Who Is Illegal? The Politics of Immigration

Students of political science may look to their discipline’s greats to describe what’s going on in today’s volatile social environment, but they might as well turn to the physical sciences–to Isaac Newton, in particular. It was Newton’s legendary third law of motion that stated for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, an axiom that easily encapsulates the United States’ supercharged battle over immigration.

Criminalizing immigration has become a right-wing attack plan that’s worked with precision in Congress and mainstream conservative media like CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight . But the clarion calls for so-called reform have actually had the opposite effect: they have galvanized the immigrant community into ever-increasing political participation, rebutting Republican efforts.

In fact, one reason that the Republicans had come to power in recent years was due to the Latino vote, which often leans toward more conservative value systems. As Senator Gil Cedillo told me for an earlier Wiretap piece on Latino politics, “I think there is an assumption that Latino electives will be progressives, and I don’t think that’s the case. In truth, Latinos are known to be more conservative than most progressives. Frankly, they are as poised to be Republicans as they are to be Democrats, and probably would be if Republicans didn’t hate them or promote hysteria about them.”

The overall lesson to be learned, Cedillo indirectly argued, was not to bite the hand that feeds you. But the Republicans have done exactly that, with the media following suit. And not enough pundits or politicians have countered those attacks by pointing out the obvious: We are, all of us, a nation of immigrants, occupying lands that once belonged to someone else, including Mexico.

Myths, Power and False Patriots

“Unfortunately, the history of the United States as popularized on TV or classrooms seems like it was made by Disney,” explains journalist Roberto Lovato, who’s written on the subject for diverse publications like The Nation, Los Angeles Times and more, and also served as executive director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), one of America’s largest immigrant rights organizations. “It’s not real. We talk a lot about the holocaust, but we don’t talk about Native Americans. There’s no holocaust museum for them. We don’t have an Ellis Island for the black slaves. Most of the slaves came through Sullivan’s Island, and it should be a monument, but it’s not. A sense of history is profoundly and institutionally lacking, and so you’re going to have a population that looks at this treatment of immigrants as natural.”

Such a permissive attitude toward criminalization has led to everything from the boom in the immigrant security complex, which has turned into a billion-dollar bonanza, to the tacit endorsement of militias like The Minuteman Project, whose border patrols and presence at immigrant rights protests and rallies has caused no shortage of damage and controversy.

On The Fence: Comparing the Candidates’ Immigration Policies

Hillary Clinton:

Voted for border fence; wants a “path to citizenship” for illegals. Flipped on driver’s licenses for illegals. Learn more about Mrs. Clinton’s positions and voting record.

Barack Obama:

Voted for border fence; says illegals should “go to the back of the line” for citizenship. Supported driver’s licenses in Illinois. Learn more about Obama’s positions and voting record.

John McCain:

Voted for border fence; supports a “path to citizenship” for illegals and a temporary worker program. Learn more about McCain’s positions and voting record.

Sources: Mother Jones Jan/Feb 2008, On The Issues.

But for every so-called Minuteman who has showed up to inflate patriotism or disrupt undocumented day laborers at work, it seems there have been many more immigration rights supporters, including groups such as The Center for Community Change, The Coalition For Humane Immigrant Rights, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, International ANSWER, Brown Berets, and many more. That imbalance mirrors the national battle over immigration criminalization; indeed, most election-year polls have shown that the public doesn’t rate immigration as a higher priority for candidates than other topics, such as the economy or the Iraq war.

The public mood is further underscored by the fact that the three remaining major presidential candidates espouse either progressive, moderate or centrist immigration platforms (see sidebar). Yet immigration is still a hot-button issue, as ideologically motivated groups and individuals, like the aforementioned Lou Dobbs, have continued to attack.

“CNN makes a lot of money getting advertising to help Lou Dobbs hate immigrants,” Lovato (pictured right) continues. “But Latino immigrants are growing very powerful, in the streets and in the voting booth. They practice a different kind of citizenship, like in Latin America: You vote, but you’re also marching and protesting. Either way, whites are becoming a minority in the United States; it’s no longer a totally white country. And Lou Dobbs is speaking to the loss of white power. It’s a formula during times of crisis.”

It is the perceived crisis of that loss of white power that led to noxious governmental actions like House Resolution 4437, known as the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which passed the House but stalled in the Senate. That attack was an unmitigated mistake: Not only did it lump undocumented immigrants in with terrorists, but it galvanized them into historical action.

