Archive for anti-immigrant
Alaska Congressman Don Young (R-AK) referred to Mexican farm workers as “wetbacks.” in a recent radio interview on KRBD-FM (Ketchikan, AK), Young was attempting to make a point about the automation in farm production, when he said this:
“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”
This racist slur made by a sitting congressman is best understood in the longer prevailing U.S. historical context that categorizes Mexican immigrants as unequal, without real humanity, and undeserving of true dignity. Such a comment by an elected government official is the latest example of the white racial framing and the racializing of Latinas/os.Taken together, these reinforce white supremacy on a large structural level. White racist words, such as the Congressman’s, frame people of color as inferior and create a wider narrative of racial oppression, which whites utilize to protect their dominant position in society at the expense of ethnic minorities.
(Image from here.)
In the public sphere, many whites commonly use terms such as “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” or simply “illegal.” All of these are problematic for the way they dehumanize entire groups of people. Recently the Associated Press announced that it was dropping the word “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook for proper usage; a victory against this demeaning and racist language was led by ARC and Rinku Sen. For the record, the AP stylebook doesn’t condone the use of the term “wetback” either.
Apparently, Congressman Young did not get the memo about language from the AP. The 79-year-old seems to be stuck in time as indicated by his public use of “wetback” and subsequent delayed apology issued only after his fellow conservative Republicans chastised him and demanded that he issue a sincere apology.
This begs the following questions: What’s wrong with the term “wetback”? What does it mean? And, where does it come from?
Historically, the racial epithet “wetback” has been used by whites to suppress Mexican immigrant laborers while at the same time solidifying white superiority and domination. The racial slur stems from the white imaginary and the ill conceived notion of Mexican immigrants becoming wet as they purportedly swam across the Rio Grande River, entering the U.S. in search of higher wages. As with many racist slurs, it’s based on several lies, the most obvious of which is that in many places the Rio Bravo del Norte (as it is known in Mexico) is shallow enough to walk across without getting more than your knees wet.
The exclusionary meaning of “wetback” has been part of the white mainstream psyche, appearing as early as June 20, 1920 in this New York Times article (pdf). Since that time, the epithet has retained and reproduced its original negative racist connotations, categorizing Mexicans – and by extension all Latinas/os – as inherently criminalistic, lawless, and undesirable.
Of course, Congressman Young is not the first elected official who has used the term “wetback.” According to a recent USA Today article, the term has a lengthy record of usage, particularly in the last 32 years:
- 1981, House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill:“A conservative Texan and a conservative from Illinois may be on different sides. Would I vote the same on wetbacks as a guy from Arizona?”
- 1983, Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C.:“You had people from Missouri. You had wetbacks from California that came in here for (Sen. Alan) Cranston. It wasn’t Iowans. And it was all bought and paid for. It was a fraud. One great, grand fraud.”
- 1983, Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., “The main public perception is that we’re talking about wetbacks, that we’re talking about Mexican-Americans coming across the border.”
- 1990, Veterans Secretary Edward Derwinski — serving under President George H.W. Bush — In a speech on drug abuse, he said drug cartels use “wetbacks” to smuggle drugs into the country. After Milder denounced the statement, he apologized, calling it “just one of those dumb slips.” But he also accused Milder of overreacting and having a “thin skin.”
- 1990, Ann Richards’ campaign for Texas governor faced accusations she used the word in a 1976 speech. “If it takes a man to hire non-union labor, cross picket lines and work wetbacks then I say thank God for a woman or anyone else who is willing to take over,” she was alleged to have said in the speech. Richards, a Democrat, denied it and claimed her opponent fabricated that section of the speech and planted it in a Hispanic newspaper.
- 2006, Arizona state Rep. Russell Pearce came under fire for praising a 1950s deportation program known as “Operation Wetback” on a radio program. He refused to apologize. “My critics don’t like history. They want to rewrite history. I didn’t use the term. I quoted a successful program,” he told the Arizona Republic.
- 2008, Honolulu City Councilman Rod Tamhad publicly announced that “we don’t want any wetbacks, basically” on city development projects. He later said he never considered it a racial slur, and said, “I apologize if I offended anybody.”
