What Kind of Country Do We Become When We Set Out to See How Much Misery We Can Inflict?

Today in the New York Times, you can read the following editorial.  I think they’ve done away with TimesSelect, but if not, let me quote to you the relevant parts:

The federal government’s abandonment of comprehensive reform has been matched by unprecedented crackdowns at the state and local level. Lawmakers this year have introduced more than 1,400 immigration-related bills in all 50 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and enacted 170 of them. Many of the bills severely restrict where immigrants can live and work, and leave them vulnerable to exploitation and fearful of the police. It’s the federal approach of raids and aggression, metastasized across the continent.

The country will have a long time to watch this approach as it fails. The politicians who killed the Senate bill for offering “amnesty” have never offered a workable alternative. Their one big idea is that harsh, unrelenting enforcement at the border, in the workplace and in homes and streets would dry up opportunities for illegal immigrants and eventually cause the human tide to flow backward. That would be true only if life for illegal immigrants in America could be made significantly more miserable than life in, say, rural Guatemala or the slums of Mexico City. That will take a lot of time and a lot of misery to pull that off in a country that has tolerated and profited from illegal labor for generations.

The American people cherish lawfulness but resist cruelty, and have supported reform that includes a reasonable path to earned citizenship. Their leaders have given them immigration reform as pest control. [Emphasis mine.]

Whoo, when the New York Times gets it, they really get it.  In order for the strategy of harsh and unrelenting enforcement to work, we have to set out to make life in the U.S. more miserable for people than it is in the places they’re fleeing.

I brought up the Fugitive Slave Act the other day not because I think that illegal aliens and slaves are completely analogous, and not because I think the solution to the immigration problem is to just have another emancipation day and everyone who’s here is safe, like some world-wide game of tag gone wild, but because we Americans need to be shaken out of our complacency.

I know some of you think I’m corny for believing this, but I do believe that we have obligations to the past, that, when old hurts are left unaddressed, we don’t just get to nicely skip past them and pretend like they don’t affect us; it’s going to come back to bite us.

We, as a country, have never sat down and tried to come to terms with what it means that we built this country and ran this country for half its life with the idea that some people weren’t exactly human; that it was okay for us to enslave them and kill them and rape them as we wanted.  Yes, we’ve, for the most part, stopped doing those things, but we’ve never, as a country, stood back and asked ourselves ‘Why did we think that was okay in the first place?  Is that belief still somehow tied up in our notions of who we are as a people?  Is it something just haunting the U.S., waiting to come up again, because we’ve not laid it to rest?’ (See Nezua’s brilliant explanation.)

Fine, fine, America.  You rarely do what I want anyway.

We’ve all heard the news, that there’s no more racism and everyone is equal and our problems are all solved.

Or they would be, you know, if only it weren’t for those damn Mexicans.  Those illegal aliens.  Those ‘hispanics’ who come here and “over populate, take over whole parts of towns and make it so filthy YOU will move.. Go on say you wont, you will get along with our Brown Brother.. hahaha They dont want YOU in there towns.. you Property Value will go to crap, good luck selling, you can get a few Peso’s from your little brown brothers for your now crappy home in your now crappy area. But they and the 20 families that buy it will LOVE it.. Its OVER MAN.. you have been Breed out…” (See here.)

Imagine, if you will, a large raft floating above dirty water.  Let us call that water ‘white supremacy’ or ‘white nationalism.’  Most of us claim not to be white supremacies or white nationalists.  When someone accuses us of racism, we act mortally wounded.  And yet, it’s impossible to deny that white supremacist and white nationalist notions are swirling around the immigration debate like hungry ghosts of an ugly past.

Here’s the thing, America.  We do have an ugly streak.  We sat back and watched this happen and assured ourselves it was justice until the truth of the matter finally became too ugly to deny and we’re going to sit back and watch this happen, because that’s just what you get for trying to come here (h/t S-town Mike.).  We are a country filled with violent hate-groups who act on their urges.  We’re haunted by the specter of white supremacy, though we rarely speak of it.

