The United States currently faces a crisis that it must resolve while preserving its character as a nation of immigrants. This begins with recognizing and respecting the dignity and integrity of human beings. Characterizing the phenomenon of immigration as a matter of criminality moves the United States further and further away from these universal principles. When 12 million people flee their homes in fear of violence, natural disasters and destitution, we are not talking about crime, we are talking about a humanitarian crisis.
In 2010, the United States will once again attempt to repair and modernize its broken immigration system, a system that enables American society to benefit from and enjoy the fruits of the labor of migrant workers without accepting their humanity or recognizing their human rights. Lawmakers tried to bring about reform in 2006 and 2007, but their failure to reach an agreement gave the green light to individual states, counties and municipalities to assume the responsibility of the federal government and adopt their own versions of immigration reform. This has only resulted in suffering and chaos.
The extreme anti-immigration forces in the United States have poisoned the debate with hatred and racism. The attacks against the immigrant community have begun to express themselves in increasingly aggressive, rude and cruel ways. When it comes to an unwillingness to regard immigrants as fellow human beings, it seems as if ingratitude and perversity have no moral, ethical or spiritual boundaries. It seems as if the forces against reform are trying to make life for immigrants so wretched and miserable that they simply deport themselves out of the country. For this anarchic policy of degradation to succeed, immigrants must be stripped of their rights and their humanity and cut off from all chances at economic survival.
To meet these ends, the tactics used against immigrants now range from denying them basic health services to transforming doctors and nurses into immigration officials. They range from denying immigrants housing subsidies – even to those with documented legal status – to pressing charges against landlords who rent out spaces to migrant laborers. They range from stationing immigration agents inside prisons to endowing local police forces with the authority to stop any person on the street at will and demand to see their immigration papers. They range from denying immigrants the right to due process to bequeathing immigration officials with absolute power.
Clearly, the fight against immigrants has not merely been limited to a strategy of economic debilitation. Stripping immigrants of their human dignity is one of the fundamental means of legitimizing and normalizing any aggression against them. Immigrants are humiliated and relegated to a less-than-human status in order in order to justify giving them less-than-human rights. It begins by branding immigrants as “illegal” beings, a term that has taken on racist connotations of mockery and contempt. This epithet has now evolved from “illegal” to “invader,” from “criminal” to “terrorist.”
In their efforts to realize this process of dehumanization, opponents of immigrant rights are implementing practices of racial profiling, systematic persecution and levels of personal degradation that have not been seen in over a generation. Bearing this in mind, it is no mere coincidence that detained, undocumented mothers are shackled hand and foot to the hospital bed while giving birth to their children. It is no mere coincidence that undocumented prisoners are paraded through the streets in ridiculous displays while the media is summoned to document and broadcast the show for all to see. It is not by chance that immigration agents have adopted a policy of tearing a mother from her children in public spaces, and then giving those children little toys in an effort to console them. It is not simply happenstance that hot lines have been established so that any person can phone in and report anyone who they suspect might be undocumented. It is no coincidence that sheriffs and elected officials have become heroes of white supremacist groups. But above all, it should surprise no one that this type of abuse is seen as completely normal, even among people who sympathize with the undocumented migrant community.
This strategy of humiliation and debilitation pushed by the extreme right and anti-immigrant groups does not make distinctions between undocumented immigrants and those who possess legal documented status. The result is that in some parts of the United States, Latinos (undocumented migrants and citizens alike) do not enjoy the same constitutional protections as white people.
Arizona is proof of this reality. The chief of the Maricopa County sheriff’s office has deliberately decided to interrogate, detain, arrest and deport all types of people who seem to have a Mexican appearance. Many of these practices exist throughout the country, but nowhere are they more dramatically implemented than in Maricopa County.
But in Arizona, just as there is oppression, there is resistance. Migrant organizations, families, friends and allies are raising their voices and saying “basta”: enough is enough. On January 16, they will take to the streets to denounce the persecution and criminalization of immigrants in this country. They will demand an end to programs and policies that permit the collaboration between local authorities and federal agents, including section 287(g) [of the Immigration and Nationality Act]. They will march to stop the spread of anti-immigrant policies and practices to other parts of the country. They will march to demand a just and inclusive comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship and political equality. They will march to ensure that the United States preserves its character as a nation of immigrants. They will march to ensure that this country is a country of inclusion and not of exclusion. They will march to reclaim their right to exist. They will march to defend civil liberties and human rights for all.
Two days before the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the migrant community in Arizona and its allies are fighting to preserve his legacy. They will continue the struggle of nonviolent resistance so that Dr. King’s dream can become a reality. Four decades after his assassination, Latinos, African-Americans and people of color continue to fight so that human beings are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. If Dr. King were alive today, on January 16 he would march alongside the Latinos in Arizona. His dream will be fulfilled some day. Sometimes justice is delayed, but it is never forgotten. Sí se puede.
Pablo Alvarado is executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a national alliance of 41 grassroots organizations dedicated to the defense and organization of day laborers in the United States.
Translation: Ryan Croken.
Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. His essays and book reviews have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Z Magazine and ReligionDispatches.org. He can be reached at [email protected].