The W-word carries additional baggage from a long history of blatantly racist legislation by predominantly white legislators trading in the politics of fear. Laws and policies such as Operation Wetback (1954), Operation Gatekeeper (1994), Arizona SB 1070/2162 (2010), and and Texas Senate Bill 1128 (2013) create real harm and ensure the perpetuation of white domination. And, as you can plainly see from the names of the bills and the text in each one, this harmful legislation begins with and is rooted in the language of “wetbacks” and “illegal immigrants.”
Racist slurs, such as “wetback,” continue to have real tangible social, cultural, and economic consequences. Such language is fundamental to the process of commodification and objectification. Brown people are exploited physically and economically, effectively designated as mere instruments meant to serve white systems of domination in order to sustain white privilege.
I ask you, how can Republicans rebrand their party by catering to Latina/o voters if their party permeates white racist anti-Latina/o ideology?
On Wednesday August 15, eligible undocumented immigrants throughout the nation began to apply for work permits under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. As The New York Times put it, “The work permit young immigrants can receive with the deferral opens many doors that have been firmly shut. They can obtain valid Social Security numbers and apply for driver’s licenses, professional certificates and financial aid for college.” On the same day, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer issued an Executive Order aimed at keeping those doors firmly shut in Arizona.
Her order [pdf] directs state agencies to initiate any changes necessary to prevent “Deferred Action recipients from obtaining eligibility . . . for state funded public benefits and state identification, including a driver’s license.”
Brewer’s order contradicts Arizona’s current policy that provides driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals who have secured jobs and attorneys doubt that it will have any practical effects.
Brewer’s action might have been motivated by her notorious animosity towards President Obama (pictured above in an encounter in January, 2012). An editorial in the August 17 issue of the Arizona Republic characterizes Brewer’s executive order as a “Move that Goes Too Far”.
in her efforts to oppose the president, “Even if the issue is something as seemingly straightforward as allowing Dream Act kids to obtain driver’s licenses, a fundamental precondition for Americans seeking to improve their lot in a mobile society.”
This is just another episode in Brewer’s relentless campaign against the undocumented. It is another instance of the racism that has tarnished Arizona’s reputation. Sadly, it delights racist voters, which evidently trumps human decency.
The MSNBC website has a nice summary of the new census data a lot of folks are talking about, titled “Census: Minorities now surpass whites in US births.”
According to census bureau figures for 2011 the children born, for the first time, are majority not white:
Minorities made up roughly 2.02 million, or 50.4 percent of U.S. births in the 12-month period ending July 2011. That compares with 37 percent in 1990.
And even with some decrease in Latin American and Asian immigrants, because of the economic downturn in the U.S. and some improvements south of the U.S. border, the population of the U.S. is still becoming ever more diverse.
There was this interesting bit of data as well:
. .the nation’s minority population continues to rise, following a higher-than-expected Hispanic count in the 2010 census. Minorities increased 1.9 percent to 114.1 million, or 36.6 percent of the total U.S. population, lifted by prior waves of immigration that brought in young families and boosted the number of Hispanic women in their prime childbearing years. . . . 348 of the nation’s 3,143 counties, or 1 in 9, have minority populations across all age groups that total more than 50 percent.
Still, the growth rate fell for Latino and Asian American populations to just two percent last year,
.. roughly half the rates in 2000 and the lowest in more than a decade. . .. Of the 30 large metropolitan areas showing the fastest Hispanic growth in the previous decade, all showed slower growth in 2011 than in the peak Hispanic growth years of 2005-2006…
Over at the NY Times, Thomas Edsall, has some interesting comments on the political implications of these shifts, which I recommend to you. Here is a sample:
. . . it’s interesting that the two-party system has not imploded. In the face of sustained centrifugal upheaval — including a proliferation of religious affiliations, the enfranchisement of substantial minority populations, rising levels of economic inequality, and the belief among a plurality of voters… that our economic system (capitalism) and the religious identification of three-quarters of the electorate (Christianity) are not compatible — we still are a nation of Republicans and Democrats.
