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No Human is Illegal: Not a Tough Concept

I'm encouraged to see so many fans of progressive, pluralistic society recently rally together against the presidential administration's recent Muslim ban. The executive order is blatantly unconstitutional, and as such it is reasonable that federal judges have moved quickly to strike it down (It turns out it is impossible to legally implement an unconstitutional order, but this hasn't stopped the Court from doing so in the past). However, it's important for people who are protesting the ban to realize that we've had bans similar to this in place dating back to the original Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted citizenship only to white Christian men. Citizenship in this country has never been free from discrimination. Having a national policy that discriminates against and abuses non-citizens is nothing new.

The notion of coming to this country with "proper documentation" or residing here legally was largely an unknown concept until the 1960s. Citizenship and the idea of being a documented, legal resident in our country is a social construct, just like race. Indeed, the two concepts are intricately linked, both in our laws that set quotas differently for Europeans and Canadians versus the countries where brown folks hail, and in the de facto way that discrimination plays out in our law and border enforcement institutions. But just as we must recognize why and for what the concept of race was constructed, so too must we examine the construction of "documentation." Why is it that a human being who, purely by chance, was born within the borders of the US should receive preferential treatment (privileged status) compared to someone who was born a mile on the wrong side of our country's southern border? The reasons for this might seem intuitive at first glance, but so too is the idea that some people are clearly black while some people are clearly white. 

What it comes down to is whether or not we, as Americans, actually believe that all people are created equal. When it comes to the treatment of white people versus people of color, our country's pronouncements of equality do not square with the outcomes in our society, in myriad demonstrable ways. The notion of all people being created equal is restricted to the sphere of Whiteness, and outside of its conceptual borders things get "complicated" and Americans start talking of inferior cultures. As if culture exists beyond the actions of the people who comprise it. As if the culture of non-white Americans is somehow distinct from "American culture" as a whole. Such is the power of Whiteness: it can claim the definition of American for itself. For those who are not white, they must either conform to the strictures of white culture to gain partial, conditional status within white spaces, or be rendered unAmerican (see discussions of "real America" on the political trail, which never includes West Baltimore or Ferguson, MO).

Once such a lie is internalized by the citizens of a country it is just a short logical hop, skip and a jump to make it "intuitive" that any non-white person from outside of our borders should also be rendered unAmerican, which is to say less than fully human, even as they reside and work here. The large gap in the valuation of white people and people of color that orders our society within our nation's borders unsurprisingly extends on the other side of those invisible map lines. When a white child goes missing within our borders, we see her face staring back at us from the newspaper and television screen. But when the brown child dies of thirst and exposure just inside our border...well, if she had the misfortune of being born too far south of where she lay, we never know her name, nor do we, as a nation, particularly care. 

In the past week we suddenly cared when the people affected by our construction of documentation were college students, medical interns, professors and potential employees of Yahoo. But the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free find only vitriol and hatred here if they originate from the wrong country and especially from the wrong class. Once admitted, they work the "jobs that Americans won't" simply because they lack the human rights that Americans have and thus have no recourse when abused. And herein we find the for what of the construction of documentation. 

Just as race was constructed to justify and perpetuate the exploited labor of people of African descent, documentation has been constructed (and re-constructed) to exploit the labor of people---brown , non-Christian people---who were unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong place and traveled here under the impression that our country is a place based on freedom for all, rather than freedom for a select caste. Only the constructed group known as "Americans" have access to the law to protect them from the worst forms of labor exploitation (as degraded and anemic as those laws have become after four decades of assault from the Republican party). All other humans can be used to drive up profit margins by working long hours for minimal wages in inhumane conditions (plus sexual abuse for migrant women). If they don't like it, the threats of incarceration and deportation hang just above their heads.

