Immigration


The news is full of the effects of Alabama’s immigration legislation. I can’t tell for sure whether the exodus of Hispanic immigrants is surprising because so many documented residents left, or if the attitude is more of the I-told-you-so variety. Either way, we are getting real-time updates of what an exodus of hard working laborers looks like – and not just in Alabama. That means we are renewing our attention to farmers’ claims that US citizens can’t or won’t do the work. A lot of those claims are anecdotal, about workers who come and leave after 30 minutes, an hour, a day. I’ve also heard, more than once, that farmers ought to turn to work-release inmate labor – if that says anything about how our society perceives the role of farm workers…

I have thought quite a bit about this one, and at least in part that is because I myself could use a job, and I wonder if I am one of the Americans who ought to be out in the fields. It’s not that I’m opposed to farm work, per say. I even worked on a farm once, and promptly quit – not because the work was too difficult but because I found out the field was a Monsanto genetic research facility [winces]. The biggest hurdle would seem to be moving my family. My six year old is in school, and my partner does have a job. Where would we stay – in a tent? A more abstract concern would be how temporary work would affect my student loan repayments. So… I’m not heading south anytime soon.

I also thought about whether the food I buy comes from these farms, and how this problem will likely affect our family’s food supply. My first thought was that food will get more expensive if much of the harvest is left in the fields. Then I remembered – aha! Our food is mostly either local or from the west coast. And then – I remembered economics.

If the harvests in Alabama (and other southern states like Georgia) rot, we can expect food costs to rise. In classic supply-and-demand fashion, if demand stays even but supply falls, then prices go up. When farmers vie to get into the market, prices fall, but in this case there is less competition between farmers. This affects our west coast producers too, because their incentive to keep costs low diminishes. Competition instead shifts to consumers, who will have to offer more to get the goods.

More than simply affecting supply and demand, though, the changes to the way we produce food will also raise prices because it will become more expensive to produce it. There are those who would harangue the farmers for paying too little, and those who accuse the workers for accepting too little (taking jobs from those who have to work for more), but it is also us – the consumers – who pay too little. Many of us are aware that organic produce, for instance, is more expensive than other, mass-produced produce. Similarly, Fair Trade products are more expensive than goods without that certification. Fair Trade products are priced deliberately to provide a fair wage to producers and harvesters. The importance of these products is diluted as the largest scale retailers offer similarly marketed goods at lower prices. However, organic and fair trade goods – and the price variation – suggest what prices might look like if we consistently paid fair, livable wages to our farm workers.

Everyone deserves dignity, and fair wages are a part of that. As we dismiss the value of the labor, we dismiss to an extent the value of the laborer as well. At some point, we must consider that if we want farmers to pay salaries that people can afford to take, we will have to help them pay for it. If not, those farmers will go out of business, and those large agri-corporations that remain will increasingly outsource their farms to Mexico – which would, in a manner of speaking, resolve the immigration issue.

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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.

About two weeks ago, Rick Perry was faltering in the polls because of a poorly named rock at the ranch he, and his father before him, leased out in Texas (also here). I started to reference this to underline how the other candidates took note of Perry’s mistakes in the more recent discussion on immigration. Instead, as I reviewed some of the articles, I realized that something was missing from the coverage, and that same something is significant to the discussion about illegal immigration.

It’s notable that the major newspapers who carried the story (Washington Post and New York Times) talked more about the impact that ‘the rock’ would have on Rick Perry, and very little about why calling a place “Niggerhead” is newsworthy in the first place. It is newsworthy, but not because it makes Rick Perry look like a backwoods clod. The bigger conversation happened away from the main pages, like at The Root, or even The not-a-news-source Daily Show (which the commentary at The Root references). The attitude that, ‘It’s just a word, get over it,’ appears in the comments section of the original breaking story in the Washington Post. There’s the rub – that a situation that employs the word ‘nigger’ should be insignificant, so long as it isn’t directed by one person to another.

Tied into the conversation is an oft expressed frustration with what it means to be “politically correct.” It may be that we all get frustrated when someone corrects us, but the idea of “political correctness” should remind us that words do have meaning and even underlying significance. Use of a word in a place-name may not constitute an insult hurled at an individual, but it does highlight the pervasiveness of the ideas the word represents in our society. Some words have a history of demeaning and pejorative use; repetition brings that history into contemporary society, even though some might regard the use innocuous. Indeed, the view that something like that can be innocuous is as problematic as anything. When a person points to words and concepts that rely on racist sentiments – i.e. are a step removed from racism yet ultimately dependent upon it – often such a person is decried as looking for racism where none exists. History (as a discipline) reminds us that society does not exist as a static point in time, but as a complex interweaving of ideas and events, while the effects of past events and ideas remain with a society through time. The benefits and burdens of those events remain as well.

