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Fences and Xenophobes

Participants of a recent poll conducted on the issue of illegal immigrants in America wanted "tougher enforcement" of the law to keep them out. But the unprecedented gathering and marches of immigrants and their supporters across the country show unequivocally that there exist competing interests on the issue.

Letter from America

innumerable other countries from which they have, albeit in smaller numbers,

Fences and Xenophobes

arrived or been smuggled into the US? Should all undocumented workers be

Participants of a recent poll conducted on the issue of illegalimmigrants in America wanted “tougher enforcement” of the lawto keep them out. But the unprecedented gathering and marchesof immigrants and their supporters across the country showunequivocally that there exist competing interests on the issue.


mong the many characterisationsof America that have prevailedover a long period of time, onethat is unlikely to be contested is of America as the quintessential land of immigrants.Every ethnic group, barring the native Americans who were decimated by conquest, disease, and outright extermination,has arrived in America from somewhere else, often from distant shores. The earliest to arrive were white Europeans, especiallyAnglo-Saxons, and the African slaves inwhom they began to trade; and for verylong a number of fictions were perpetuated, notably the idea that true-bloodAmericans were somehow white Americans, and that America was built on their labour. As Roland Barthes might havesaid, white Americans live in the realm of ex-nomination: they do not have tobe named, much less, unlike Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, or Italian-Americans, hyphenated. Identitypolitics is for everyone else, not for them;they do not have to prove their entitlementto America, it is merely theirs to professand parade. Whatever the limitations of minority histories, they have at least admirably succeeded in establishing the factthat the labour of Africans, Chinese, and Mexicans, among many others, contributed immeasurably to the prosperity ofAmerica. White America, moreover, is shrinking: in California, a state which is critical to the US economy as it is to theshape of immigration reform, Latinosaccount for a third of the state’s 36 million people, and they are projected to be thelargest group by 2020. Even though thepercentage of American-born Hispanics and Asians has grown rapidly, and theimmigrant population of 11.5 per cent hasnot reached the peak of 15 per cent from1900-2010, immigration continues to bethe defining force in American society.A widespread debate on immigration, being conducted in the US Congress, schools, churches, community organisations, labour unions, and various media outlets is now roiling America, and manyAmericans are encountering, for the firsttime in over a generation, mass politics and the power of street theatre. Nearly every20 years, some major immigration reformis put into place. In 1924, the entry of Asians into the US was prohibited; in 1942,the Bracero agreement, which lasted until1964, was brokered between the Mexican and American governments, and 4.5 million Mexicans were brought into the USas temporary agricultural workers. Themost sweeping reforms took place in 1965,when the Immigration and NationalityServices (INS) Act, which in its essence still governs American immigration policy,once again made it possible for Asians,including Indians, to emigrate to the USand introduced a quota for each countryas well as preferential categories for classesof immigrants. The 1986 INS Act introduced an amnesty for illegal aliens; however, if it was intended to stem the tide of illegal immigrants, the legislation appears not to have succeeded. The‘bipartisan’ Pew Hispanic Centre todayestimates that there are 11 to 12 million illegal, or undocumented, immigrants inthe US, or 5 per cent of the Americanworkforce. Nearly a quarter of the American workforce in farming and agriculture is comprised of undocumentedworkers, who also occupy 17, 14 and 12 per cent of the workforce in cleaning,construction, and food preparationindustries, respectively.

What, then, it is being asked, is to bedone with these illegal immigrants? Shouldthey be apprehended, fined, and then allowed to stay, and if so, in what capacity?If they are to be permitted to stay aspermanent residents, who in due coursemight apply for citizenship, would it bean encouragement to others to risk illegalentry into the US? Or should they be repatriated to Mexico, Guatemala, andEl Salvador, and indeed even to the treated the same, as violators of the law, or are some, who have established social networks and inserted themselves into the fabric of neighbourhoods and communities,be entitled to special consideration? Would the legalisation of illegal immigrants constitute a diminishment of the regal sovereignty of law itself, or would it constitutean acknowledgement that law must bemalleable to yet higher ends? On the onehand, American immigration law remains firmly committed to the idea of familyreunification; on the other hand, the deportation of illegals, many of whom havefamily members who are now citizens orlawful residents of the US, would certainlytear apart many families.

Operational Control of Borders

American lawmakers started weighingin on the question of immigration whenthe House of Representatives in December 2005 passed a bill (HR 4437), introduced by James Sensenbrenner (Republican, Wisconsin), that would make it afelony to enter the US illegally, and would even make it a felony to offer anyassistance, such as food, clothing, shelter,medical assistance, and schooling, to anillegal immigrant. Known as the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and IllegalImmigration Control Act of 2005”, its veryname suggests what it shares in commonwith the various xenophobic measures,beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Actof 1882, that have marred the legal history of American immigration. The act calls forreinforced fencing along portions of theUS-Mexico border and systematic surveillance so that the US can take “operationalcontrol” of the entire “land and maritime border” of the country.1 In the present era of nations-state, the inviolability and sacredness of borders is all but taken for granted, and this legislation might appearto be quite unexceptionable. However, itis remarkable that in nearly four years,since the events of 9/11, border enforcement agents have not caught any terroristsillegally sneaking into the US, and it is nowcommonplace knowledge that virtuallyanyone who is now languishing in anAmerican jail or overseas detention facility on charges of terrorism, entered the US legally.