And this idea that we should just make illegal brown people’s lives as miserable as possible?

That’s racist.

Even if it serves the agenda of “fixing” the immigration problem.

Sometimes I feel like white supremacy is a small, but deep lake we have to navigate and attempt to stay out of for the sake of our own souls every day, and here we all are, trying to navigate said lake on an old, but relatively stable boat.  And every time someone stands up and says “We don’t want Mexicans here because they ruin our neighborhoods” or “They’re not like us and they’re ruining America” or “If the Feds won’t do something about it; we have to make the State preserve our communities,” it’s causing the boat to take on water.  And worse, that we’re getting used to having wet feet, so that when someone calls a Mexican a “cockroach,” no one bats an eye.  We’re ankle deep in an ancient poison we know is no good for us, and we don’t notice that we’re getting wet.

We need to have an immigration debate.  We need to talk about whether our foreign policies are making life harder for people in other countries.  We need to ask ourselves why, if the Bush economy is going so well, folks feel like they’re losing much needed jobs to immigrants.  We need to know why there’s this popular notion that folks could get here legally, if only they’re willing to play by the rules, when that’s completely untrue.  We need to figure out if we can fix the immigration system.  And we should deal with the folks who are here humanely and compassionately.

We have to have this debate without letting racists dictate the shape anti-immigration sentiment takes.  We already know what happens in this country when we give ourselves over to racism.

We must find a way to treat undocumented Mexican human beings as human beings, not just for their sake, but for ours.

(Also, Nezua brings up a good point here about how the term ‘Hispanic’ is used to mask the indigenous nature of the population we’re talking about, since, if we thought of the folks who are here from Mexico as belonging to the groups who were here pre-Europeans, we might be compelled to realize that we drew our borders straight through their home grounds and that many of the “aliens” from Northern Mexico are less alien to this land than we are.  But I couldn’t figure out how to work it in.)

21 thoughts on “What Kind of Country Do We Become When We Set Out to See How Much Misery We Can Inflict?

  1. Sometimes you just want to cry. The biggest groups of illegal immigrants in NYC come in through JFK. They enter the country legally, as tourists (needing no visas, from many of their countries of origin) or students. And then they just stay on. It’s much safer than crossing by land, and when you balance fees to coyotes against the cost of charter flights, probably not more expensive. And we are talking about huge numbers of people, cumulatively. But lots of them are white (not all, because you can get in from the Caribbean this way even without being white), you see, even if they don’t speak the language. So the Minuteman bozos and their counterparts don’t suggest staking out the bus and taxi lines outside of the airport. Or anything remotely like that. (Not that you’d want to be in detention in NYC for violating immigration laws; there’s nothing conducive to fun about it.) No, the attention goes to the people coming across the land border. No racism here, no sir, nothing to look at.

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  3. Once again, you equate slavery with illegal immigration. Nobody chained up Paco and forced him to try and cross the desert. Frankly, I’d be pretty insulted if I had slave ancestors I could confirm. Good luck stopping people from trying foolish things; you’ll drive the bungee-jumping industry into the ground. Simply put, you takes your chances.

    we have to set out to make life in the U.S. more miserable for people than it is in the places they’re fleeing.
    We can do it. We’re a nation with a ‘can-do’ attitude. Damn it, we put a man on the moon.

    we’ve never, as a country, stood back and asked ourselves ‘Why did we think that was okay in the first place?
    Uh, because it was an accepted basis of labor since before Roman times?
    How about asking yourself, “What was special enough about us to abolish it within 75 years, WHILE trying to establish a new country, pay off a war debt, AND fight (again) a war against the world’s superpower?”

    your Property Value will go to crap, good luck selling, you can get a few Peso’s from your little brown brothers for your now crappy home in your now crappy area.
    Brave words from a woman who doesn’t own a house.

