To begin, I would like to thank the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and specifically Dr. David Mussatt, from the Midwestern Regional Office, for hosting this event. I would also like to thank all of you in attendance here this morning in order to engage in a thoughtful discourse about promoting humane alternatives for comprehensive immigration reform as well as the direction this country should take as we move forward into our collective global future.
Still relatively new to academia, I’m quickly learning the importance of making academic disclaimers, especially as they apply to one’s professional discipline. So it is important that I begin by saying that, though this event is being hosted at the Law School on the campus where I am proud to work, I am not here to speak as a legal expert, my background is not in immigration law or Constitutional history, my field is English, specifically rhetoric and the translation of 1920s American literature originally written in Spanish by Latino immigrants.
This being noted, I’m grateful to my distinguished colleague from the ACLU for explaining the constitutional and legal problems with bills like Arizona’s SB 1070 and Michigan’s newly proposed HB 6256.
Nevertheless, with a 24-hour, 7 day-a-week media machine spreading a constant oil spill drone of misinformation regarding the clear benefits of immigration to this nation, it may actually be useful to have a literary scholar do a little unpacking of the rhetoric surrounding this issue.
So let me begin with a rhetorical question: Are we really ready to sacrifice, as a casualty in this next battle in an exhausting and counterproductive cultural war, the fundamental rights and liberties which have made our Constitution a model for democracies around the world?
There has got to be a better way to address the challenges that all free nations are facing as they attempt to adjust to a new global reality, than this kind of divisive and mean-spirited ideological agenda.
These bills do not make sense legally or constitutionally, which is why Janet Nepolitano originally vetoed the Arizona bill before becoming Secretary of Homeland Security.
Of course, one of the only significant changes made to the bill which was originally vetoed was the addition of language saying that there would be no racial profiling. But this is simply an issue of rhetoric and semantics—word play. For we all know that just because one says there are weapons of mass destruction, doesn’t mean they actually exist. And just because one says there won’t be any racial profiling, doesn’t mean that there won’t be in daily practice.
So, if this whole guise is not really about the enforcing of federal law, which seems to be fairly clear from a constitutional standpoint, what is this legislative agenda really all about?
And I say a legislative agenda because it’s helpful to see the whole context in which the passage of this bill took place.
Shortly after passing SB 1070, Arizona also passed HB 2281, banning the majority of Arizona school-aged children from studying their own heritage at school, when it eliminated ethnic studies from K-12 education. A bill Governor Napolitano had also originally vetoed.
At the same time, the Texas state school board applied their version of revisionist history to the text books used in their state, denying the historical fact that Spanish-speaking Tejanos fought in the Alamo against the Mexican Army as well as rewriting the history of the slave trade, calling it “Atlantic trianglular trade.”
A short time after these measures were approved, officials at Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott, Arizona, were compelled by members of the City Council to whiten the skin tone of a child depicted in a mural on the school’s wall, because those City Council members didn’t believe that a “black child” accurately reflected their school district. The child in question was intended to be of Mexican descent, representing the majority of the children in the school district, but City Council refused to relent, or even acknowledge the difference between the two ethnic groups.
Finally, Arizona legislators are now actively pursuing the repeal of birthright citizenship in their state, another direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, a measure now being explored in Texas as well.
So if all of this is really not about enforcing the law, what is about? Clearly it’s about race, perpetuating racial discrimination and the next battle in a hate-filled American cultural war.
According to even conservative estimates, by 2050, Latinos will constitute the single largest ethnic group in the United States, and there will be no ethnic majority. Despite this newest episode of 1930s-style repatriation, as well as these new efforts to radically alter our Constitution, little can be done to change these demographic trends.
So why is this a problem?
This is a problem for some because Latinos fundamentally trouble or disrupt three prevailing national myths and social constructs:
The artificial social construct of race itself: Latinos, as an ethnic group, are white, are black, are yellow, and are predominately red. This is why in the 2010 Census, one of the first questions is whether or not you are Latino. And what kind of Latino are you? Or, aren’t you?
Latinos bring to the fore the limitations of the concept of race as a way of defining humanity, while still underscoring cultural and ethnic differences. Of course, race has been a fundamental concept, used to determine the rights and privileges some citizens would receive in this country, since the original framing of the Constitution and its classification of certain ethnic groups as but 3/5 human.
In the same way, another national meta-narrative challenged by the growing Latino population is that “we are all immigrants to this country,” often followed by the claim, “but my forefathers came here legally.” The probable inaccuracy of the last portion notwithstanding, like African-Americans, many Latinos are “involuntary immigrants,” especially those living in the American Southwest, which until 1848 was still a part of Mexico, a fact so disturbing that it had to censored from Texas history books, lest Mexican-American children learn that their ancestors were actually from the land where they are living.
So what replaced these historical erasures? A new emphasis on the theory of American Exceptionalism, yet another national myth, which asserts that the United States is like no other country in the world. Imagining, perhaps, that immigrants only come to the United States, and other countries do not struggle with the same challenges of globalism.
