The Power of Nomenclature

Willacy County Processing Center

Driving north on Highway 77 from the Rio Grande Valley, one passes through the town of Ramondville. Its motto is “City with a Smile,” but just to the east of the highway is visible the nation’s largest immigrant detention center. For this town of 10,000 people, the 2,000 detained immigrants would constitute 1/5 of their population and currently provides many jobs for their economy. This Willacy County Processing Center extends for miles – miles of barbed wire twisted against the horizon, miles of fences, miles of spotlights and long prison warehouses.

Currently, the United States has eight Service Processing Centers, offering no other service but that of detaining people who prayed the American dream was real. The U.S. also uses seven other contract detention facilities. These centers are a large part of the $1 billion budget of ICE, a large portion of the detention of some 27,500 immigrants each year. (http://www.bordc.org/threats/detention.php)

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These 27,500 extralegal residents are seen as not having any inherent rights. There can be no justice when one party has no rights; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Because of nomenclature, though, these Americalmosts are detained anywhere from a month to several years with little hope of political or judicial recourse.

The game of nomenclature has been around for centuries. During the long fight for civil rights, African-Americans had to overcome names such as “slave” and “stock” in order to demand equal rights; the same fight continues today with the “N” word. In terms of immigration, nomenclature has always been used by nativists as a means of keeping new immigrants voiceless and without rights. When the first Chinese immigrants came to these United States, they were met by the Naturalization Act of 1870 which naturalized only “white persons and persons of African descent” and left them as Asians and their brother Latinos without rights or hope of change for almost eight decades (Coming to America p.271). Throughout the years, people have used the rhetoric of sojourner to mean someone uninterested in assimilating but rather intent on sending all their money to their home country (a fact that is born more out of restrictive immigration policies than a desire to “milk” this country’s resources). The concept of guest worker has officially been around in the U.S. since the Bracero Programs of the 1950s, and since that time guest workers have been granted scant rights because they are seen as diametrically different than permanent citizens. Refugees and asylum seekers now account for a large portion of the annual immigration outside of the quota system; these immigrant hopefuls are taken on a case-by-case basis because our immigration laws have not been substantively overhauled since Kennedy. Even now, Somalis wait for years in Kenyan refugee camps, patiently waiting until their refugee card is called.

The idea of nomenclature granting or denying rights has a long, sad history in these United States. Now, the rhetoric has shifted to aliens, undesirables, and illegals. None of these names connote the human they seek to identify. With well over 12 million extralegal residents, we are terrifyingly complacent with the idea of so many living within our borders without basic human rights. Admittedly, a system which creates 12 million lawbreakers (and millions more who aid them) is a broken system. The United States must re-imagine its immigration laws so as not to ignore this pocket of people greater than the population of New York City. We must honestly confront our failed quota system and draft new immigration laws which behoove both our nation and those seeking to become citizens.

Until that day, every citizen of these United States is living with inflated rights. This past year our housing market plummeted because the sub-prime mortgage market was drastically inflated. What will happen when we and the rest of the world realize that our democratic rights are inflated as well, that they only apply to some of us, that some Americans are “more equal than others?”

Ellis Island is the symbol of immigration in the United States. Up until 1932, it was truly an “island of hope,” ushering in 12 million new citizens to America. After 1932, though, this island’s open hand of welcome became a closed fist as it morphed into a detention center and an “island of tears.” During WWII, it was even briefly used as an internment center for enemy aliens (Coming to America p.273). It is high time the United States sought to change the image of Ellis Island once more. By allowing every resident within our borders an honest chance at receiving rights through the all-powerful and elusive nomenclature of citizen (call it earned amnesty or gradual naturalization), Ellis Island can once again welcome the globalizing world to our shores.

Raymondville Detention Center

 

 

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3 Responses to “The Power of Nomenclature”

  1. kielfharell Says:

    One of my former students told me last year that his mother was held in the above pictured detention center for several months before being deported back to Mexico. He told me that they went to the detention center several times while she was there to bring her money ($40 each visit), but she never received any of it. He told me that they brought her the money because the detainees are forced to purchase soap, calling cards, and other personal items from an overpriced company store.

  2. mpw160 Says:

    Wow Kiel. These are the types of stories which get covered up and whisked away. This is the reason that nonviolence, not simply “not-violence,” needs to be applied to the issue of immigration. For too long it has happened discreetly, covertly; the violence has been real, but never in the public eye. The beauty of nonviolence is that it reopens conversation and brings these kinds of atrocities to life in a way that is inescapable. In the civil rights movement, it took the nonviolence of voter registrations and sit-ins and bus boycotts to force the darkness of violence into the daylight – it did not last when scrutinized socially, politically, morally, or spiritually.

    “You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” (1 Thessalonians 5:5-8 NIV)

  3. Chris Says:

    Hi–

    I really like your blog. It is nice to see some reasoned commentary on immigration, immigrant detention, the border fence, etc.

    We are publishing an article about immigrant detention in an upcoming issue of our magazine. We are looking for some good photos of detention facilities to go along with the article (I found your site by searching for “Willacy County State Jail” in google images).

    We would love to use the two images that go with this post. Would that be possible? Can you email me at sturr –at– dollarsandsense . org to let me know?

    Best,

    Chris

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