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  5. we’ve never, as a country, stood back and asked ourselves ‘Why did we think that was okay in the first place?

    Uh, because it was an accepted basis of labor since before Roman times?
    How about asking yourself, “What was special enough about us to abolish it within 75 years, WHILE trying to establish a new country, pay off a war debt, AND fight (again) a war against the world’s superpower?”

    No, Ex, sorry. Chattel slavery used in plantation/latifundia agriculture had disappeared from Europe, western Asia, and North Africa several centuries earlier. It had been replaced by institutions that went by different names in different places, but that were pretty well analogous to sharecropping. Any remaining chattel slavery in those areas (mostly in north Africa; it was dying in western Asia by the late 18th century and was pretty well unknown any longer in Europe) was small-scale, household slavery. The US lagged waaay behind in that regard, especially considering the legal situation in the places the settlers had originated. Even in the Americas, only Brazil was slower than the US in abolishing slavery. So that’s not really a question for B to be asking in this context.

  6. Word up, nm. Furthermore, none of those societies you enumerated were founded on the specifically expressed principles of the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. was from the beginning intended to be something different– better, even– than anything that came before. And the catastrophic hypocrisy of continuing the colonial institution of chattel slavery was not lost on the founders, either. So someone trying to carry in today’s racism while hobbling on a faulty (revisionist) historical crutch might work with other racists, but it obviously won’t work here.

  7. CS, it’s amazing how much we inadvertently agree on. Yes, there was quite a battle over slavery during the writing of the D of I. It amuses me how you (continuously) hold America to a far higher ideal, then slam her for not obtaining it, without recognizing that she is still above all others. If she were your wife, she’d be anorexic by now.

    nm, nothing you’ve said contradicted what I said. One other point, those countries that were willing to pay slave owners for the loss of their ‘property’ (like Jamaica) found the transition from slavery to be much smoother, unlike the American abolitionists, who had religious fervor driving them.
    I guess there was a resurgence in a few of those N African countries since then? Funny how you skipped over the middle east and ‘eastern’ Asia.
    As for the lag, refer to my earlier post. The US had a pretty full plate. Not to mention the crops that were the basis for the economy. (That cotton wasn’t going to pick itself) Sorry we couldn’t get that to you sooner.

    Have we gotten off topic, or do y’all want to fight the civil war again?

  8. Exador, this is why you must have a grasp of historical knowledge before you walk out onto these tightropes. I suggest you read about the ‘battles’ to which you refer. And I suggest you read the Declaration of Independence again, perhaps with Aunt B.’s post beside it. My point is that my estimation of the U.S.– at the founding, specifically– is not the point (did I not make that clear?). The point is that the founders themselves held their ideals in incredibly high regard. That’s why there was so much hand-wringing over slavery at the Constitutional Convention (you should read Madison’s notes sometime): they knew it was wrong, they knew it went against the very core of what they were trying to establish, and they accommodated it anyway.

    And the excuses you make for the slave-based economy (and all its brutal accoutrements in this here land of the free) are darkly amusing:

    That cotton wasn’t going to pick itself

    If we decided to fight the Civil War again, Exador, I can guess which side you’d be on. And I guess “Paco” can check his claim to humanity at the border if he plans on working in your neck of the woods. Those strawberries aren’t going to pick themselves.

  9. Thanks for the vote of confidence, CS, but I lack your ability to transport my contemporary self back in time.

    I’m a bit familiar with the writings of this period. I suppose I’m more on the realist side of your idealism. The hard truth is that they needed the southern states for the fight against the British. Their odds were impossible, even without them. They would be ridiculous without them. They made the concession on slavery for survival.

    Would the world be better if they had failed to unify with Dixie, and lost to the British?
    I guess we’ll never know.