He makes some interesting points about some opinion poll findings on how people see the Christian religion and capitalism (as in tension, a real surprise there) and also wonders out loud about the future of US parties and especially the Republican party. Can it adapt in this changing demographic world that
threatens its ability to compete nationally? As presently constituted, the Republicans have become the party of the married white Christian past.
This issue and related issues are ones I have dealt with deeply and historically in context in my new book, White Party, White Government.
There are clearly many political and policy implications to these demographic changes. Given the explosion of anti-immigrant nativism in this country in recent years, one can wonder if the mostly white nativists will take these data to heart and cut back at least on their anti-immigrant screed. One also has to wonder if the declining immigration will have any effects on the anti-immigrant legislation passed in numerous states. Especially with the looming Supreme Court ruling that will come down on the Arizona anti-Latino-immigrant law that has been celebrated in some white conservative circles.
Yet, many of us find these changes exciting and healthy for a country that has long depended on a diverse immigration for its social and economic health.
Americans need to be intellectually honest (rather than want to laugh) when empirical and historical evidence concerning immigration realities are provided.
Immigration is intertwined and implicated with our history of excluding citizenship to immigrants of color and with our global economic trade agreements such as NAFTA. Thus, it should surprise no one that The Pew Hispanic Center finds that nearly two-thirds of the over 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have been here for over a decade.
Historical and economic policies are not separate from current immigration realities.
As Americans we must use empirical and historical evidence to form a complicated and nuanced understanding of immigration rather than resort to the disrespectful treatment of prominent scholars, simply because one does not agree with their analysis. If one feels the personal need to be mean-spirited it would be better directed towards Congress, as it is their lack of political will that has created the de facto system of immigration we have today. Congress needs to make immigration policy reforms committed to the political process via deliberation, compromise, political courage and leadership—regardless of whether the outcome pleases everyone. However, for some it is easier to attack academics that have devoted their careers towards critical thinking, developing ideas, and fostering learning and understanding in an effort to make the world a more knowledgeable and with that, better place.
Or one could educate themselves on the historical and empirical realities of immigration in America. For example, In Major Problems in American Immigration History, Professor Mae M. Ngai demonstrates that the study of immigration has evolved from the European model of assimilation to examining where we are today—discussing the major issues surrounding groups who have never had the same opportunity to assimilate because of racist laws and a xenophobic citizenry.
However, for many people it is much easier to fear America’s changing demographics, ignore our white racial frame, and use an ahistorical argument about American exceptionalism by attacking academics with statements such as we would not want “the USA to look just like the third world these people left.” These types of views lacking in substance or empirical evidence are everywhere and do not further efforts at reform or get us closer to a civil dialogue of understanding. One prominent example is evidenced in Patrick Buchanan latest book, Suicide of a Superpower, where he even has a chapter called “The End of White America.” Rather than an honest account of how in every Naturalization Act from 1790 to 1952, Congress included “white person” as a prerequisite for naturalization and that basic laws of citizenship did not apply to racial minorities until 1940 (look it up), Buchanan instead espouses an intellectually dishonest argument intended to instill and deepen distain in whites towards non-whites as they become the minority (oh no!). In short, Buchanan argues that Latinos with greater allegiances to Mexico and their own culture will ruin America’s future. This nativist argument is about economics, xenophobia, and racism. This argument is nothing new and unfortunately, it has many followers.
While European immigrants have also historically confronted hostility, particularly Southern and Eastern Europeans, they never faced the kind of legal racial restrictions on naturalization experienced by people of color. For example, Ngai states,
“…the Immigration Act of 1924 comprised a constellation of reconstructed racial categories….At one level, the new immigration law differentiated Europeans according to nationality and ranked them in a hierarchy of desirability. At another level, the law constructed a white American race, in which persons of European descent shared a common whiteness that made them distinct from those deemed to be not white.”
Ngai goes on to state,
“This distinction gave all Euro-Americans a stake in what Matthew Jacobson has called a ‘consanguine white race” and facilitated their Americanization…[while the] racialization of the latter groups’ [Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, etc.] national origins rendered them unalterably foreign and unassimilable to the nation.” (p. 387-388).