One way in which the past stays with us is that we use it to build our definitions of ourselves and of others. We create narratives and discourse, our stories and ideas, such as those we use to understand the importance of the Founding Fathers in the formation of the nation. Honest Abe and The Cherry Tree are more pervasive ideas in our national mythos than are Jefferson’s slaves, let alone the stories of the slaves themselves. We, our newspapers, and our political leaders craft the discourse that fits our understanding of our nation. At one point, parts of the national discourse accepted the pervasive racism of slavery, and later that of segregation. Today we are forming a new discourse that, rather than striving to overcome the old disparities that persist in geographic and economic marginalization, are fomenting new ways of stratifying social groups. The next post will discuss how this happens, looking at the discourse of politicians regarding immigration.

I was all set to publish a different post about the death of Anwar al-Awlaki. However, as I was reading over today’s New York Times daily email, a different story caught my attention: Fatal Accident Puts Focus on Deportation Program. The article describes a traffic accident that has put Massachusetts in the spotlight for the governor’s refusal to implement the Secure Communities program – a program that uses information sharing between the FBI and ICE to identify immigrants who are in the country unlawfully, especially those who have committed violent crimes.

The traffic accident involved an immigrant from Ecuador who, while driving drunk, hit, dragged, and killed a motorcyclist. Author Abby Goodnough states in typical New York Times’ passive voice judgement: “The Guaman case and several others … have become part of a growing debate over whether Massachusetts is too easy on illegal immigrants.” She doesn’t clearly outline who the participants are in this debate. While, “many here have pointed to his case as an example of why the federal program, known as Secure Communities, is necessary,” we have no information that hints as to why that might be. One must be content to wonder whether Guaman had a previous record, in which case Secure Communities might have taken steps to deport the man – otherwise the suggestion would have little bearing.

Along with another oblique use of passive voice denouncing the outrage that the incident “has stirred” in… well… someone, Goodnough opens the article by identifying the man involved as an “illegal immigrant.” Perhaps she is quoting the police, whom she credits for the information. Regardless, I am stunned at such a careless and irresponsible turn of phrase in the New York Times. Even more astonishingly, the New York Times created an email alert topic titled “illegal immigrants.”

The phrase “illegal immigrant” is neither accurate nor appropriate. Legality does not pertain to one’s personhood, but to an action, whence phrases like: unlawful entry, undocumented resident / worker, illegal immigration. One can enter the country unlawfully, they may lack the requisite documentation for residence or employment, but they do not become, themselves, illegal. I have referenced this in an earlier post, but when society creates a group and distinguishes it as “other,” marginalizes that group according to official sub-class status – like that of “illegal” – the road is set for that group to be castigated, penalized, oppressed, and subject to an array of abuses, because they are less-than-citizens.

Our government agencies are adept at creating public discourse that maintains respectful and appropriate rhetoric, which demonstrated that this is possible. Our major newspapers should be at least as adept in their use of rhetoric to frame an argument – or at least conscious of having done so – in order to sustain even a pretense of impartiality.

This is my response to Melina Kennedy‘s appearance today on No Limits. Ms. Kennedy is a mayoral candidate. No Limits is a local radio program.

I asked a question about immigration and mayoral initiatives regarding the issue, and was pleased to hear of Ms. Kennedy’s support of the Indiana Compact and keeping immigration under federal purview. Unfortunately, it seems that in many ways immigration is off the radar locally. While Ms. Kennedy referenced SB 590, which pitted state against federal authority, she did not address other initiatives like HB 1402 or the international tuition rates to be charged students without documentation (regardless of how long they’ve lived in the US: if they had been raised here, attended school here, graduated here, paid state and local taxes here, and so forth – you could call it the Anti-DREAM Act, if you like).

Also: the man who presented HB 1402 had no evidence that universities had a problem with students tuition rates, or any data about what percent of students the law would pertain to, or what effect it might have. This was just some guy who thought it would be more fair even though he didn’t previously know that immigrants without legal documentation pay the same state and local taxes that support our universities as do legal residents of Indiana – residency is a tax status. OK, big breath – in, out – and carry on.

I am looking for initiatives in my community that address these issues. The issue is not whether immigrants are or should be here, because they are here. Indianapolis is promoted by the governor, businesses, and economic development committees alike as a “global city” – how will we respond to the changes in our city? Will we renew old allegations surrounding “white flight” with gentrification and continue to marginalize minority groups and the poor? Or can we find new and creative ways to meet this issue and discover approaches wherein we all benefit?

