Posts Tagged ‘chinese exclusion act’

The Tragic Use of Words to Criminalize Human Beings

January 29, 2009

Last Friday, the Minnesota Daily ran an article about the Asylum Law Project at the University of Minnesota.  The headline read, “Law Students Help Illegal Immigrants.” While the main thrust of the article was very pro-immigrant and gave voice to numerous groups involved in immigrant advocacy, the inclusion of the term “illegal” somewhat marred its message. After letters of protest from as near as the East and West Bank and as far as California, the Minnesota Daily Editor-in-Chief Vadim Lavrusik published statement explaining the misunderstanding, reiterating the Daily‘s 2006 commitment to use the term “undocumented,” and the editing of the article.

The Associated Press style book currently prefers “illegal immigrant” over “undocumented worker” or “illegal alien.”  While not as bombastic as the latter, “illegal immigrant” still criminalizes people and implies an overgeneralization.  For example, the cases the Asylum Law Project worked on were asylum seekers, who are neither legal nor illegal.  These people declared to the United States government they were seeking asylum from their home country; as a result, they are kept in detention centers until their case is decided.  To dub people like this “illegal” is to hold individuals guilty until proven innocent, a sad digression of American justice.  It is sad that the AP style book still persists in continuing a journalistic tradition that perpetuates such divisive and alienating terminology.

The common use and acceptance of derogatory terms in mass media track the same public discourse that laid the ground for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Called “Coolies” and “Asiatics” for years, accused of depressing wages and bringing subversive politics, decried as failing to integrate and having “anchor babies,” Chinese-Americans were discriminated against for decades preceding this first racially-based immigration legislation.  Chinese immigrants were effectively barred from citizenship until the act was repealed in 1943 with the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act.   As has been the case historically, the ways Chinese immigrants were framed in the media affected the way they were viewed nationally.  Associated Press should be pressured to change their practice of using “illegal immigrant” in articles throughout the United States.  Please write a letter or email to the editors, telling them that no human being is illegal and that we are capable of more civil and exact nomenclature for migrants.

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The Unilateral Contract for Immigrants

October 8, 2008

Nate was sitting in a bar a week after an innocent woman was killed by a repeat offender who had gone untracked for an indefinite amount of time. He was sitting in a bar across from a well-known member of the Justice Department of the State of Minnesota. As a Target Public Relations Executive, he says, the problem was piercingly clear. “Man, you’ve got an inventory-tracking problem.”

As a result of this casual evening encounter, the statewide “Suspense File” of criminals with aliases or uncertain whereabouts has dwindled from well over 30,000 to under a couple hundred. Bringing together township, local, and regional governments under the statute 299C.111, this information is finally being efficiently shared and these precincts are realizing their part in the larger community.  Nate brings up this anecdote as proof of the power of benevolent self-interest. “Self-interest is the only sustainable source of benevolence or volunteering. Your goal must be to broaden people’s sense of self-interest to include those around them, their community, their workplace.”

This idea of community is core to the idea of nonviolence. The philosophy of nonviolence only has credence if, as Dr. King said, “we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” As our communities grow and change, as immigration changes the face of Americans, and as globalization destroys the traditional view of bordered states or bounded communities, this expansive self-interest must cultivate a healthy respect and active work to improve the plight of those near and far.

Nate points out that while politics is the business of solving problems (and so protects itself by never eliminating those problems completely), public policy is the art of dilemma management. Dilemmas, or unsolvable problems, are the realities of life, but it is our duty and responsibility to mitigate the effects of those dilemmas. We will never end poverty, but we can continually work to mitigate the effects of poverty in our Beloved Community.

As Nate preaches an interdisciplinary mode of approaching problems, our nation’s immigration system and its needed reform ring in my mind. Essentially, immigrants have always come to the United States on implied unilateral contracts. Our media and our economy have always lured hard-workers hoping to better themselves and contribute to the American Dream. Since the Alien & Sedition Act of 1798 and the first nation-specific discrimination via the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, our nation has been unjustly enriched on the backs of immigrants. Notwithstanding remittances and return migration, immigrants have always contributed more to our economy than they have taken. Despite what popular bombastic talk-show rhetoric may repeat, immigrant populations traditionally work harder than native residents and will generally integrate as much as they are allowed by that nation’s institutions.