Unfortunately, the consequences of these laws remain with us today.
The lack of critical analysis around the historic and current racial considerations of immigration and racial exclusion, however, comes at a great cost to us as a nation. Where is our sense of humanity? Who would choose to leave their young children for years to work for next to nothing in a country that does not accept them? Who would chose to watch their children cry of hunger at night because their stomach’s ached from lack of food? Who would chose to leave their elderly parents knowing they may never see them again? Whatever solutions Congress eventually comes up with we ought to be a better nation than to lose the humanity of the situation.
The secure communities policy is driving a massive increase in deportations. Since President Obama took office, we have seen one million deportations. In 2010, the United States deported 400,000 people, more than in the entire decade of the 1980s. The secure communities policy is also racist.
(Photo by Runs with Scissors)
This rise in deportations is due to laws passed in 1996, and a massive infusion of money into draconian enforcement of immigration law with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). With an annual budget of $60 billion, DHS has been able to expand its operations far beyond those of its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
When we look at who is getting deported, however, it’s clear that Asian and European immigrants are almost never deported, yet blacks and Latinos are deported in massive numbers. And, nearly all deportees are men. Sound familiar? Yes, racial and gender disparities in immigration law enforcement look a lot like those in criminal justice law enforcement.
Police are much more likely to arrest blacks and Latinos. In New York State, 94% of those arrested on drug charges are black or Latino. And, yes, whites and Asians do use and sell drugs. They are just rarely arrested.
Now that President Obama has forced more cooperation between police and immigration law enforcement through the Secure Communities program, we can expect to see more blacks and Latinos deported.
The terrible news, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, is that there were two terrorist attacks in Norway – one at the capital of Oslo and another, more deadly attack, just outside the city at a camp for children. Reports are that the death toll is around 90 people killed, many of them children, and scores were seriously wounded. All those numbers may yet rise. The shooter is alive and in custody. He has been identified as a 32-year-old Norwegian farmer, Anders Behring Breivik (picture below via MSNBC from his Facebook page). Racism seems to be implicated in this story in two, very telling, ways: Breivik’s views and the initial news reports about the terror strikes.
Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Muslim Views. According to Norwegian journalist Liss Goril Anda, writing for the BBC, Breivik had posted “racist, extremist right-wing comments along with fellow anti-Muslims” on right-wing websties. On his Facebook profile, he identified his political views as “Christian, conservative.” However, Breivik didn’t belong to any known factions in Norway’s small and splintered extreme right movement. Goril Anda writes that the Breivik’s online postings represent, “with varying degrees of extremism, a section of the Norwegian population which feels that the country’s immigration policies are too lax.” Goril Anda goes on to speculate, “Norway might now be forced to deal head-on with this undercurrent of nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments.” The Mail refers to him as “an extremist who hated Muslims.”
According to another report, Breivik was recently posting online that politics today was not about socialism vs. capitalism but nationalism vs. internationalism. He argued on a Swedish news website that the media were not critical enough about Islam and claimed that Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands was the only “true” party of conservatives. (Wilders said in a statement, “I despise everything he stands for and everything he did.”)
Breivik recommended other sites associated with the so-called counter-jihad movement, notably Jihad Watch, Gates of Vienna and the Brussels Journal. In December 2009 he wrote that he was working full time to promote the ideas of Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Bat Ye’or.
He also wrote of his contacts with the English Defence League (EDL) and Stop Islamisation of Europe and claimed to have given them advice on strategy. He attached importance to building “a Norwegian version” of the EDL to fight against anti-fascists and anti-racists.
Updated Sunday, 8:26amET: And, of course, the racism in his selection of victims: “Many of the victims in Friday’s shooting were the children of immigrants from Africa and Asia…” according to New York Times (via @Alondra).