This Texas-sized understanding of American Exceptionalism has led the country to act on its own, rushing unilaterally to war, without even feeling a need to consult the rest of the global community. It ignores that when China’s economic indicators are good, our stock market rises. Or when there is a European credit crisis, we are put in risk of a double-dip recession.
It even ignores that Mexico is one of our most important trading partners and the thirteenth largest economy in the world. Expunging from its media coverage any of the negative effects on our shared gulf ecosystem due to the BP disaster, because the prevailing narrative is that Mexico only creates problems for the U.S. And the U.S. could never create any problems for Mexico.
Which brings me to my second disclaimer:
As researchers, we’re supposed to do our best to be as objective as possible, reaching conclusions based on what the evidence tells us, rather than doctoring or trumping up data to fit our own personal or political agendas. And I have to admit that I am struggling to maintain complete objectivity in the analysis of these bills and the current immigration debate.
I was born and spent my first thirty years of life in a little town known as El Centro, California. I won’t go as far as saying that I could see both Arizona and Mexico from my front porch, but I can tell you that my life was made up of constant travel across these borders, as El Centro; Yuma, Arizona; Los Algodones, Sonora; and, Mexicali, Baja California, essentially form one integrated border community.
It’s a land which native tribes, like the Quechan, Cocopah and Sycuan, have occupied for thousands of years, straddling both sides of the current U.S.-Mexican border. And people continue to move back-and-forth across these borders on a daily basis despite the ever- heightening walls and increased militarization which I have witnessed since my childhood.
In fact, my childhood is full of memories of green border patrol vehicles driving up and down the streets of my neighborhood; memories of neighbors and the parents of my friends rounded up in raids and sweeps, often just before payday, regardless of anyone’s citizenship or legal status. My high school prom isn’t remembered for the tuxedo I rented or the date I took, my high school prom is remembered for what happened when coming back across the border after the celebration, as a number of my classmates in a car behind me were all detained, stripped of their tuxes and prom dresses and body-cavity searched—all on “reasonable suspicion.” Reasonable suspicion of what? No one will ever know, because reasonable suspicion requires no legal justification.
My recollection of home also leads me back to a graveyard, a potter’s field, or akel-dama in Hebrew, which continues to be filled with hundreds of unidentified immigrant bodies: the corpses of children shot dead by border patrol officers because they held BB guns on their shoulders while tending to their flocks, or dared to throw small rocks, from their own side of the border; the bodies of mothers and fathers desperate to find a way to feed their children, now pushed further and further into the heart of the desert by an ever-expanding wall, then left to dehydrate and succumb to the intense desert heat, because members of vigilante hate groups destroy the water basins in the desert sanctuaries, even though they are all equipped with sensors which alert border patrol when people stop to use them.
People are killed on a daily basis on that border. Fresh graves are dug to conceal the shame of a failure of leadership to address one of the most important phenomena of the global age. Everyday there are new casualties in a low-intensity war which has raged on for the better part of two hundred years in one of the most militarized regions in the world.
After living in this region for so long, I must assert that this level of racial violence and hatred is fundamentally irreconcilable with any spiritual belief system based on the ideal of loving thy neighbor. It runs absolutely contrary to any faith which proclaims to cherish the essential dignity of human life. Regardless of one’s political affiliations.
So my question to you is this: Why would anyone voluntarily invite this kind of hostility and violence into our state? Why would anyone be foolish enough to open up this Pandora’s Box in Michigan? Don’t we have enough problems as it is without jumping into a fight two thousand miles away?
This legislation is not only unconstitutional and immoral, but it’s just plain bad for Michigan.
When looking objectively at just pure numbers, one quickly realizes that compared to the rest of the country, Michigan has relatively few unauthorized immigrants. In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center released a comprehensive analysis of unauthorized immigrants in the United States and found that less than 20% of the foreign born people in this state are “unauthorized”—which places us at the lowest tier nationally and well below the national average.
Using those same estimates, one quickly discovers that unauthorized immigrants make up scarcely 1% of the state’s population.
Nationally, roughly half of all individuals with unauthorized immigrant status are due to expired visas: student visas, work visas, etc. The majority of so called “illegal” immigrants in this state are most likely Canadians; college students from around the world studying at U of M, Michigan State and here at Wayne State University; European and Asian auto industry executives and engineers with expired visas.
Essentially a statically insignificant sample of people in Michigan, one half of one percent, are of the type once again being dragged out by the media each night to serve as the scapegoat for the country’s economic woes. Why are our politicians wasting the tax-payers’ money and time on this emotionally-charged, wedge issue when Michigan has so many real problems to address?
Should we read this, then, to be an implicit admission of failure on the part of our state government and their ability to address real issues facing real people in Michigan? Like education? Job creation? Turning around negative population growth? And getting our state’s economy back on track?