Those who are living and working in the US and who are concerned about potentially having their immigration status thrown into question may want to seek legal counsel from the likes of Carman Fullerton to see where they stand. Immigration and ICE issues can often be confusing and even frightening for families that have to deal with them so it’s good to have someone with knowledge of the subject in your corner.

New Leaders Come Forward

From February through May 2006, crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands hit the streets and pushed the immigration criminalization backlash into the national spotlight. After that, legislative action on the issue all but died, along with the 109th Congress, arguably the worst ever, which expired shortly thereafter.

“The politicians who pushed HR 4437 overextended their agenda and provoked young Latinos and anti-racist youth to respond with a historic level of mass action and determination,” claims Yvette Felarca (pictured right), northern California coordinator for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). “They awakened a sleeping giant with strength and power, as well as motivated a new immigrant-led civil rights movement that has already set the tone for the 21st century. Like Bush’s war in Iraq, the right-wing’s arrogance is now weakening them and galvanizing new young leaders to come forward and organize change.”

Arrogance, as Felarca points out, is indeed the key, and not to just Republican efforts and rule, but also to the declining reign of white power and privilege. The two go hand in hand, which might explain the general ignorance of the history of American immigration. After all, when you’re the dominant culture, you spend little if no energy exploring the origins of the issue, and too much on fortifying its future or resorting to reactionary violence. This point was underscored recently when the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that anti-immigrant sentiment is fueling nationwide increases in the number of hate groups and the number of hate crimes targeting Latinos.

But as current events have illustrated all too clearly, those who ignore history have a tendency to repeat it, which might explain why Mexicans in particular but Latinos in general have crisscrossed a legal but still imaginary border to reclaim the lands that they used to call home before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Paraphrasing Newton, what goes around comes around.

“When you reinforce the perception of white power, you reinforce the idea of a nation,” Lovato adds, “but this is no longer a nation. It has been globalized out of nationhood. Look at the ‘American Dream,’ which [has] existed for only a segment of the population: That lifestyle is one of the reasons people migrate here so much. It’s the way we eat, the way we pollute, the way we vote for politicians who bomb people.”

Toward Full Rights

Yet that ‘American Dream’ could not exist without one form or another of immigrant labor, usually extracted on the cheap for the owner and at too great a cost for the laborer. It is an economic arrangement with its roots in slavery and its blooming canopy sheltering too many scammers and grifters. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes made by the anti-immigrant contingent was assuming that there was an economic disconnect between the hallowed dream of new houses and shiny SUVs and the use of undocumented labor.

“Immigrants have always been the backbone of California’s economy, to say nothing of the entire nation,” explains Felarca. “And the attempt to criminalize them now is a form of racism that extends back to Jim Crow. Denying human beings basic rights to jobs, housing, education, and their families, depending on which side of the border they were born or whether they own certain papers or documents, is legalized discrimination.”

It’s that simple, but it’s about to get exceedingly complicated. The entire world will soon confront its past immigration ghosts in the form of a climate crisis that could create a whole new immigration problem without discrimination. Those who continue to believe and publicly argue that immigration is about someone else are going to be in for a rough ride, and that ride is starting now.

“The immigration endgame is about reinforcing an idea that never existed,” Lovato concludes. “It’s about disguising the division between rich and poor. But we’re entering an age where we are going to have to alter our framework. Our lifestyles are destroying the water, air, land and food around the world. We are the primary cause of our own misfortune.”

But things have been looking up. From a Democratic sweep of Congress during the 2006 midterm elections to the possible electoral win of the first woman president or president of color in American history, the United States may snap out of its consensual hallucination of white power in time to save itself. In particular, if Barack Obama, the child of an immigrant father, is given the keys to the White House in 2008, the image of power America represents to the world will be transformed into a better approximation of what the country really looks like. And, stripped of its ideological clothing, that image would go a long way toward owning up to its immigrant past and uncertain future, the latter of which is in the hands of tomorrow’s generations, who will decide its fate.

“The realization of full rights for all immigrants, with and without papers, will fundamentally be determined by the continued independent organization and direct action of young people standing up for those rights, regardless of who wins the presidential elections in November,” Felarca promises. “In fact, Obama’s stated support for the Dream Act and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants is a testament to the strength of today’s immigrant rights movement. We will need to continue organizing if and when he is elected, to ensure those laws are passed and enacted.”

This article appeared in AlterNet and The Nation