Shameful Journalism. Shiva Balaghi writing at Jadaliyya has an excellent piece detailing all the major news outlets that first reported this story as a case of “Muslim terrorists” and/or “jihadi groups,” supposedly “angered at the war in Afghanistan,” including: the New York Times, The Financial Times, and PBS. Perhaps most revealing is her account of Judy Woodruff on PBS’ Newshour, Balaghi writes:
Judy Woodruff’s interview with a Norwegian journalist that aired on PBS’s Newshour followed a similar scenario. We did learn that “a thirty-two-year old white Norwegian guy [sic]” had been arrested for presumably having carried out the bombings and the shootings. But no information was provided on the attacker’s motivations or political affiliation; Woodruff simply did not ask those questions. Who forms the neo-Nazi movement in Norway? [emphasis added]
Benjamin Doherty writing at The Electric Intifada has this more detailed account of how a supposed “expert” on terrorism set media speculation on Muslims following the attacks:
“Experts” who supposedly study this topic — almost always white men and very often with military or government backgrounds — direct suspicion toward Muslims by pointing to claims of responsibility on “jihadi” web sites that only they have access to. Notorious attacks invariably inspire false claims of responsibility, or false reports of claims of responsibility, but this apparently doesn’t discourage the media and experts from giving them undue attention.
From the “experts” to The New York Times to the world…
The New York Times originally reported:
A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism.
In later editions, the story was revised to read:
Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.
The source was Will McCants, adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, and Doherty does an effective job in tracking down McCants’ sketchy sources on this story. Even after McCants posted that his information was flawed (and the claim for responsibility had been retracted), major news outlets like the BBC, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post were still promoting information originally sourced from him.
The news spread quickly and amplified the association in many people’s mind between “terrorism” and “Muslim.” The problem, of course, is that it wasn’t true, even as these mainstream news outlets kept reporting that it was.
White-Blindness & Terrorism. Taken together, these paint a broader picture of the ways we do not see race when it is white, and the ways we do not acknowledge racism in our thinking about terrorism and the ill-conceived “war on terror.” In a way, we have white-blindess, like snow blindness, when it comes to terrorism. A white, Christian, conservative, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant terrorist takes up arms and the mainstream media is caught short trying to report on the story because of their own white-blindness, their inability to see, indeed even imagine, whiteness as a race. It’s likely now that these same news outlets will start referring to him as a “lone wolf,” increasingly a phrase that is used only to describe white terrorists. The “lone wolf” designation further distances Breivik’s politics from his actions. The rhetoric of “terrorism” and “the war on terrorism” is language that is steeped in connotations of a dangerous, Dark Other, despite the evidence to the contrary. Like the attack by Timothy McVeigh on Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, the Norway attacks demonstrate that white men can be terrorists. It’s only white-blindness that keeps us from seeing that.
A standard part of most political science introductory textbooks are definitions and examples of different kinds of political systems. Robert A. Heineman’s textbook outlines the three main types of governmental systems: democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian systems.
Most Americans are familiar with the democratic system. As participants in such a system we have come to believe, and indeed to expect, we have certain rights and freedoms. These are things like rights to select who will represent us, rights of assembly, rights of free speech, and freedom of association. However, people are less familiar with some of the characteristics of authoritarianism, at least not when these characteristics are exhibited by American governmental institutions.
Unfortunately, because of current immigration policies in many states, it is becoming important for Americans to reacquaint themselves with the definition of authoritarianism. According to Heineman, the characteristics of authoritarian governmental systems include greater control of political processes, greater citizen obedience to a strong government, restricted freedoms of expression of ideas or association, and of course governmental punishment of disobedience (p.3).
Many state immigration public policies are regrettably looking more and more authoritarian and less democratic. The most recent example is Alabama’s immigration policy, which has passed by large margins in both houses of the legislature is expected to be signed by Governor Robert Bentley.
Alabama’s new immigration policy requires children to provide documentation before being enrolled in public school, bars landlords from renting to people who are undocumented, allows police officers to ask about one’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented, denies businesses tax deductions on wages paid to unauthorized immigrants, criminalizes the failure of an immigrant to carry documentation proving their legal status on their person, and criminalizes the transport of an illegal immigrant.
