America is in turmoil on the issue of immigration. Some describe it as the new ‘civil rights’ issue. Laws are being introduced across the country to mark out people who are to be excluded. These laws impact particularly on people of Latino heritage, both migrant and not.
Ordinary activities such as driving a car, going to school, picking someone up from the roadside: have all been regulated or criminalised to drive migrants out. Walls have been built to prevent people crossing the border. The border region between the United States and Mexico has been militarised.
Across America there are 370 prisons where immigrants are detained and processed for expulsion. Almost one and a half million people were deported from the United States between 2003 and 2008. From 1900 to 1990 average annual deporations were 20000. From 1990 to 1995 the average increased to 40000. The numbers now being deported per annum are ten times larger.
Detention and deportation have become a machine working like never before in American history to remove the unwanted.
The aim is to drive out more than 11 million undocumented migrants. If those pursuing anti-immigrant measures succeed in their aims, it will be an ethnic cleansing like the world has rarely seen. Around 91% of those deported are from Latin America. Just less than 70% from Mexico alone.
You would think with figures like these, that those ‘concerned’ about immigration would celebrate their ‘success’. But the opposite is the case. In state after state political figures are introducing laws to facilitate even more expulsions and to mark out those who are to be removed. They lament the ‘failure’ of the Federal government to solve the ‘problem’. The laws they have sought or have introduced include provisions such as requiring local and state officials to check immigration status, revoking drivers licenses, requiring parents of children enrolling in school to declare the immigration status, making it a crime to knowingly rent accommodation to an undocumented migrant, making it a crime to give an undocument migrant a lift, expelling undocumented migrants from colleges.
On 15 June 2011, when the Texas Senate passed its own similar legislation, one of the Senators asked 7 of his Latino colleagues, elected Senators, to stand up. “This Bill will force them to prove their citizenship (if pulled over for a traffic violation)… This is a sad day.” Another Senator, Leticia Van de Putte, said the Bill broke her heart.
“Today we are going to pass legislation that would treat my children differently, because I have children with blue eyes and sandy hair and they look like their Belgium ancestors. And I have sons with proud brown skin and eyes and hair and they look Mexican-American.” … “And if we’re passing legislation that treats brothers so very differently, how can that be right?”
But America is a place of contradiction. The same country that produced the first modern national human rights statements (the U.S. Declaration of Independence) – we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – is also the country where, in some states, for almost a century human beings were property – and it was one place where racism powerfully took root. Eventually the promise of the Declaration, denied for so long, could not be surpressed any longer.
The immigration issue may be another such turning point in American history. Either we will see a retreat into an extreme and exclusionary form of American identity, a form that has come to prominence at various points in its history, or there will be another breakthrough: like the breakthrough that ended slavery or that which brought to an end racial segregation. The debate around that future is already being played out.
The legislation we are seeing now in part seeks to stop a movement to include the undocumented within American life. About 50 cities and localities across America adopted policies and regulations to include undocumented migrants as de facto citizens of the city. In effect these places recognized the reality of the people who made up their community and said ‘It’s OK’. Those communities were trying to live out the ideal of equality and brotherhood.
What is happening in America raises an interesting question. Why should such questions not be decided at the community level? Why should people far away in a state or federal capital decide who can live in a city – who should be part of the community?