The idea of America

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Staking claim: Immigrants protesting in Washington D.C. recently. Photo: AFP
Staking claim: Immigrants protesting in Washington D.C. recently. Photo: AFP


Why is immigration such a hot issue in a country that prides itself on being a nation of immigrants? At stake is America's cultural and racial conception of itself.

The border between Mexico and the U.S. has always been porous enough to permit the development of cross-border intimacies of many kinds.

IS immigration the new civil rights issue of the United States? That is the question in many people's minds as massive marches and rallies focusing on the rights of immigrants erupt all over the U.S. On April 10, declared a national day of action by the organisers, 5,00,000 people marched in Washington D.C. On May 1, hundreds of thousands of immigrants all over the U.S. kept away from work, school and shopping to demonstrate their economic clout. More recently, President Bush has gone on television to address the country on this issue. Hardly a week goes by without some action somewhere or the other. Immigration seems to have become the political issue of the day in the country, hotter even than the Iraq war, though popular discontent over this misadventure too is hopping hot, especially for President Bush. On April 10, marchers in Atlanta carried signs reading, "We Have a Dream, Too," echoing Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech from the 1960s. King's famous speech spoke of a dream of winning equal rights for African-Americans. Like King's speech, the new immigrant rights movement too is laying claim to equal rights to America, and like that speech, it expresses different things to different people. To some it is about the dream of equality and of dignity as human beings. To others it is simply the dream of making it - of buying a house in the suburbs with a well-tended lawn, of sending children to college, or perhaps even of just eating well. For those ranged against this new movement, however, immigration is no dream. It is a nightmare, captured by the words "illegal immigration". In this nightmare, immigrants, pouring across the borders without a visa or overstaying their permits, break the law. Plain and simple.

Complex issue

Unfortunately, reality is not plain and it's not simple. It's not a dream and it's not a nightmare. There are an estimated 11 to 12 million immigrants without documents in the U.S. More often than not, these immigrants have broken no law other than immigration laws, and are in fact in great demand in the fields of California, the restaurant kitchens of New York, and the meat packing factories of the Midwest. Large sectors of the American economy would grind to an abrupt halt without the cheap labour of these immigrants. This is why powerful business as well as labour interests are to be found on the side of the immigrant rights movement. Immigration is a difficult issue for the U.S. On the one hand, it prides itself on being "a nation of immigrants". Except for the indigenous people of the continent, every American has come from elsewhere or is the descendant of people who have come from elsewhere. A Nation of Immigrants is the title of a book President John F. Kennedy wrote to fuel reforms to immigration legislation in the 1960s. Those reforms, mostly undertaken by Kennedy's successor Lyndon B. Johnson, changed laws that excluded or disproportionately restricted immigrants from many parts of the world and led to a period of massive immigration. Many of these new immigrants came from parts of the world formerly not so well represented amongst immigrants to the U.S., such as India. The reforms were seen as continuing a grand tradition of American settlement of an "empty" continent (never mind the Native Americans and other indigenous people displaced by this settlement). So much for the U.S. as a welcoming haven for immigrants. Who would deny that there is some truth to it? On the other hand, it continues to be a largely white, monolingual country. The new immigrants who have entered in the last 30 years, come largely from Africa, Asia, and, above all, Latin America, challenging America's cultural and racial conception of itself. Are racism and linguistic chauvinism ("Why don't all those Mexicans learn English?" some ask) behind the opposition to immigration? Whites will soon be a minority in California, the most populous State in the Union. For some time now, Miami has been the cultural capital of the Spanish-speaking world. For many monolingual white Americans, joined sometimes by African-Americans, these developments are anxiety producing.More than any other ethnic group, Mexicans are at the heart of these anxieties. Because the U.S. shares such a long border with Mexico, more Mexicans than any other ethnic group cross into the U.S. without proper documents. Some come seasonally to work in the fields of the Southwest. Others, even without proper documents, have now lived in the U.S. for years, sometimes decades. Their children have often been born in the U.S., so that they are now the parents of U.S. citizens. They come out of economic need, mainly from the economically devastated towns and villages of Northern Mexico.

Complicated history

They also come because the history along this border is complicated. Before the U.S. annexed them in the 19th century, California and Texas were part of Mexico. That was a long time ago, but memory too is long, and the border between Mexico and the U.S. has always been porous enough to permit the development of cross-border intimacies of many kinds - economic, social, cultural and political. This is what explains the fact that Bush, a staunch conservative on so many issues, is actually more moderate than many in his party in wanting to provide avenues for undocumented immigrants to become documented and come above ground. He is from Texas, a State that shares a long border with Mexico, and no doubt has an opportunistic political eye on its large Mexican American population.But on the other big issue of the hot immigration debate - the issue of controlling the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent crossings - Bush is not moderate at all. On this issue, all politicians in Washington D.C. seem united. No doubt the border with Mexico will be increasingly fenced and patrolled in days to come. This seems a foregone conclusion, though the prospect scares many ordinary Americans, for it would be a mistake to think such militarisation would be without dire consequences for many who live along the border, on both sides. Men with guns, pumped up on interdiction, can do wild things. The division of opinion amongst the political elite in Washington D.C., then, is more on the issue of undocumented immigrants already within the U.S. On this issue immigrants may have real clout. The millions turning out for marches and rallies demonstrate numbers. These immigrants have economic might - their indispensable cheap labour is a powerful weapon - and even political might. Many of them can't themselves vote, but their children and relatives and friends and employers can. It will not be so easy for politicians to ignore the claims of these people, document-less though some of them may be.

Forcing a debate

The numbers the immigrant rights movement has demonstrated has surprised many and forced a national debate that raises foundational questions for the country. Ultimately the debate is about the country's very character. What kind of a country is the U.S.? Is it a country looking out into the world, expansive and tolerant in its view of itself? Or is it inward looking and anxious and jealous? Behind the hot action and hotter rhetoric, the choice between these two worldviews is at issue. In its time, the old civil rights movement - the movement of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X - held a mirror up to the U.S. and exposed its fallibilities to itself. The new civil rights movement may be doing the same.S. Shankar is a novelist and cultural critic. His latest book is the novel, No End to the Journey.



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