Through the measure, Alabama has gone a very long distance from our ideals of American democracy, so much so that even being in a car with someone who is undocumented becomes a crime. One wonders if public bus drivers will now ask for documentation and a bus token before letting a brown person board their bus. Alabama has a history of denying basic liberties and justice for blacks. Now it has found a new group to target its unjust and arbitrary use of state power and racism.
In a Michele Wucker’s chapter in Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting it Right she quotes George W. Bush’s presidential inaugural address:
America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more not less American (p. 139).
Based on Arizona’s, Utah’s, and now Alabama’s most recent anti-immigration bill, we are becoming less American every day.
Undocumented students across the country are torn between achieving their dreams of an education, and knowing full well that once they complete their college degree they may not have many options to pursue their careers. This is because the political rhetoric surrounding immigration is punitive and it is time for it to stop. The costs to us all are too great.
One cost is to children raised in the U.S. but brought here illegally by their parents. Rather than giving them the opportunity to attend university by allowing them to pay in-state tuition and passing the Dream Act, so that upon completion of their degrees they can become contributing members of society, we currently leave them in a state of limbo. Those that do make it to university live in constant fear for their futures once they complete their degrees, but even while they attend college they are not able to fully participate in the college experience because they cannot participate in work-study programs on campus or participate in the many study abroad programs. Our current attitude towards immigrants, especially towards Latinos must change. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that undocumented students who pay in-state tuition at universities not only attend university at higher rates, but they have lower dropout rates, and bring financial benefits to the states who allow in-state tuition as well.
However, there are three fundamental challenges in changing this punitive focus on immigration policy:
First, a because of the white racial frame Latinos encounter discrimination, whether immigrant or citizen, even among Latino professionals. We must become aware and challenge the white racial frame. Feagin demonstrates that the current rhetoric of America as a post-racial society is wrong. He states, “this new colorblind rhetoric has just papered over what are still blatantly racist views of Americans of color that have continued in most whites’ framing of this society” (p. 97). This important awareness of racism in America is the first challenge that must be overcome before immigration policy can turn away from its punitive direction.
Secondly, until we can see immigrants as human beings who come here because of crippling poverty, poverty that is so great and unimaginable to most Americans that they resort to doing unthinkable acts just to be here. I recently heard a story of a mother and father who got caught trying to cross into the U.S. illegally and left their four year old daughter with a hotel front desk worker until they could safely get her. Imagine the conditions in Mexico to make parents risk this kind of behavior with their most precious children. A recent report from La Opinion reports that immigrants are also increasingly willing to cut the ends of their fingers off for thousands of dollars in order to not be fingerprinted.
Finally, until we see immigrants as a contribution rather than a cost to America the punitive focus of the immigration debate will not change. There are too many studies which demonstrate that the millions of illegal immigrants who are working in the US are actually providing great services and wealth for small businesses and large corporations. They are contributing not costing America. This economic debate should have been over a long time ago.
Until immigration political rhetoric and policy change from its current punitive position, not only will be continue a racist immigration agenda, endure many humanitarian costs from leaving one’s children vulnerable to cutting ones fingers off to avoid detection, but we will continue on a path bad economic policy as well.
Most sadly, there are too many victims of punitive and misguided immigration policy. And this will not change until we all fight against the white racial frame for immigrants allowing them to express some dignity and humanity while they try to provide for their families in the face of our racialized society today.
Until the 1960s, it was common to see signs in Texas that read: “No Dogs, Negros or Mexicans.” Civil rights legislation put an end to such signs. In the current post-civil rights era, it is no longer legally or morally permissible to express overt discrimination towards Mexicans or any other racial or ethnic group.
(Image Source: Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)
In today’s political context, however, it is acceptable to insist that undocumented migrants – and even their U.S. born children – should not be allowed in this country. In July 2010, Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) proposed a bill that would end the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship for everyone born in the United States. As of today, 130 Senators have indicated they support this bill.
Since the inception of the United States, jus soli – the idea that citizenship is determined by birthplace – has prevailed as the law of the land. The only exceptions to birthright citizenship have been racial. The first piece of U.S. legislation regarding who could be a citizen was passed in 1790, granting citizenship to all whites born in the United States. It was not until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868 that blacks were granted citizenship. The 14th Amendment reads:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States, and of the state wherein they reside.”
