The War on Immigrants

By Tram Nguyen Nov 08, 2007

Daisy’s post yesterday made me think about the war on terror and the national security state in relation to the immigration debate. All too often, I think we still have one conversation over here about "post-9/11 issues" and another one over there about "immigration reform." In one box, you can expect to hear about domestic spying, torture and rendition, military tribunals, and secret detention. The other box is about legalization, guest workers, anti-immigrant ordinances and raids. But what are the connections between these two boxes? Even though I’ve tended not to use the term because it seemed rhetorical, Daisy’s post made me remember why "war on immigrants" may in fact be the more accurate way to describe the situation. I recently was asked to give a speech to the Oral History Association, in which I tried to elaborate on the connections further: “Transforming Communities Through Oral History” Stories of Immigrants and the War on Terror “I believe that we are living in a time that history will judge thoroughly and harshly… The hallmark of post September 11 America is a country governed by politicians who seek unchecked power to pursue their global ‘war on terror’ and who express a chilling disregard for human rights and the rule of law in that pursuit.” —This is what Constitutional scholar and legal advocate Barbara Olshansky says in her new book Democracy Detained: Secret Unconstitutional Practices in the U.S. War on Terror. I wanted to start with that quote, because I think we’re at a point now where it’s not only important but also more possible to look back and reflect on what happened in the months and years after September 11, 2001 – the significance of this era of homeland security and the current national security state we still live under. It’s more possible because we have the public record, the information, the stories and the knowledge to connect the dots. “To see the continuum,” as one organizer put it to me. It’s more possible, I think, because the painful contradictions and injustices of our immigration slash national security system have kept expanding, kept affecting many more people. And it is getting harder to be able to look away as neighbors get arrested and communities get raided, and as millions of American families face the realities of “mixed-legal status” and the specter of separation through deportation. It’s possible, and it’s necessary to understand and spread word about “the continuum” of human rights abuses, civil liberties violations, evisceration of due process, mass profiling and detention, and brutal ongoing raids – because the historical record is so important, and so frequently disrespected by those in power. Especially by this administration that loves to call on history to justify its warmaking. That’s why it’s even more important to get the record right, and to insist on a record. Because, as Robby Rodriguez, who heads the Southwest Organizing Project in New Mexico, said, “We’ve got a country that never takes any responsibility for anything. It forgets its role and makes everybody else forget what happened, too. And that it is not just dangerous for the victim, but also for the perpetrator.” When I embarked on work for my book “We Are All Suspects Now,” with reporting beginning shortly after the September 11 attacks and research continuing over the course of the following two years, it was a rushed and frantic project – but that was pretty much the reality of what was happening for a lot of folks throughout that period… hearing about one crisis after another, putting out one fire after another. I often looked back in the immediate aftermath of finishing the book and felt dissatisfied. Did I get it right? Did I get everything that needed to be in there? Of course not. What I see now is that I was working with the community activists, the legal advocates, the families and detainees themselves in a joint effort to capture the first-hand accounts, the words and portraits of some of the people and communities that directly experienced the post-911 period and had the most to lose. Let me just read a bit from the introduction of the book, which explains what it was essentially about: “It is not meant to be a comprehensive study of immigration or national security, but rather a look at some of the ways recent immigration history, racial politics, and post-9/11 policies collide in the domestic war on terror. The book consists of a series of personal stories and community profiles, focusing on several regions around the country that have experienced key aspects of the post-9/11 changes. It is about a middle-aged father who labored for low wages and lived anonymously in New York until his death in secret detention. About a young couple in love who escaped their warring country, fleeing to refugee camps and reuniting in Minnesota only to be separated again by a new turn of events. An eager new American in Chicago, who proved his loyalty to his adopted country in a way that he would later regret, and a hapless cabdriver who was gambling away the earnings meant to support his family when he stumbled into a national registration program that ended any chance of redeeming himself. About a former schoolteacher who took up the call for patriotism and “vigilance” in the war on terror by patrolling the Arizona desert. And a family of six who left the United States for Canada, only to find that asylum has become a casualty of a war without borders.” These were just stories. I also had some facts and figures in there too, but for the most part they were what journalists call “anecdotes” in their articles. I collected them in a variety of circumstances—sometimes in rushed and limited jailhouse interviews where I couldn’t take notes until afterward; sometimes in repeated visits to people’s homes, over restaurant meals, long distance calls, walking up and down neighborhood streets in Brooklyn and Minneapolis and Nogales, in lawyers’ offices and local newspaper offices. They were stories that relied on a detainee’s memory of what he saw and heard, as for instance the description of Passaic County Jail in New Jersey after the secret roundups following 9/11. They relied on family accounts of their journeys, their personal histories and backgrounds that had brought them here. I also used corroborating documents, like human rights reports, community organizers’ reflections on their work, newspaper accounts, and the like. But when I look at the book now, I think the contribution is really more in putting down the words, the voices of people commenting on their experiences. In a small way, I think it is about providing a “hidden transcript” as some historians have called it—a parallel record that shows the forms of survival, resistance and everyday humanity as people navigate their lives under oppression. I think that is still necessary and relevant as ever, when you have an “official transcript” that continues to paint ethnic communities, immigrant communities with a broad brush. As recently as this month, when New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer sought to pass a bill granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, a furor erupted in the legislature over the danger that as one politician said, “Osama bin