04 January 2011

Immigration Debates: What and Why?

As more and more immigrants enter the United States, legally and illegally, and create lives and communities and families, the debate over their citizenship status rages in courtrooms and on the political grandstand. Arizona's recent immigration law, signed in April, makes residing in Arizona without citizenship or immigration documents a crime and granting police the power to detain and question suspect undocumented immigrants. This law has drawn harsh criticism from a variety of sources and has been challenged as unconstitutional because it supplants federal law - not to mention the fact that it opens the door to unfair profiling, police harassment, and outright racism.

The DREAM Act, which would have granted citizenship to immigrants who meet certain requirements, failed to pass in December. Under the Act, children who entered the country before age 16, demonstrated "good character" (no jail time, no suspensions, satisfactory school performance, etc), and went to college or served in the military would be granted conditional legal status. Roundly denounced as "amnesty," its failure to pass was both a heavy blow to its supporters and President Obama but was widely hailed as a victory by the Republican party.

Others are challenging "ethnic studies" classes in public schools. Arizona, again at the forefront, threatens to withdraw funding from schools that teach "ethnic studies" classes on the basis that they encourage treason and ethnic identity that supersedes American identity. Additionally, teachers with heavy accents are no longer allowed to teach English classes, and bilingual teachers who taught in both Spanish and English are now only allowed to teach in English. It is worth noting that Arizona, like many other states, encouraged bilingual education in the 1990s as the Latino/Hispanic population of the US surged. Proponents of the legislation maintain that it is simply a measure to ensure that schools don't encourage ethnic exceptionalism; opponents are fighting it on First Amendment grounds.

Some of the recent rhetoric surrounding undocumented immigration now surrounds issues that should have women rallying in support. The birthright clause, a part of the 14th Amendment  which grants citizenship to a child born on US soil, is now being challenged by Arizonian lawmakers. They scathingly criticize women  who cross the border to give birth in the United States, dropping "anchor babies" that give them a tenuous foothold. Contrary to popular belief, "anchor babies" do not make their parents automatic citizens; parents can still be deported and often are. Once they reach age 21, children born in the US can sponsor their parents for citizenship. Many want to remove the birthright clause and deport children born in the United States along with their parents. However, many women cross the border legally, with visas and permits, to take advantage of better medical care in the US or to be with family when their child is born.

Some patterns that emerge throughout these debates are some implicit fears about identity, citizenship, Americanity, and even human rights. According to Arizona, ethnic identity can and does supersede American identity, despite the fact that many people exist with a "hypenated American" status quite comfortably. I do not feel that my Asian heritage makes me less of an American citizen; I have lived here all my life, spoken American English, studied in American schools and paid American taxes. However, also according to Arizona, I could be arrested and detained for failing to carry my citizenship papers with me at all times - regardless of the fact that they were issued in my infancy and are no longer relevant to my political status. Americanity is fluid and has been since the creation of this country. We are no longer a frightened group of Anglos huddled together on a rock on the East Coast, fighting for survival against a natural world infinitely more powerful than anything we can imagine. We are intimately and inextricably tied to other cultures, histories, religions, and beliefs, and to ignore that fact in the name of "patriotism" is dangerous.

The "anchor baby" attack is interesting in a dangerous way because it targets specifically the women who carry these babies. In a way, those who want to remove the birthright clause are denying women the security of a safe childbirth, criminalizing pregnancy and the act of giving birth and reducing it to a scheme for citizenship and the presumed handouts that come with it. Why will people not understand that more American citizens mean more taxpayers and thus more income? Why do they see these desperate, frightened men and women and children as a threat to their livelihoods? And why don't they acknowledge the fact that people come to this country illegally in search of work that is readily available in American homes, farms, factories, and fields?

People have always sought to define and redefine American identity. It is no longer limited to white, upper-class males; now we include women, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and poor people. Has America suffered as a result? I believe not. What has suffered is the idea that Americans are somehow mystically superior to the rest of the world and that only one group of people can make meaningful contributions to a healthy, developing society. We cannot forget this, and thus descend into the kind of fear and ignorance that characterized witch hunts, Jim Crow laws, Chinese Exclusion Act, and Japanese internment camps. Human rights don't stop at the border, and Arizona cannot be the loudest voice for American intolerance when so many others are willing to open their hearts and minds where they are not.

1 comment:

  1. Great essay! American intolerance should lie in being intolerant of intolerance.