Depoliticize Immigration – Article in NLG Newsletter

Here is a first draft of an article I wrote for the NLG Newsletter today. Feel free to comment and give suggestions on how to make the preaching drivel better.

This year, the May 1 marches for immigration reform were quieter than preceding years probably due to differences over how to resolve the issue of ‘illegal immigration’ and a climate of fear aggravated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and arrests of undocumented immigrants in their homes, workplaces and even schools. In 2007, the ICE deported more than 280,500 individuals here without proper authorization. Going by the weekly raids this year and the border patrol nabbing of even migrant workers voluntarily leaving the country, the numbers of arrestees and deportees are likely to increase in the coming fiscal year.

The undocumented immigrant has become a bogeyman, a convenient scapegoat for policymakers and working class Americans frustrated with the deteriorating state of the economy and growing unemployment. With the Congressional failure of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) and individual states left to grapple with the issue of undocumented workers, we are clearly living in an era of immigrant scapegoating with record numbers of new anti-immigration bills in state legislatures across the country. In 2007, 1562 immigration bills were introduced in 50 states and 240 enacted in 46 states, compared to 570 pieces of legislation introduced and 84 enacted in 32 states 2006. Even the debate over birthright citizenship has intensified recently, with several lawmakers calling for a repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment which guarantees citizenship to every child born in the United States of America.

In this war against immigrants, even the children of our huddled masses have not been spared as the bipartisan DREAM Act failed to overcome cloture in the Senate last October, which would have given conditional residency to the children of undocumented immigrants if they have been in this country for at least five years, graduated from high school, possess good moral character, and joined the military or attended a postsecondary institution for two years. Punished for their undocumented status due to the alleged transgressions of their parents, over 1.8 million American-raised children across the country remain in the shadows, stateless and in-limbo, their lives still and immobile, yearning to be free.

On the other side of immigration reform, ICE hopes to arrest and deport all undocumented immigrants by 2012 seems like a pipe dream. As exemplified by the war on drugs and the so-called war on terrorism, ‘get-tough’ policies do not work. It is neither economically feasible nor humane to rip 12 million undocumented immigrants from their homes, families and communities and place them in immigrant detention centers (a euphemism for concentration camps) to await mass deportation; for the most part, these are passionate, hard-working people who have made America their home, pay taxes and keep Social Security solvent.

Crackdowns on illegal immigration that involve raids in our homes, workplaces and schools promote a climate of fear, waste our tax dollars, disrupt our local economies, while extending the arm of the national security state through the rise of a military-industrial-migrant complex. The benefits of electronic surveillance and locking up immigrants in ever-expanding inhumane privatized detention centers are not reaped by working class Americans, but rather the stock portfolios of companies like Corrections Corporation of America, Boeing, Haliburton and other private entities entrusted with the multi-million, multi-billion dollar contracts to build more prisons, jails, fences, and surveillance units.

All the anti-immigrant fervor and hatred of the ‘Other’ comes down to a mere social construct, the social construct of the illegal alien. The concept of ‘illegal alien’ and hence, ‘illegal immigration’ first appears with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 6 1882. With the act of barring Chinese entry and citizenship, the nation-state created the problem of ‘illegal immigration,’ rooted in the rejection of undesirable, unassimilable Others. In a fascinating article published by the San Francisco Bulletin on April 21, 1882 while Congress was debating Chinese exclusion, a journalist distinguishes between “true and false immigration”—the false immigration referring to the Chinese Other, the unassimilable laborer with a non-pagan ritual, who was an invader and justified exclusion. The otherizing act of the original exclusion continues to reverberate in status quo anti-immigration policies with an expanded list of Others.

Like drug abuse is a medical problem, entering or residing in this country without proper documentation is not a crime but a civil violation, an administrative problem that requires serious depoliticization. The problems in administration are not limited to undocumented migration and visa backlogs but continues to haunt legal permanent residents who apply for citizenship only to find themselves in deportation proceedings due to age-old misdemeanors, lost paperwork, failing to inform USCIS about a change of address or being a quadriplegic and failing to show up for finger printing. Clearly, we need immigration reform, but we also need to depoliticize and treat it as a naturally-occurring phenomenon that started 57,000 years ago when the first human migrant emerged from the cradle of civilization and made her/his way out to Eurasia.

In this era of globalization, more people live and work outside of their countries of origin than ever before and the numbers are likely to increase as the world becomes smaller. The movement of human bodies across borders should be seen and treated as a normal phenomenon—regulated to a reasonable point. Jailing refugee and asylum seekers, conducting raids to arrest and deport non-violent undocumented workers and banning undocumented American students from post-secondary education is an extreme approach to dealing with a more globalized workforce. Furthermore, treating and scapegoating migrants as a homogenous entity serves as political instrument of wanton distraction, a distraction from vital issues like the war on Iraq, health care, the economy and global warming. The immigration issue does not need more politics—it needs more humanity.

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