Laden could get a driver’s license in New York state.” You know, I really don’t understand the logic of this fear. If a terrorist is here, you’d think we’d have a lot more to worry about than whether he’s driving with a license or not. But the fact is, the fear of terrorism—people’s actual fears and the rhetoric surrounding it—remains an important factor that shapes our collective ability to have informed debate and common-sense, compassionate policymaking. Polls show that 72 percent of New Yorkers oppose this plan to give undocumented immigrants licenses, even when it is overwhelmingly a fact of life that millions of immigrants are here and driving. And it’s not just the fear of terrorism that is a major force shaping our current debate on immigration and national security. Racism is an undeniable factor in this debate, which has been one of the most hate-filled in recent memory. Characterized by vigilante activity, more than 800 hate groups rallying under the banner of opposition to immigration, and more than 100 local ordinances allowing things like the punishment of landlords for renting to undocumented residents. In many ways, it’s a tough and ugly climate out there, that’s only gotten worse since the collapse of the attempts at national immigration reform this year. Here’s part of a testimony from a Latino advocate in Birmingham, Alabama, that was collected by the New America Media consortium of ethnic press. He says: “There are local ordinances allowing databases on tenants, tracking how many people live in an apartment complex, their social security numbers, etc. At the same time, we’ve seen Alabama militia arrested because they were hoarding weapons and planning to attack Latinos. A radio host on 1070 AM was telling people in his shows before the May 1 vigils that what we can do to undocumented persons is to go and shoot all of them…In the city of Hoover, when they put people in jail they check their background, and they have the authority to do that. And the state patrol has been trained to enforce federal law. More and more people get arrested for something, a DUI, or running a red light, and when they are in jail they refer them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” So this gives a snapshot of the current environment for immigrants. On the one hand, it’s an environment of undeniable fear and discouragement. I remember listening to a panel recently, where a young undocumented Latino man from San Jose talked about his relief at the end of every day when he and his mom both make it home for the night — another day where the migra did not descend out of nowhere and turn their lives upside down. The fear and vulnerability that immigrants face are very real, but at the same time there are also examples of incredible boldness and courage. Such as Elvira Arellano who was the first person to take sanctuary, for nearly a year in Chicago, and has since been deported and separated from her young son who is a U.S. citizen. In the face of powerful interests and institutions, Elvira showed that ordinary people have only what they have always had: faith in what they know is right and love for their families. It’s a humble thing; it doesn’t sound like much. But at the same time – it means everything. Here’s what she told me a year ago from inside her sanctuary: “Because many people with hatred have come to confront me—the Minutemen and the anti-immigration women—I had to trust that God would protect me. And that is why I feel strong because I know that I am not alone. And I know God won’t abandon me. And I know that God is not embarrassed when one speaks for truth, for what is just.” When the book came out, I went on a nine-city tour to talk about it in public forums, townhalls, radio shows, and the like. After the tour, I continued to do some public speaking, mostly at universities. During my low points, I sometimes wondered whether it was really worth it, all this talking. Nothing had really changed. Especially when you looked at the trends in immigration enforcement just getting more punishing, more inhumane and damaging to people’s lives. And the cynicism and failure at the congressional level to wheel and deal the way to “comprehensive reform.” But these days I’ve begun to think about the role of talk, of dialogue differently. Barbara Holmes, who is a black feminist theologian doing some very interesting theorizing about quantum science and social justice, said that “The importance of public discourse about difficult social issues cannot be overemphasized. Public dialogue infuses an issue with energy.” All I have to do is look at rightwing radio, at Lou Dobbs on CNN, and at the small but virulent and organized anti-immigrant voices who helped derail immigration reform that the majority of Americans, in poll after poll, said they supported… All I have to do is look at that to see the truth of her words. Which points me toward what I think is one of the most fundamentally important next steps for immigrants, their allies and people of good will who are concerned about these issues. We have to raise the level of the debate. We have the responsibility to reclaim public dialogue that became infused with intolerance, racism and fearmongering. Public discourse that in turn helped infuse this incredibly huge, complicated and critical matter of immigration reform with an energy of hatefulness and a politics of meanspiritedness rather than humanity. We must do what we can to protect the vulnerable—to overturn these anti-immigrant ordinances and prevent their spread, to protest raids and detentions and provide the legal services and know your rights education and building the support that communities need. But in addition to that, I think it’s important for immigrants to build up our confidence and identity and solidarity in the collective conviction that migration is not a shameful or criminal act. Not even a choice for many, but a difficult and painful outcome of free trade policies untethered from labor rights and of corporate-driven globalization. I remember asking Bobby Khan, a Pakistani immigrant in Midwood, Brooklyn who started the Coney Island Avenue Project to locate and help detainees, what lay ahead for his community. He was silent a long time before he said: “We need to realize we have a right to be here too.” That is a radical assertion to make for individuals who have no legal status or shaky status given the ever-shifting nature of the enforcement laws, who are powerless, often poor and working class, and basically without rights. And as Elvira Arellano found out, any public defiance brings a torrent of outrage and attacks against the temerity of these so-called lawbreakers to even expect any rights. Yet what Bobby said is illuminating. “We need to realize we have a right to be here too.” It takes risk and sacrifice to refuse the terms of the present conditions, and to take action for a change. To do that, we have to first build greater collective awareness of injustice, and collective belief in our right to be here, even to make things better. Which brings me back to the role of stories. I’ll end with a quote by bell hooks: “Oppressed people resist by identifying themselves as subjects, by defining their reality, shaping their new identity, naming their history, telling their story.”