  10. Exador, at the start of the war, the bulk of white southerners were terrified of breaking away from the British because they were scared shitless of the Cherokee and looked to British troops as effective frontier security. Moreover, southern slaveowners were ambivalent at best about the idea of getting rid of British military/naval strength (needed both to secure slaves and control shipping lanes) and British Caribbean markets for their slave-produced products. Georgia didn’t even want to send delegates to the Continental Congress and only endorsed the Declaration of Independence for the “appearance of union.” (And then rolled over like a bitch in heat when the British Navy showed up in 1778.) Whether it was due to the large number of Scots immigrants, a sense that their economic interests were better served within the empire, or a real hatred of the rich bastard coastal elites that were leading the Patriot cause, there was no big groundswell of support for the Patriot cause in either NC or SC — because, duh, most of the backcountry white people did not own slaves. When the British headed south in the latter stages of the war, they did so in confidence that they would find support in the population and they were right. It was only after the Patriot war aims encompassed destroying Cherokee villages and taking/redistributing Cherokee land (and the British proved as brutal to white Patriots as they were to Indians) that the bulk of white southerners started to switch loyalties.

    So no, the people who insisted on preserving slavery were slaveholders themselves, protecting their own interests and hoping to forestall what they thought would be a holocaust of slave revolt and financial ruin from post-Seven Year War debt collections by Brit merchants.

  11. If I may add something to Bridgett’s brilliant history lesson, it is that the Civil War– though fought over slavery– did not in the least bit answer the “negro question.” For at least a century after the end of the conflict, African-Americans toiled under legal and extra-legal (usually brutal, and often deadly) constraints to full citizenship. Of course, the systems of apartheid that comprised these constraints also helped to maintain class divisions among whites, but I digress.

    Aunt B.’s point about us coming to terms with our nation’s genetically encoded bigotries is not only salient, it is riding us piggyback and boxing our ears. Sadly, Exador, your attempts to gloss over slavery and its impact and meaning are more the rule than the exception in this republic. Aunt B. is right on; the same cultural dynamics that helped rationalize the brutalization of blacks and the extermination of indigenous people are being stirred up again as a way of dealing with the complex problem of immigration.

  12. And now back to comments related to the POST…

    “And this idea that we should just make illegal brown people’s lives as miserable as possible?”

    My guess is that resorting to crime and an expansion of underground labor are far more likely to occur as a result of any crackdown than some one just giving up and going home. Opportunity and hope, even when forced into criminal activities, will always beat out quitting….even for “brown people”.

  13. our nation’s genetically encoded bigotries
    More like our species’ genetically encoded bigotries.

    the people who insisted on preserving slavery were slaveholders themselves
    Well duh, weren’t they the wealthiest and most powerful people in the southern states?

    CS, you couldn’t be more wrong. My exact point is that, by equating voluntary immigration with our country’s racist slave history, Aunt B is glossing over the horror of slavery.
    I am the one saying that slavery, and our slave system, was so much worse, that it’s an unfair and unrealistic comparison.
    We don’t force people to come here.
    We don’t hold them in bondage.
    We have no control over them.
    We don’t cut off the feet of illegal immigrants.

    There’s just no comparison.

  14. Ex, I do agree with you on one thing. The bigotry people in this country have all too often displayed and acted on is a widespread human trait. The problem is that if we say, “oh, gee, every bunch of people has been bigoted and harmed others at one time or another,” we aren’t doing anything to address the ways that the specific bigotries that are part of our history here are still playing out today. There is, I think, a real connection between the racial attitudes fostered by our own specific history of color-coded slavery and Jim Crow and the current ways we react to illegal immigration. Or else why aren’t we hearing more about the floods of Italians, Irish, and eastern Europeans who are in NYC* and the surrounding areas just as illegally as the Mexicans in the south and southwest? They don’t (with the exception of the Irish) speak the language, they take unskilled jobs that could be going to citizens, they are at the mercy of their employers because of their (il)legal status, they congregate in communities where their birth culture is more important than American culture, the whole nine yards. But I have yet to hear about this threat on the national news. Because, ya know, they’re white.

