Refusing the Role of Good American Immigrant

g9510.20_Immigration.coverNow that Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has been released after being detained near the U.S.-Mexico Border, he and other public figures are raising big questions about immigration, and what it means to be an American.

He writes,

I’ve been released by Border Patrol. I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country. Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family. With Congress failing to act on immigration reform, and President Obama weighing his options on executive action, the critical question remains: how do we define American?

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s office also released a statement, in which the Mayor says:

Jose Antonio’s detainment today at a Texas airport, close to where he was working to document the plight of refugees, shows how our immigrant enforcement agencies are failing to use their discretion and detaining long-time immigrants who do not pose a threat to our security. . . He exemplifies what America is about. I call for his quick release and hope that he can stay in the country that has been his home and to which he has contributed so much.

[emphasis added]

We’re glad that Mr. Vargas has emerged safely from his ordeal. But although his high-profile arrest intensifies the spotlight on the current border crisis, the framework of “defining American” or “exemplifying what America is about” deserves further scrutiny.

Mayor de Blasio contrasts Vargas’ contributions to America against the immigrants who supposedly “pose a threat to our security.” Though mentioned almost as an aside, this is an important assumption to stop and consider. Are immigrants really posing a threat to America’s security? Is that how we want to think about this situation? Or should we acknowledge, as even conservative pundit Glenn Beck has done, that U.S. military interventions and neoliberal, imperialist policies abroad have fundamentally destabilized and endangered the lives of many of these people? Who is the real threat to security: working-class people risking death to make it across the border, or a military superpower and its wealth-owning class pushing capitalist havoc on most of the world?

Progressives and liberals like to defend immigration reform by pointing to all the “contributions” that immigrants have made to the American project, since the nation’s very inception. Even radicals play this tune. When Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and Dominican immigrant Junot Díaz (widely hailed for his straight talk on white supremacy and patriarchy) appeared on The Colbert Report, he rested his pro-immigration arguments on the untapped genius of immigrants, and what America stands to gain.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, this is kind of a poor and petty reason to stop the dehumanizing treatment and state-sanctioned violence against people who cross borders. Because America stands to gain from the smart and talented ones?

We can do better.

Pro-immigrant rhetoric often paints desirable border-crossers as underdogs: innocent victims of their circumstances. These people would include DREAMers and refugees of different kinds. The 60,000 children being detained at the Mexico-US border also land in this category. There have been minor victories for “good” immigrants: like the DACA 2-year work permits now available to some.

Yet, wherever we have “good” immigrants, there must also be “bad” immigrants. Those include: immigrants who willfully and illegally crossed the border as adults; those working jobs that could be held by citizens (a.k.a. “taking our jobs”);  and those who have committed crimes or joined gangs. For this lot, the last few years has brought no wins: deportation numbers are equal or higher under the Obama administration, compared to Bush; I-9 audits (electronic raids) have steeply escalated; and young people with criminal records often fail to qualify for DACA work permits.

The distinctions, connections, and tensions between different views on American immigration are also reflected in the activism and organizing around the border crisis.

  • On one hand: worth-centered arguments for immigrant inclusion.
  • On another hand: mass anti-deportation demands on the basis of what is right, humane, and fair.

The dramatic actions of the “Dream 9,” nine undocumented students crossing the border from U.S. to Mexico and then attempting to re-enter without papers in order to support passage of the DREAM Act in Congress, sends a different message than the “Bring Them Home” campaigns that have used similar confrontations at the border to attempt to reunite hundreds of families separated by deportation. Tactically and strategically, these are distinct approaches — which may at times complement each other, but also hold room for very different views on the meaning and promise of America. Land of Opportunity, or Belly of the Beast? Maybe some of both?

It’s been past time for us to acknowledge the myth and fallacy of “America” as a great, aspirational project to which good immigrants should “contribute.” The contradictions of this society are simply too huge, too fundamental, to ignore or excuse. America’s systematic forms of oppression and unfreedom are not limited to the horrors of genocide and chattel slavery (through which our wealth was indisputably built), but also include the insidious slow bleeding of working-class people the world over through the everyday drudgery of exploited labor. America does not exist in benevolent isolation — a shining, self-contained oasis for desperate refugees — but operates and spreads its sour influence everywhere, from deadly sweatshops in Bangladesh to disappearing rainforests in Brazil; from Mexico City to Manila to Mumbai. If anything, perhaps America should grant all immigrants immediate papers: not out of pity, but as penance and apology.

As an organization of immigrants and U.S.-born citizens, we are tired of the charade of praising “good immigrants” who make America stronger. America doesn’t need strengthening, but reckoning. And dismantling.

We are also tired of our family members and friends being criminalized as “bad” immigrants for seeking work to feed their family, or for seeking safety and protection outside of the legal system that is racially profiling and hunting them down. We don’t support the violence and abuse that often takes place in gangs, but neither do we ignore or excuse the structural everyday violence supported by the state. As they say, oftentimes the biggest gang is the police.

People of whatever nation, of whatever region, should be able to live in peace — with adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, and education. With the option of staying close to family, or whoever it is that brings them a sense of belonging, rather than risking death to cross desert or ocean and sweat for dollars to send back home. As long as imperialism, neoliberalism, and capitalism continue to threaten the security of the majority of the world’s people, we will continue to defend the right of any poor and working-class people to cross any border they have to, in order to survive and resist. We hope that all the genius and talents of working-class immigrants will go toward challenging imperialism, not propping it up. Toward creating a new and better world that we so deeply need.

If insisting on a vision of human rights for all people makes us unAmerican, then so be it.


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