For the more than 12 million extralegal immigrants contributing to America right now, they labor without hope of compensation. Since the failed immigration reform bills in 2006, nothing has been forwarded to offer a path to citizenship for hard-working immigrants who are performing everything we expect of citizens. At what point does an extralegal resident earn the right to an American driver’s license or a Social Security Card? How long must someone work 80 hours a week to provide for their family before they are given the chance to naturalize?

If our great nation were to adopt immigration policies more akin to a unilateral contract, then so many immigrants’ good faith demonstrations of citizenship would finally be awarded with the meager promise of the bottom rung in American society. But at least it would be a starting point, an entry level to all the rights and protections of our Constitution and legal system, something more than 12 million people live without as Americans in all but documentation.

As civilization moves forward and borders get more confused, nationalities become more arbitrary, and human capital becomes even more mobile, the nonviolent concept of benevolent self-interest must begin to inform our policies, laws, and community standards. I hope I live to see the day when there are no undocumented and unprotected workers in the U.S., that everyone here would have some legal status and all would be somewhere on the continuum of achieving full citizenship.

Color in Your Cheeks

June 17, 2008

She came in on the redeye to Dallas-Fort Worth.
all the way from sunny Taipei.
skin the color of a walnut shell,
and a baseball cap holding down her black hair.
and she came here after midnight.
the hot weather made her feel right at home.
come on in, we haven’t slept for weeks.
drink some of this. it’ll put color in your cheeks…

(The Mountain Goats, “Color in Your Cheeks”)

It was my first day in an immigration attorney’s office. Rochester, Minnesota, is a small city of 100,000, and Michael York is one of the only people who practice immigration law exclusively. Although Rochester is small and a non-traditional immigrant center, the population has changed much in the last years because of international workers coming to the Mayo Clinic and to IBM. Other immigrants are refugees sponsored by the Catholic or Lutheran Churches which have a big presence in Olmsted County and throughout the Midwest.

In a matter of one day, I was introduced to immigrants and residents comprising virtually every conceivable situation. Some were applying for marriage licenses, hoping to gain the same citizenship as the woman or man whom they loved. Others were trying to bring their entire family of seven from Durango, Mexico, after having spent the better part of their life working in the United States in order to prepare for this day. Still others were calling the office every day, wondering how the paperwork was coming along for their wife who had been left voluntarily under threat of deportation a year ago. Still others were hoping that, after applying for temporary asylum status every year for more than ten years, they could finally change their citizenship from their war-torn home country which has changed hands some dozen times in the last nineteen years.

…he drove from in from Mexicali, no worse for wear.
money to burn, time to kill.
but five minutes looking in his eyes and we all knew he
was broken pretty bad, so we gave him what we had.
we cleared a space for him to sleep in,
and we let the silence that’s our trademark
make its presence felt.
come on in, we haven’t slept for weeks.
drink some of this. it’ll put color in your cheeks…

(The Mountain Goats, “Color in Your Cheeks”)


Despite the fact it was my first day, I felt I was able to contribute both to the attorney and these clients, these people. I enjoyed speaking Spanish with a Mexican man who has been working here for years and is attempting to get employer-sponsored citizenship. My heart went out to a woman who was calling about her husband’s file, a husband she has not seen for two years since he was forced to leave the country. I thumbed through thousands of files, thousands of lives and stories and situations, thousands of big dreams and tiny legalities.

The problem with our immigration system is that it is reactionary,” the attorney said. Ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the legislative bodies of the United States have been playing a form of eugenics or race-based selection through the inclusions and glaring exclusions of our immigration policies. From the Japanese Gentleman’s Agreement and the 1924 literacy test to today’s surviving questions on immigration forms which ask about McCarthy-ian Communist ties, our laws are still reactionary and therefore not comprehensive or fully just. Until the laws change to more ably reflect the current state of immigration and globalization, each year will see more and more individual exceptions and exemptions costing billions of dollars in bureaucracy.


…they came in by the dozens, walking or crawling.
some were bright-eyed.
some were dead on their feet.
and they came from Zimbabwe,
or from Soviet Georgia.
east Saint Louis, or from Paris, or they lived across the street.
but they came, and when they’d finally made it here,
it was the least that we could do to make our welcome clear.
come on in, we haven’t slept for weeks.
drink some of this. it’ll put color in your cheeks.