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

What many American legislators wouldlike to do, though they scarcely have the daring to state as much, is to “secure” theborders from all those who are viewed as critical of “the American way of life”,American foreign policy, the nationalsecurity-state, or what Samuel Huntington, another jewel in Harvard’s crown of authoritarian didacts, has described as America’s “core culture” bequeathed bythe 17th and 18th century settlers who “founded our nation.” “It was, after all”, Huntington writes unabashedly, “Anglo-Protestant culture, values, institutions, and the opportunities they created that attractedmore immigrants to America than to all therest of the world”.2 Hispanics or Latinoscannot, in Huntington’s view, be assimilated into this “core culture”. His argumentsuggests, of course, that by ‘border’ a great deal more is meant than the physical linesthat demarcate America from its neighboursand the rest of the world, and that though borders, especially outside the US, shouldnot be allowed to impede the flow of goodsor American multinational corporations, the desire of people to move without restrictions should never be accorded a status even remotely close to political reality.One of the Sensenbrenner Act’s most vociferous supporters, Representative TomTancredo, doubtless finding a hospitable venue for the expression of his sentimentson the “O’Reilly Factor”, an immenselypopular television show that takes us intothe pulse of Republican America, said:“We are seeing an invasion on our borders.It’s not immoral to secure our own borders”. His colleague and fellow traveller, DanaRohrabacher (Republican, California), whois dismissive of the immigrants whoselabour sustains California’s immense agricultural output, underscored the politicalnexus of jails (which constitute another kind of fencing, transforming a significantportion of the American population intooutsiders in their own nation) and borderswhen he said, “Let the prisoners pick thefruits. We can do it without bringing inmillions of foreigners” (New York Times, March 31, 2006, p A12). Once terrorists,illegal immigrants, and other transgressors, including those dissenters who havenot been intimidated into self-censorship,are all viewed as part of a continuum, thedescent into extreme authoritarianism may not be far away.

Compromise Legislation

American lawmakers represent oneperspective on the immigration debate,and the recent compromise legislation of April 6, which remains stalled in the Senate,suggests that there are some apparently genuine differences between legislators.Derided by conservatives as a blanket amnesty for illegals, this legislation creates a guest-worker programme that wouldallow 3,25,000 workers into the countryevery year; undocumented workers who have been in the US for less than two yearswould be deported, while those who have lived in the US for two to five years wouldapply for a visa at a border crossing, andwould eventually, over the course of several years, be able to file papers for permanent residency and, after an interval ofanother five years, citizenship. This compromise legislation, it has been argued,reflects more accurately the feeling of theAmerican people. Perhaps nowhere amongmodern democratic systems do polls meanas much as they do in the US, and the mostrecent polls appear to reveal the popular sentiments captured alike in legislationand in a recent New York Times headline: “Illegal Immigrants Are Called Burden”(April 14, 2006, p A16). Nearly allAmericans polled subscribed to the viewthat “tougher enforcement” was required to keep out illegal immigrants, though 63per cent expressed their approval for aguest worker programme that would allowundocumented workers to work in the US legally on temporary visas. A similarnumber of people, 75 per cent, stated both that the government was not doing enoughto deter illegal immigration into the country, and that illegal immigrants who hadbeen in the US for at least five years, andhad demonstrably met other conditions –a spoken knowledge of English, lack of a criminal record, and the payment of finesand taxes – should be given legal status.

If polls are the voice of the muchvaunted American “public”, the unprecedented gatherings of immigrants and theirsupporters suggest unequivocally that there are many publics, representing competinginterests, in the American republic. A fewmillion people, largely immigrants, tookto the streets across American cities in March to voice their anger at the Sensenbrenner legislation which would have criminalised all undocumented workers. At least half a million gathered in LosAngeles on March 25, and 3,00,000 inChicago two weeks earlier. Some politicians considered it an affront to the law of the land that illegal immigrants had openly massed together in public placesand demanded rights; but all politicians,however shrill their anti-immigrant rhetoric, are alive to the fact that Hispanicsconstitute an increasingly significant electoral block. Not since the civil rights era has such street politics been witnessed inAmerica, and anti-war demonstrations in 1991 and 2003 alike have been pale in comparison. Not less impressively, 40,000high school students, nearly all Hispanics, walked out of schools in an uncommon display of political awareness, reminiscentof the massive protests organised by theMexican American Youth Organisation in1968 that eventually led to the removal ofthe ban on the speaking of Spanish in schools (Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2006, p A1).

Whatever the differences between legislators, and however divided the American public might appear to be, an overwhelming consensus informs the so-called debate on immigration. Many supposedliberals, such as the economist and columnist Paul Krugman, have felt compelled toadmit to the “uncomfortable facts about immigration” usually trumpeted by conservatives and call for more high-skilled immigration and substantially reduced lowskilled immigration (New York Times, March 27, p A23 and March 31, p A21).Nowhere in the press has the very distinction between “legal” and “illegal” beenquestioned at all. So long as European immigrants flooded America, everythingwas hunky-dory; but once they began toarrive from less “desirable” lands, the category of “illegal” was quick to follow.

Those people whose ancestors cheatednative Americans of their land, when they had not simply exterminated them, shouldscarcely be in the position of determiningwho might enter the US and under whatcircumstances. Meanwhile, the “illegalimmigrants” who have come out in hugenumbers on American streets have performed an unusual and exemplary servicewhich demands recognition from the entire country. At a time when the US isengaged, with very little opposition fromthe citizens of this enormously affluentcountry, in wars of occupation, operating illegal detention centres, and subjecting itsown citizens to surveillance, the “illegalimmigrants” have shown that politicalprotest is not completely moribund. Inhaving exercised the ultimate right ofcitizenship, they have shown that they are more deserving to be called citizens thanthose who would like to arrogate thisprivilege only to themselves.




1 For complete text, see

immlawpolicy/CIR/cir002.htm#Title_III 2 See his article, ‘One Nation, Out of Many’, One

America (September 2004), online at: http://

article_detail.asp. The arguments are elaborated

in Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s

National Identity (Simon and Schuster 2004).

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

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