Also, just as the utility of anti-Black racism morphed from free labor via slavery, to free labor via convict leasing, to today's massive corporate profit for the prison-industrial complex via mass incarceration, immigration laws have led to huge corporate profit from border surveillance, the militarization of border patrol agencies, and the construction and maintenance of detention facilities. Discrimination against immigrants doesn't proceed with white supremacy as its end goal, just as slavery didn't aim for the elevation of white America. The end product of slavery was cotton and profit; the end product of constructing "illegal people" is cotton t-shirts, cheap poultry and massive quarterly profits for private prison corporations. In both cases white supremacy simply helped explain why such human exploitation should be so widespread in the "land of the free." The utility of a repressed class also highlights why it's so difficult to change immigration policies to match our nation's professed ideals. There's far too much at stake financially for the people who have access to the levers of power in our country to behave otherwise.

Image from Southern Poverty Law Center
Of course, migrant workers and immigrants also face interpersonal oppression from those born within our border. After all, systemic racism provides sanction for interpersonal racism, as well as a entire toolkit of racial habits, stereotypes and learned prejudices. Just as the destitution of African slaves was twisted around as evidence of their inferiority, the oppression of the undocumented is evidence that they are lesser, and that their presence corrupts Americanism and threatens white workers, a.k.a. "American workers" (I find it ironic that it's the political right who most frequently engage in political correctness by couching their racist messaging in euphemisms and double-speak).

Suddenly it is not the actions of our country's wealthy elite and their direct line of influence over our governmental policies that has led to ever weaker rights for workers nationwide, and disastrous roller-coaster-ride cycles of bubbles and recessions. Rather, it is the fault of those damn immigrants who "stole our jobs" stateside, and foreigners to which "our jobs" were outsourced (as if foreign workers had any say in where Ford or GM build factories). This is why meaningless discussions of "immigration reform" have taken center stage over talk of corporate and financial regulation. This is why talk of rounding up millions of brown "illegal people" is a surefire way to get a politician elected, while none of the architects of the 2008 Great Depression or any of our myriad disastrous wars of choice have been held accountable for their reckless lawlessness. The undocumented make for convenient scapegoats for the failures of America's corporate leaders, and politicians have long taken advantage of this feature of our racist society to mobilize voters in a way that few other issues can.

Social constructs like race and documented status are not built on a whim and adopted widely by Americans arbitrarily. Like a bridge they are constructed to get from point A to point B, and people use them because they are effective. They help with the acquisition of power by an elite few while distracting the masses. The privilege bestowed upon "legal people" within our social caste system---our herrenvolk democracy---is the hush money that allows the plundering of the 99% to continue unopposed. The reason the masses buy into the scheme is that, deep down, whether implicitly or explicitly, they believe that race is real, because they've never been taught otherwise in any meaningful way. This is no small thing. This amounts to mass delusion with disastrous consequences on the lives of billions of human beings. 

I'm convinced that once a people believe a lie so immense as the existence and centrality of their whiteness they'll believe most anything. They'll believe that a failed business man who has made a fortune solely on his fame and image can somehow lead a country to prosperity because he is an "outsider." They'll believe that Muslim-ness is directly linked to violence, and that people can be "illegal aliens." They'll believe that refugees fleeing wars in regions of the world in which our nation has long meddled and supported dictatorial regimes somehow pose a threat to our national identity, just by their mere presence. That existential fear, as irrational as it is, is a strong, old and well-practiced dark art that has led to where we are today. 

With the ascent of this newest presidential administration, white nationalism has now moved from the margins of society to a new position of central prominence. As you become moved to action to protect those who are being actively discriminated against by the White House, we should not pat ourselves on the back so hard that it becomes difficult to focus on the page of the history books in front of us. An examination of our nation's past clearly reveals that this latest, blatantly racist executive order is nothing new, but rather an extreme manifestation of the long con known as America. Its just that in this case the con man ineptly tipped his hand. It'll be carried out more deftly in the future.

Recommended reading:
A Government of White Nationalism is Upon Us by Jamelle Bouie (Article)
Why Immigration is a Feminist Issue by Patricia Valoy (Essay)

Recommended Viewing:
Harvest of Empire (Youtube)


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