Ms. Kennedy said today that she hopes improvements in early childhood education will be a hallmark of her tenure as mayor. To achieve this goal, she will have to address a myriad of issues plaguing IPS. Getting people to think of IPS as a place to educate their kids is part of that; there are also a whole host of kids already in IPS whose performance suffers from all the traditional reasons that urban students fail to succeed. We need to improve our neighborhoods and to show our kids that there are opportunities for them in life. Many of those kids just lost the opportunity to go to college, no matter how well they do in primary and secondary schools. What will they do instead?

“All the traditional reasons that urban students fail to succeed” are in key ways amplified for children of immigrants. If we cannot find ways to address immigration at a local level, we will continue to have a large group of people who are poor, disenfranchised, with few options (in addition to the other groups who are poor, disenfranchised, with few options). I agree that the Indiana Compact is a good start; Indiana has no business looking to reform federal policy. But if the State Congress can so severely limit the ability of good, hardworking kids to attend university, surely there are other proactive steps we can take as a community to build up all the residents. We need to act – and create policy – according to the understanding that people are human regardless of citizenship, and no person can be “illegal.”

International Law tells us that countries have a duty to protect all  people within the territory of that country. We learned this lesson from atrocities like genocide. We also learned that policies leading to atrocities begin with institutionalization of “otherness,” of hierarchies of belonging and citizenship. Slavery was possible in that the slaves were considered three-fifths a person – less than human – and that was a constitutional compromise. Society has changed, but it still regards many of the people who come here chasing the American Dream to be less than citizens. There are clear reasons for maintaining precise methods by which one may become a citizen. Yet, if we regard a group of people as ‘illegal’ and therefore unworthy of citizenship, we go beyond promoting legal entry and instead castigate and marginalize that group of people, and alienate others who identify with that group. There are institutional tiers that deal with different aspects of immigration: international treaties; federal laws, regulations, and enforcement; state laws (like tuition accessibility); yet we still live and function at a local level. What can we do here, where we live, work, play, and learn, to build tolerance and support structures in our communities? Can we integrate the still-disparate groups in our communities into one thriving, multi-cultural, beautiful and safe place to be? Those final steps of community building can only occur at a local level. I would hope any mayoral candidate would be willing to pursue that kind of community as a point of policy.

Immigration is an issue that I keep near and dear. It may be one of the greatest challenges the United States currently faces, because it requires so much self-analysis and truth telling in one shot. Immigration makes people stop to think: who are we, where are we headed – as a society, an economy, as the power-that-is.

More than anything else, when we are presented with arriving immigrants who some perceive to be threatening ‘our culture,’ we are forced to consider who we are. Are we “Americans?” Have we become “natives?” Are we one group or a pluralistic society? How do we identify and position ourselves in response to changing society? Who has the right to decide what our society is and will become?

The perceived polarization of national and local politics in the US suggests that immigration is not an isolated issue but is a part of a complex array of issues. Polarization results from contemporary issues because society perceives a crossroads is at hand. The US’ international status is changing diplomatically, militarily, economically. We are unlikely to remain the worldly superpower – but what do we become? When the status quo is no longer available, will we revert to a perception of simpler times or do we find new ways to affect (hopefully positive) change in our world?

Immigration, which in reality is a surprisingly old issue, mirrors the impression of either-or conservatism or liberalism because immigrants can either adapt to a new society or that society can adapt in response to immigrants. Whereas World Wars I and II acted to unite a country of disparate groups into “Americans,” current trends in immigration and multiculturalism offer few indicators that immigrants will reconsider their heritage(s) anytime soon.

Indeed, many immigrants with tenuous legal status consider themselves temporary residents.  Immigration patterns used to follow a seasonal ebb and flow, whereas tightened border security has made the journey so dangerous that few return to Mexico, knowing the return journey would be arduous at best. Moreover, these workers have deep ties to life and society in the US, although they may often be overlooked. For centuries now lifestyles in the US are sustained with resources from the “undeveloped nations.” Economics tell us that it is only logical to buy the cheapest good available; on a global scale, competition for buyers and limited government in the undeveloped world has enabled the US to extract those resources at prices that benefit buyers in the US much more than the foreign workers who make the supply possible. The disparity currently works against all workers, to the benefit of the corporations, yet workers often perceive their struggle as against other workers and not against those who profit from the inequalities. It is enforced disparity elsewhere that makes the journey to the US not simply appealing but necessary for so many. Now we are confronted with the poverty that is necessary for us to afford to live as we do, and yet we turn away and blame the poor, the disaffected, the immigrants for our selfishness. To do otherwise would require us not only to acknowledge our gains at another’s expense, but to change the way we live, purchase, consume, and pursue “happiness.”