Just for argument sake, let’s take a look at the probable effects this political ploy, meant to distract the public from real issues, might have if passed in Michigan:
State, county and city police would now have free-reign to practice the same kind of brutality and exploitation practiced daily by federal agents on the U.S.-Mexican border. The likely targets will be the Arabic, Asian and Latino communities, even though, according to a study conducted by our research center in collaboration with the Center for Urban Studies, found that, in Michigan, almost 80% of all Latinos are U.S. citizens—in Macomb County nearly 90% of them are. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the other 10% are unauthorized, they could be GM engineers at the Tech Center with valid work visas while maintaining the nationality of their country of origin.
Contrary to popular myth and misinformation, in the same study, we found that for every job held by a Latino in the SEMCOG region, through tax revenue and local investment, another job was created for a non-Latino. In an independent study, the Julián Samora Research Institute at Michigan State found that the same trend was true for the state as a whole. So, for each Latino sufficiently bullied and intimated into moving to a more Latino-friendly state, like Illinois, one job will be lost for non-Latinos. Is that what Michigan needs right now? Fewer jobs?
But it goes deeper than that: just like when Arizona refused to recognize the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, the state is once again the target of a national boycott, supported by major cities, like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Arizona has already lost millions of tourism dollars because of its anti-immigrant label, leading to additional layoffs in the tourism industry. Is this what the sponsors of this bill are hoping for in Michigan? Boycotts of Michigan products? Boycotts of Michigan tourism? More and more jobs lost?
But it doesn’t end there: with section 2.7 of HB 6256 subjecting law enforcement to possible lawsuit for not enforcing federal immigration law aggressively enough, what will you do Warren police officers and Macomb County sheriffs, when threatened with lawsuits for not raiding the GM Tech Center, where a “responsible suspicion” exists that at least a few of their foreign born employees may be late on renewing their work visas?
If you do raid the Tech Center, and employees complain, GM, with a national and global presence, will likely relocate those functions to more immigrant-friendly states or countries, like Canada, in order to protect its employees. More jobs lost for Michigan.
If you don’t raid the Tech Center, then you’re hit with endless lawsuits, requiring you to shift scarce public funds to lawyers rather than police officers, leading eventually to more layoffs of policemen and fewer public services. More jobs lost for Michigan? And fewer public services?
For those of you who are still naïve enough to believe that racial profiling would not take place in Michigan with the enactment of this bill, I would like to conclude by demonstrating how racial profiling on the U.S.-Mexican border is a way of daily life back home.
How do I know? My father is white.
Like so many things a child doesn’t understand about his or her parents until older, I never understood why my mother hated to drive. Whether consciously or simply a result of internalized racism, quite simply, my mother doesn’t drive, because we were treated differently with my father behind the wheel.
Whether it was going across the U.S.-Mexican border or the California-Arizona border, we were treated differently when my blued-eyed, rusty blonde-haired father smiled and spoke to law enforcement agents. It was the same at the border check-points north of the border as well, because you can’t travel from El Centro to San Diego or Phoenix without stopping at a U.S. border check point—as children, we couldn’t even go to Disneyland without passing through multiple border check points, without ever leaving the U.S.
During my last visit to see my parents back in California, I told my wife to pack all of our passports, including those of our two children. She asked if I planned to cross the border into Mexico. And when I told her no, she asked why we had to bring all of our passports.
Luckily for us, she did it; because, between the airport and my parents’ house, we were stopped on the freeway by border patrol. My wife has a doctorate from an Ivy League institution. We are both college instructors and administrators. We were driving a brand new rental car, which had no broken lights; our two children were buckled into car seats; and, I was not speeding. But driving while brown in that border region constitutes reasonable suspicion.
Had we not had our American passports, we may have well all been detained. My two year-old daughter and my four year-old son, ripped crying and screaming from their mother’s arms and placed into the custody of Child Protective Services—which is what they do with kids when parents are detained.
The life-long pain and emotional scars inflicted by such a heart-wrenching experience is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, much less on any neighbor that I profess to love.
Is this the kind of border our state legislature envisions for Michigan?
And what do I tell my children if this measure passes in Michigan? How do I explain to my son, who looks remarkably like my red-haired, blue-eyed father, that he doesn’t have to carry his passport to school every day; but, his sister, who looks like me, does, lest she be arrested and taken away from us by any Detroit police officer or Wayne County sheriff under threat of law suit to do just that?
Once again, our nation finds itself at a moral crossroads as it attempts to redefine itself for a global reality:
As a people, will we embrace the Constitution of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Or the Constitution which defined people as 3/5 human? Will we stand will Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Davis? Will we sit with Rosa Parks or sit on our hands under the gaze of Jim Crow? Will we open up the school doors with Thurgood Marshall or continue to blast the water canons of ignorance with George Wallace?
After careful examination of all of the relevant evidence, I have no choice but to conclude that the Michigan legislature would be better served by staying out of fights over federal jurisdictions and focus every second of everyday on fixing the economic issues confronting the state; and, the federal government needs to do its job and take on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible, in order to put a stop to the human rights abuses which already take place on a daily basis; looking at the issue in its historical totality and complexity; recognizing that mankind—since our beginnings in Africa—has always been migratory; in order to find the most humane solution possible which protects the dignity of human life while addressing immigration in a new, accelerated globalized context.