    *When I lived there not so long ago, the Irish and Italians were the two largest groups of illegal immigrants there.

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  16. Oh, Exador, if only you spent as much energy reading me as you do trying to refute me.

    I’m not comparing slavery to illegal immigration, as you well know. They’re two very different phenomenon. If they have anything in common (other than my larger point, which you’ve conveniently overlooked), it’s that the resulting misery in both communities was/is a massive humanitarian crisis. I’m not saying, “Oh, white people, look out there and see those two communities separated by race and time and see how they’re alike and pity the poor brown person.” I’m saying, “White people, an ugly undercurrent in this country, there since its founding, is that white people are better than everyone else and, because of that, we can do whatever the hell we want to those non-white people. Whenever we encounter a problem that involves non-white people, we face a choice abut whether we’re going to assume that, because we’re white and better than everyone else, we can just do whatever the fuck we want to those non-white people. Choosing that is evil. It’s been evil since day one and since day one we’ve known it’s evil. So, let’s stop it.”

    Deciding that the way we’re going to deal with illegal immigrants is just to make them as miserable as we’re capable of is evil. And it’s evil that comes from the same place in our souls (even if the end result is different) as slavery and Native American genocides and such–it’s that assumption that we can just do whatever the fuck we want to other people; tough shit for them.

    My argument is that, not only is that evil, it ruins us.

    You can’t believe it’s okay to run around the world inflicting as much pain as you want on whoever you can find who’s not in a position to fight back and not be ruined by that.

    And, damn it, I know you know that.

  17. I love it when you get all high-horsey. Don’t worry, pumpkin, refuting you doesn’t take that much energy.

    Go re-read “The Prince”. It’ll do you good.

  18. I thought I’d put my two cents (which in today’s economy is worth far less than it was 10 years ago, but I digress) into this extensive match of wits.

    As NM pointed out, the problem with the illegal immigration debate is it is not focusing on all illegal immigrants. I lived in California for several years and can’t count the number of Irish, English, and Welsh illegals I knew (and still know).

    A few years back, I was on a bus Oceanside to LA, and immigration agents boarded the bus at some point to check to see if everyone was legal. Who did they check? The brown people. Who didn’t they check? My Welsh friend whose visa had expired years before.

    So let’s be honest here: when people talk about illegal immigrants, they aren’t bemoaning an influx of white, English speaking people. They aren’t even wasting breath on Swedish, or French, or German folk whose English is choppy at best but blend in on the street and at least “pass” for “American.” We don’t talk about putting up a fence along the Canadian border. We don’t talk about these things because we think of illegal immigrants as brown people who speak Spanish.

    If we put all illegal immigrants in a line and told the average citizen to pick out the illegal immigrants, they’d look at the brown people first. That’s honesty. And it is racist.

    And a note: The Prince is an exercise in the deportment of Renaissance fascism. Machiavelli would have, of course, encouraged a leader to expunge the “vulgar” and “barbarian” intruders.

  19. Editor, I agree with you overall, but I gotta rise to the defense of The Prince. It’s not a defense of fascism (which I would argue couldn’t have existed during the Italian Ren. anyway), but in fact a presentation of the options available to the leader of a unitary state. If you look at Machiavelli’s personal history (he wrote the book to get his exile from Florence lifted after supporting the Republic agains the Medici), it’s clear that he is saying “look, here are all these things you can do in order to run the state smoothly, and I bet you choose the nastiest option every time [whisper] you illegitimate absolutist-minded bastartd, you [/whisper]. But I’ll give you those options too because I really want to come home and have a job.” Machiavelli would have pointed out several options for dealing with the barbarians.

    He should have stuck to drama; he was brilliantly vulgar at it.

  20. NM, point taken. However, so many extant (or recently extant) politicos use The Prince as a political guide book without considering the historical context. And as a guide book, it favors fascism.

    Viva la Vulgar!

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