Sunday, March 11, 2012

Alabama, “illegals”, and hate: We must take back the narrative

The state of Alabama has outdone Arizona with an anti-immigrant law that is even more anti-human in its degrading approach to and impact on people who are immigrants, visitors, and native Americans with Spanish surnames or who “look” Hispanic. H.B. 56, documents Allen Perkins, MD, Chair of Family Medicine at the University of South Alabama in Mobile in his blog, Training Family Doctors, “…requires schools to check and report the immigration status of their students. It instructs police to demand proof of immigration status from anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally (if stopped for another reason), even on a routine traffic stop or roadblock. It also invalidates any contract knowingly entered into with an illegal alien, including routine agreements such as a rent contract, and makes it a felony for an unauthorized immigrant to enter into a contract with a government entity.”

 He also notes that “…there were some really hateful provisions written in but enjoined as non-enforceable at this time (but liable to be enforced in the future): ‘It is a crime to harbor or transport unauthorized immigrants; unauthorized immigrants cannot enroll in or attend public universities; it is  a crime for unauthorized immigrants to apply for, solicit, or perform work; it requires that schools check and report on the legal status of their students and their students’ parents; and lastly, it is a crime to be without status in the United States.’” In a later blog entry, he describes specific incidents of harassment by regular people (e.g., store clerks) of – regular people, even American-born, because of their ethnicity. In other words, H.B. 56 has given folks in Alabama a license to be racist, which many in the state feel is particularly shameful given its history of slavery, Jim Crow, and opposition to civil rights.

Dr. Perkins worked to get the 2013 national conference of the Family Medicine Chairs’ organization, the Association of Departments of Family Medicine (ADFM) to Mobile, which he considers a diverse and vibrant city that was also in need of some economic boost, particularly given the recent hurricanes and more recent oil spills that have ravaged its shores. The agreement for the conference was all signed when H.B. 56 became law, and many members of the organization protested. This included Latino chairs, who felt that, in addition to opposition to the law, they might well be in personal danger. The conference will be moved, at considerable expense to the organization – and to the city of Mobile. Dr. Perkins includes in his blog a political cartoon (reproduced here) from the Mobile Press-Register, which also had a strong editorial about it.

The Alabama law does not stand in isolation, nor do Alabama and Arizona together. Both laws were, as it turns out, largely written by an ambitious attorney and law professor from the University of Missouri-Kansas City who now is serving as Secretary of State for Kansas, Kris Kobach. Kobach’s work is only one of the most recent chapters in a 30-40 year effort funded by incredibly wealthy right-wingers such as the Koch brothers of Wichita, Richard Scaife, and others, to rewrite American values. They have used the vehicles of conservative “think tanks”, talk radio and TV outlets such as Fox, funding individual organizations, and paying for lots of messaging (including the Super-PACs now thriving in this election season thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate funding of political advertisements, one of the greatest “victories” of this effort) to create a narrative that, while essentially false, is widely believed by many Americans.

The development, implementation, and impact of this narrative as regards immigrants was the topic of discussion by Oscar Chacon, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), who gave the Matthew Freeman Memorial Lecture on Social Justice at Roosevelt University in Chicago on March 8, 2012. Our history in the US includes immigrants of all national backgrounds being vilified, persecuted, and demeaned (see, as just one instance, my discussion of some of the events surrounding the Boston police strike of 1919 described in Dennis Lehane’s novel “The Given Day”, Immigration and the US: Happy New Year, December 30, 2010). African-Americans, brought here as captives, along with our only non-immigrants, American Indians, have occupied a special places of discrimination and oppression. Nonetheless, during and after World War II we began to see ourselves as a “nation of immigrants”, symbolized by the beckoning torch of the Statue of Liberty, and its inscribed sonnet "New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus. We realized that the US had grown strong by this continuing infusion of the boldest (they emigrated, right?) from other nations prospering in this land of opportunity (the continuing oppression of African Americans and American Indians notwithstanding).

Mr. Chacon noted that, in 1970, immigrants of Latin American origin (which term he prefers to “Latino” or “Hispanic”, words not used outside of the US) were a minority of immigrants, and Mexicans a minority of those. The perception of Latinos in popular culture was generally positive, represented by handsome, suave, and debonair actors such as Cesar Romero and Ricardo Montalban and the character of Ricky Ricardo portrayed by Desi Arnaz. (Of course, many of those without accents, such as Anthony Quinn, Raquel Welch, and Martin Sheen felt the need to change their names, a practice also common among many minority performers such as Jews and Italians.) Since that time, immigrants from Latin American have become the majority (over 50%, but still less than 60%) of immigrants to the US, with Mexicans becoming the majority of those (over 30% of the total). The narrative that has been purposely developed over this period has served to redefine them as less than human, swarms coming to our shores who would all be here if they could, who are all Mexicans (Chacon, who is from El Salvador, is often asked what part of Mexico that is in!)

The narrative has created the term “illegals” to refer to people, when in fact only things or acts, not people can be illegal. People can do illegal things, including entering the US without official permission, or stealing, or committing assault, or driving over the speed limit and running red lights, but they do not become illegal people. This type of narrative serves to dehumanize them and thus makes it easier to oppress them. It has long been a common strategy adopted by the powerful to convince a portion of the powerless (say, Euro-Americans) to side with the rulers against other powerless people. It was very successfully done with Africans to make it acceptable for them to be slaves, and it has been a very conscious strategy to change the perception of immigrants of Latin American origin.

This narrative, pushed by right-wing ideologues, led to the passage of “IRA-IRA”, the “Illegal immigration and immigrant responsibility act” of 1996 – before 9/11 and under Democratic President Bill Clinton. In addition, major funders of the demonization have been the for-profit prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America, that make huge amounts of money, paid for by US taxpayers at rates several hundred percent higher than their costs, to “house” arrested “illegals”. Latinos are arrested for “being illegal” but they also commit crimes and are imprisoned; their time served is, on average, less than that for African-Americans or even whites not because their sentences are shorter, but because they are regularly deported.

Has this narrative been successful? Read the news. Read this quotation from an article in the NY Times Magazine about an undocumented student (a young man who journeyed “…from cleaning windshields at stoplights and sleeping under a bridge in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula to attending the sixth-largest university in the United States,”) who ran (and lost) for student body president at Texas A&M University: “…[a] professor, discussing the growth of Hispanics in Texas, said the state could have a Hispanic governor in the future. A number of students in the class hissed.” Note that the professor was not talking about an undocumented immigrant, or even an immigrant, just someone of Hispanic ethnicity.

This well-funded narrative is not limited to immigration of course. It has been largely successful in changing the words and terms of discussion in reproductive rights, women’s rights, and the entire vocabulary of liberal-conservative. And of course they have major impact on people’s health; after all, should we provide health care services to “illegals”? There is of course opposition to all these mythologies, and that opposition is growing. It is not as well-funded by the incredibly wealthy -- who are the real beneficiaries of suspicion and animosity among the 99+% -- but the Occupy Movement was and is real.

Alabama doesn’t need politicians passing laws that validate a new form of racism as it still struggles to move forward from its Jim Crow past. Nor does Arizona. Nor does Kansas, or Oklahoma, or any other part of the US, or the US as a whole. We must take back the dialogue, take back the words, and make the values of diversity and inclusion the ones that America and the American people represent.

1 comment:

Adam F. said...

I notice that while you use the term "undocumented immigrant" to refer to the student in the NYT article, they (the NYT) use "illegal immigrant." So goes the narrative.

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