Occupy America


Current immigration debates seem framed by amnesia and willful ignorance. Many citizens conveniently forget the immigrant roots evident in their very names and adopt an anti-immigration, “nativist” stance. Missing in the discussion are the experienced and knowledgeable voices of the vilified people referred to by the dehumanizing and xenophobic term “illegal aliens.”

If those voices figured into the dialogue, people would be aware that legal migration to the U.S. has become so slow, scary, fraught and expensive that for many “illegals” it would be literally impossible.

American embassies and consulates all over the world display an offensive paranoia that tends to treat non-Americans as criminals. Sometimes they even treat their own citizens as criminals, like when I went to the American embassy in Switzerland and couldn’t enter with my shoulder bag. And the Swiss woman I was with was bluntly denied entry, bag or no bag.

It is revealing that this took place in the wealthy, European country of Switzerland. It isn’t hard to imagine how embassies and consulates treat people in Bamako, Guayaquil, or Bangkok.

Many Americans forget the shifting nature of legality, as if it’s something set in stone.  Have we forgotten that, for instance, it was once illegal for women and African-Americans to vote, or illegal for anyone to buy and sell alcohol? Some of yesterday’s illegalities, by the stroke of a pen, are today’s legalities, often increasing freedom for the betterment of American culture and society.

Likewise, yesterday’s “illegals” are tomorrow’s citizens. And if the response is “my ancestors came legally through Ellis Island,” I say: they did so because they could, because it was legal then, and how wonderful.

Remember Ellis Island was later shuttered, lying in ruins for most of my childhood before tellingly becoming a museum. It’s now a nostalgic testament to a time when immigrants could actually be legal — a strange institution for a culture now more invested in deportation centers.  

In other words, the only reason “illegals” are illegal is because we as a nation have decided to make them so. We have decided to create a semi-invisible underclass of people working for less than “minimum” wage, who are an easy target for scapegoating.

It’s unoriginal, since immigrant bashing is a recurring American tradition, but it still provides great cover for the inherent racism underlying much of the immigration rhetoric.  There are scores of “illegals” from Eastern and Western Europe but they don’t seem to cause concern, nor are they subjected to the harassment of the cruel new laws in Arizona and Alabama. It is Latinos who are targeted, both legal and not.  
Native Americans sadly and shamefully make up less than 1 percent of the current U.S. population. This tiny minority, often marginalized on reservations, is the only group that ever had the right to a nativist attitude. The majority of Latinos also have indigenous Native American ancestry; it was European immigration and colonialism that presented the Western Hemisphere with its first “aliens.”

Undocumented workers (a much better term than “illegal aliens”) give much more to the U.S. than they receive. They do all the work Americans won’t. They are consumers as much as the next clothes-wearing, hungry human and their labor pays for our cheap food, among other things. Many even pay taxes and social security (though they’re ineligible to receive benefits). Contrary to stereotypes, they subsidize the U.S. economy by practically donating their time and energy. And the thanks they get is ever-increasing scorn and harassment. 

Meanwhile, vigorous brainscrubbing continues to convince people that the reason they’re broke has nothing to do with financial deregulation, union busting, globalized outsourcing, bank bailouts or tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy; nothing to do with the costs of waging a permanent war against “terror.”  No, it’s really those overworked and underpaid “illegal aliens” crammed into tiny apartments with no heat in the Bronx and Queens, and weary farm workers in Arizona and Alabama. Yeah, that makes sense.  

This is the one country in the world that is almost entirely made up of immigrants. Yet willful ignorance and amnesia prevent knowing and remembering important points in the most audacious way.  For example, maybe during these debates that center on our neighbor to the south, it would be worth knowing (or remembering) about all the states that were actually part of Mexico, until 1848 when the U.S. seized them by means of war: California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Colorado and Arizona itself, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.  Even war, apparently, can be made legal.