Democracy or Authoritarianism: What are we becoming?



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.

Dreaming of Justice: Undocumented Students and Punitive Immigration Policy



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.

No Dogs or Illegals Allowed: Racial Exclusion in a Colorblind Era

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: The Little Girl That You Haven’t Heard About

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.