The 14th Amendment granted birthright citizenship to blacks and whites born in the United States. However, the Supreme Court had to clarify in United States v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898 that all native-born children of aliens – including the Chinese – were indeed citizens of the United States.
Today’s demands to repeal birthright citizenship do not have the clear racial bias like those of the 19th century, when it was acceptable to make outright claims to exclude Native Americans, blacks, and the Chinese from citizenship. Instead, today’s demands are under the guise of “Let’s not give citizenship to illegals.” Or, “Let’s protect our nation by preventing anchor babies.” The language has changed so that it’s no longer explicitly racial. However, the sentiment is the same.
In 1790, when our founders imagined who would be citizens of the United States, they had propertied white men in mind. Those proponents of ending birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented migrants share this ideal as to who belongs to the nation.
This vitriol can be seen in the comments of Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican state representative from Pennsylvania, who argued:
“We want to bring an end to the illegal alien invasion that is having such a negative impact on our states.”
When Metcalfe and other pundits call for an end to a so-called “illegal alien invasion,” they have a very specific group in mind: Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants. In fact, 95 percent of people who are deported from this country for immigration-related violations are Latinos or Caribbean immigrants.
It is no longer permissible to hang signs that say “No Dogs, Negros, Mexicans.” Birthright citizenship and naturalization are available to all people in the United States, regardless of race. However, the idea that the United States is fundamentally a white nation has not gone away, and seeps into discourses about who is American and who belongs and who doesn’t. Instead of excluding Mexican and Chinese citizens from citizenship, we now hear claims to exclude “illegals” and their children.
The idea of race itself is based on the notion that moral and cultural characteristics are passed on from one generation to the next. Thus, the idea that we should exclude not only undocumented migrants, but also their children, is clearly a racialized argument. It is true that undocumented migrants do not have permission from the government to be here. But, their undocumented status does not define them. Current laws allow many undocumented migrants to eventually become citizens of this country. Calls to eliminate birthright citizenship work to essentialize illegality by making it a permanent feature of undocumented migrants, and something they pass along to their children. In effect, these calls racialize illegality.
Demonizing undocumented migrants for their transgression of immigration laws allows anti-immigrant activists to make racialized claims about who belongs and who does not belong to the nation. It is incumbent upon anti-racist activists to point out this racism and to promote the idea of a multi-ethnic nation – the sort of nation we actually always have been, despite white supremacist claims to the contrary.
Brisenia Flores was a 9-year-old girl murdered in Arizona by anti-immigrant vigilantes, yet her death – unlike that of the 9-year old killed last week in Arizona – is getting almost no attention in the U.S. mainstream media.
According to reports by the UK press, Brisenia Flores was gunned down at point-blank range in her own home in Flores, Arizona, as her terrified mother Gina Gonzalez, who had also been hit, played dead on the floor.
Shawna Forde, the head of the Minutemen American Defence group, is on trial accused of two charges of first degree murder. Her trial is underway in Arizona now. Forde and her co-conspirator Bush — who reportedly has ties to the white supremacist Aryan Nation — broke into the home of 29-year-old Raul Flores, Brisenia’s dad, on May 30, 2009. This was just six weeks after Forde’s issued a call for a political revolt. As related this week at Forde’s trial:
According to testimony, Bush shot Flores, then Gonzalez. Gonzalez was hit in the shoulder and leg and slumped to the floor. She testified that she played dead as she heard Bush pump more bullets into her husband as Brisenia woke up.
“Why did you shoot my dad?” the girl asked, sobbing, according to Gonzalez’s testimony. “Why did you shoot my mom?”
Gonzalez said she heard Bush slowly reload his gun and that he then ignored Brisenia’s pleas and fired.
It’s hard to comprehend such an act of violence, especially one involving a child. Certainly, the links to anti-immigrant politics and rhetoric seem to be much clearer in this case than in the more recent shooting, but this story is receiving virtually no attention from mainstream media. In part, this is the white racial frame at play, drawing our attention to white victims and obscuring from view the lives of people of color.