On Illegal People…and Forgetful Ones: Reflections on Race, Nation and Immigration

The excitement would have been palpable. Such a long journey, alone, and now it was nearly over. He was almost there, just a few yards from entering his new country, the United States. His heart, by now, would have almost certainly been pounding in anticipation of what lay ahead: a new life of opportunity for he and the family he would send for just as soon as he found work and saved a little money. Soon, the miseries that had marked their existence back home would be but faded memories.

Just a few more feet now.

A few more seconds.

But it was not to be. Not this time.

Not for Jacob, whose real last name is still a mystery even to his descendants, like me, his great-grandson. Was it Shuckleman? Shuckman? Shankman, Schickman? Something like that, certainly not Wise, that much we know. Well, it doesn’t matter really. Not to this story. What matters is simply this: as Jacob and his several hundred shipmates cruised into the harbor in New York, they were about to learn a lesson about the arbitrary and capricious ways of even those who proclaim their nation a land of fresh starts and opportunity.

For as it turns out, Jacob’s boat arrived just a few days after the death of William McKinley, the nation’s 25th President, who had been shot eight days earlier by Leon Czolgosz, the son of Eastern European immigrants. Indeed, immigrants from that exact same part of Eastern Europe from which Jacob hailed. Caught up in a momentary wave of hyper-bigotry against those of his regional heritage, Jacob and the rest would be turned around at the port of entry, denied the right to disembark, and sent back. Back to Russia. Back across the water, whence they came. One can easily imagine that as the weeks ticked by, during the agonizingly slow return to the home he thought he had left for good, Jacob must have wondered if he would ever again get the chance to make right on his promises to his wife and children.

As it turns out he would, but it would take six more long years. Six years until he could once again save up the money for the journey that had been previously aborted thanks to the prejudicial whims of those who felt themselves superior, and fit to exclude, to illegalize if only for the time being, those who merely resembled, or sounded like, or were from the same part of the world as Jacob.

And that, as much as anything, provides the most important answer to the question that is so ubiquitous in the midst of the current immigration debate.

You know the question. It sounds like this, voiced in the mouths of folks who wish so badly to stem the flow of those they call illegal aliens:

“What part of illegal do you not understand?”

As it turns out, I understand every part of it. I understand it all too well. Its meaning is inscribed on the cell memory of my ancestral line, burned into our familial DNA. For it is the label that was, for a while, placed upon my great grandfather. Not because of anything he had done, but merely because he had been born in a place that, in the eyes of those filled with hatred, rendered him suspect. After all, McKinley was killed by an anarchist whose parents were from modern-day Belarus, and so naturally, it made sense to treat a boat full of Minskers as though they were criminals. Just like today, the killing of a rancher near the border, supposedly at the hands of a Mexican drug smuggler, means that Arizona must crack down on other Mexicans, or anyone who might be a Mexican, in the country without permission.

What I understand is that racists are not very original. The targets change, but the game remains the same: it is forever and always about stopping the dangerous and “polluting” other. It is about the dominant group telling some group with less power that they are not as good, not as clean, not as moral, not as wanted, not as human in some way. It is about oppressing others in the name of protecting the self, failing to realize in what can only be considered one of the saddest spectacles of modern history, that in the end, the oppressor neither fully cows their target nor obtains the security they sought. Indeed they undermine it, along with any remaining pretensions to the national greatness that made the so-called “other” want to join them in the first place. The degree to which it is ironic is only exceeded by that to which it is pathetic.

And yes, I know, the voices that clamor for securing the borders insist they are not racists. But they are liars. There is no other word for them. They are liars. They said the same thing no doubt, or some version of it a hundred years ago. Even as they were using bogus intelligence tests to “prove” that Jews and Italians were intellectually inferior to real white people. There was no bigotry. It was just that certain people were less assimilable, don’t you see? Yes I see. I see very clearly thank you.

Arizona’s new law–which requires law enforcement officials to ascertain the legal status of anyone they think may be undocumented, so long as they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person might be in the country illegally–will almost surely lead to racial and ethnic profiling, no matter claims to the contrary. Indeed, there is virtually no way to envision the law being enforced other than by resort to such discriminatory actions. When asked to explain what an illegal immigrant looks like, the state’s Governor admitted she didn’t know, but she was confident that others in her state knew, and would enforce the law fairly. That’s reassuring. Especially when literally all the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the state (and elsewhere) focuses on Latinos, especially Mexicans, who we are being told are to blame for a massive spike in crime rates along the border. Although the facts say otherwise–indeed crime has dropped dramatically in border towns over the last decade, and all evidence suggests that immigrant crime rates are far below the rates for native-born USAmericans–conservatives, having long ago abandoned such trivialities as research and intellectual integrity continue to push the lie forward.

Fact is, reasonable suspicion means whatever police say it means. You can make most anything seem reasonable. So, for instance, if an officer sees Latinos speaking Spanish in a public place, or hanging out, perhaps speaking to someone in their parked vehicle, they might presume the person to be a day laborer looking for employment. Under the law, cracking down on such work is to be especially prioritized, so there is every reason to believe that such indicators of suspicion would lead to widespread harassment of persons whose only real crime was being Spanish-speaking, brown-skinned and, from all appearances, working class in terms of clothing. Behavior that before SB 1070 would have been no cause for a search will now be considered reasonable, and will cause profiling to be deployed against Latinos, the vast majority of whom are there legally, and even citizens. Honestly now, does anyone really believe that white folks from European nations, speaking with accents, are going to be questioned under this law?

The truth is, this bill, and almost all anti-immigrant hysteria is about race, no matter how loudly and unconvincingly those persons pushing the agenda forward try and deny it. In the case of SB 1070, its chief sponsor is an overt racist who consorts rather openly with Nazis. And the group that is taking credit for getting the law passed was founded by a man who regularly inveighs against Latinos as inferiors, insists that America must remain a mostly white nation in order to survive, and has been associated with white supremacists for more than three decades.

The idea that conservatives merely want to crack down on those who enter the nation without proper documentation–i.e., they only want to stop illegal as opposed to legal immigration–is demonstrably dishonest. After all, if it were merely a matter of process (as in, “we don’t mind if you come, but do it the right way, legally”), there would be an easy solution: just make coming to the nation legally as easy as filling out a postcard, mailing it in, waiting three days for a background check, and then you’re legal. Voila, no more undocumented crossings. But no one ever suggests this solution, indicating that the problem, in their mind, is less about the distinction between documented and undocumented migrants, and more about the mere fact of brown-skinned migration in the first place.

They simply don’t want those people. They never have. They have always and forever deemed themselves capable of discerning who the better people were and who the lesser, and knew of course that they were of the former group.

That so many now embrace this kind of thinking, perhaps even some of those who once upon a time were deemed every bit as criminal and undesirable as persons coming from Mexico or Central America are today, is a chilling testament. And not merely testament to how racism works, but how memory itself can let us down, how forgetfulness has been elevated to the level of a national political sacrament, and how the promises of liberty and equality are hollow, lest we renew our commitment to them in each new generation.

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