand the US economy. And immigration will be no problem once we electrify the border. The whole border. Or build a double fence. Because those things are possible. Apparently being robbed by gangs through Mexico, falling prey to those you hire to help you, and potentially dying of dehydration while crossing a dessert isn’t a cruel enough fate in a desperate attempt to achieve economic stability.

Both of these candidates speak in terms of a nation-state that is easily definable, in terms of belonging, defining, and even outlining. At least Rick Perry seems to recognize the border as complex. The US-Mexico border is no less intricate than the definitions of the US, and of the nation-state more generally. The relationship between the US and Mexico is a really good example of how boundaries remain fluid rather than static. Trade and commerce flows easily, increasingly so with the implementation of NAFTA and similar agreements. An interesting example is of the Tohono O’odham, whose territory crosses the US-Mexico border (if this is interesting, I strongly encourage a Google Scholar search as there are several fascinating academic papers that discuss this group and their relationship with the border).  As languages and culture flow from one side of the border to the other (both ways – consider US tourism), you could even consider the border to be expanding we define internal boundaries through similar means. Someone may find themselves as far north as Maine, yet still have one foot straddling the border, so to speak, because of language, culture, temporary or undocumented status, economic status, social alienation, and so forth.

While politicians and others may speak technically about illegal immigration, this conversation affects a much broader Hispanic population, as we are seeing in Alabama. Officers along the border may have some clear(er) idea about how to differentiate residents from people crossing the border illegally based on gear, clothing, and the like, but for many people who are removed from the crossing points, the conversation is much more blurred on who is documented or undocumented, how to identify that status, and increasingly who deserves that status – like the children born in the US to undocumented citizens. More and more, laws and discourse target Hispanics as a group. On the one hand, we are seeing and acting out a new phase in the US, where we are redefining ourselves according to changing local and global circumstances. Unfortunately, if we include or reward others who include such divisive language and rhetoric in our national discourse, while simultaneously restructuring so many of our institutions, we will foster the entrenchment of racism and class divisions for an entire generation to come. Nor will they look kindly upon us for having done so – history rarely does. Well, unless you reimagine it to suite your purposes.

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