(The Mountain Goats, “Color in Your Cheeks”)

“Our immigration system is like a rewards or benefits program,” York said coolly. “You can come to our country if your grandfather fought with our troops at one point, if you were struck by lightning twice, and if you have never ever lied to another human being. Pictures also help.” At first, this statement seemed a calloused joke, but the more I thought about our immigration laws and our nation’s underlying philosophy, it all made sense. Our laws are set up in such a way that we refuse to admit the benefit immigrants inevitably bring to our economy, society, culture, and communities. Our laws and statutes are meant to be prohibitive, to let in merely a fraction of the desirable and desirous immigrants who long to live and work within our borders. Like a lottery or a rewards system, no one is actually meant to win.

As I packed my bag at 6:00 to leave for the day, another person called. Frustrated, I had to remind myself that this was not a client of the firm. This was not just a number, or a passport picture, or an INS file, or even just a story. This immigrant on the other end of the line is a person, a person caught in a game that few are supposed to win, a game based on rules few Americans would agree with if stated explicitly, a competition which pits them against individuals and systems they should be working with rather than against. I answer the phone in such a way that hopefully brings color to her cheeks and a smile to her eyes.

http://borderstories.org/index.php/nogales-born-and-raised.html

Something there is that Doesn’t Love a Wall- Part 4

April 22, 2008

It is the longest fence on the planet, stretching over 3,000 miles from the Darling Downs to the Eyre Peninsula. Built in the 1880s, the Dingo Fence or Wild Dog Barrier Fence of Australia is still patrolled by 23 employees. The fence was originally built to keep dingoes out of the the fertile and heavily populated southeast of Australia and also protect the valuable sheep herds of Queensland. While the wild dogs have not been eradicated entirely from this fenced section of Australia, their numbers have been significantly reduced. Instead of increasing sheep herds, however, kangaroos and rabbits have grown in number, keeping the sheep population constant.

Shortly after the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed, Latin America expressed its sadness and revulsion at such an isolationist gesture. Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, whose government is a close friend of George W. Bush, said, “It seems to us a real affront that a government that calls itself a friend and regional partner only wants our money and our products, but treats our people as if they were a plague.”

The current walls in California and Arizona designed to stem the “flood” of people dubbed undesirable by the United States are not working. Rather than stopping border crossings, they actually catch fewer border crossers and reroute illegal entries through more remote and lethal sections of the border. Putting up walls to discourage illegal immigration, without dealing with the root push-and-pull factors of immigration is irrational and irresponsible. Our government is a man who walks into a flooded house and begins mopping the floor, even though he sees an overflowing sink, faucet still running. A border wall is an ineffective Band-Aid when we need real change, much like the “Vaseline of gradualism” which Dr. King railed against in favor of real civil rights reform.

Rancher Thomas Austin missed his homeland of England. In 1859, he released 24 rabbits on his lands, stating these famous last words, “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting. By 1894, rabbits had taken over the Australian mainland.

Running a little over 2,000 miles, the Rabbit-Proof Fence of Australia was constructed between the years 1901-1907. The purpose of the wire fencing, which ran three feet high and six inches underground, was to keep the rabbits from spreading through the entire continent. To actively patrol the fence, Chief Inspector of Rabbits Alexander Crawford sent out boundary riders on bicycles and camels. Despite these efforts, though, the rabbits soon could be found in every state. Without any natural predators, the rabbit population exploded and eventually overran the fence. Ranchers and farmers were forced to fence in their crops to protect it from the rodents.

While more than 39 laws governed the environmental and sociological surveying of the potential border wall in southern Texas, these laws were waived on April 1, 2008, with the assurance that the potential threat far outweighed very real risk. The same thing happened on September 22, 2005, when Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff waived “in their entirety” the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act to extend triple fencing through the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve near San Diego.

Since 1904, the Border Patrol has grown from an unofficial 75-man unit of mounted riders designed to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act to an 11,000-member squad aiming to thwart all illegal crossings. Despite this manpower, which is only expected to grow over the coming years, the number and cost of each illegal entry into the United States has simply increased. A border wall will only add to the cost, while being about as effective as a rabbit-proof fence in a continent not far away.