Posts Tagged ‘undesirable’

The Power of Nomenclature

January 20, 2008

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