Immigration Must Become the Civil Rights Movement of Our Time


The news cycle these past weeks for those of us who follow immigration has been numbing. In recent days, we have witnessed the attempted Muslim ban, along with what appears to be a clear shift in enforcement priorities with the ICE arrest of DREAMER Daniel Ramirez Medina, the deportation of mother Guadalupe García de Rayos, and the arrestof a domestic violence victim in El Paso inside the courthouse – possibly using intelligence supplied by her abuser. Perhaps most terrifying of all is the memoraising the possibility of deputizing the National Guard to detain and deport immigrants. The White House has insisted that this not true, but the combination of the fallout from our post-truth era and the President’s inner circle of white supremacists makes it hard to take anything at face value.
Against this backdrop, immigration is the civil rights movement of our time – immigration law and policy condemns millions of members of our nation’s community to second-class status without rights, protections, and opportunities that citizens take for granted.
42.4 million people in the United States are immigrants (13.3 percent of the population). When you add their US born children, we have 81 million people (26 percent of the population) – one in four people are immigrants or the first-generation children of immigrants. Immigrants – including the 11.4 million immigrants without legal status – are part of our community. They work, pay taxes, study, and worship. They are family, friends, and neighbors. And they are human beings, differentiated only by the fact that they were born in another country.
Nonetheless, they are denied many of the most fundamental rights by law: to work, to continue to reside in their home without fear of arrest and deportation, and to vote. Current debates on immigration from Democratic and Republicans are now mostly center to far-right, emphasizing border security and to a lesser extent economic considerations at the expense of civil and human rights. Immigrants are routinely demonized by politicians and the media, leading to two classes of people: a privileged class with citizenship and a vulnerable underclass, many with no path toward ever receiving it.
What continually astonishes me is the lack of empathy and the capacity for hatred toward people simply because they were born in another country. Sometimes I think that many people’s attitudes toward immigration are caused by the fact that they understand it poorly. (This lack of comprehension is not surprising: the immigration system is alternatively frightening and baffling to many people who are directly affected.)
Most Americans are subjected to propaganda about racialized “illegals” and “criminal aliens” coming to take jobs and commit crimes. They are not exposed to more sober evaluations of immigration that show its effects are overwhelmingly positive. They do not understand that “criminal aliens” targeted for deportation are often guilty of nothing more than attempting to enter the country without permission or using a social security number to secure employment – paying taxes for benefits they will never receive.
Moreover, they have little insight into how the immigration system treats people. They do not understand that for most people there is no “line” people could get in to apply to immigrate legally. Nobody explains to them that family members are often separated for years or decades while they wait to have their sponsorship applications reviewed.
Similarly, they are not aware that people turned away at the border are not owed at explanation for their exclusion, making it impossible for them to contest decisions based on prejudice, poor judgment, or misunderstandings. They are not aware that most Americans live in the Constitution-free zone 100 miles from the border without protections against warrantless search and investigative detention, affecting not only immigrants but also citizens. They do not know that the private prison industry routinely imprisonshundreds of thousands of immigrants a year, often at the discretion of immigration officials.
Finally, they have not made the effort to imagine the terror that ICE raids inflicts on communities, including their traumatizingeffect on American citizen children deprived of their parents and on citizens who have been racially profiled and detained and deported because they are mistaken for illegalized aliens.
If hostility toward immigrants can be explained by lack of knowledge, then education would be the solution to inoculate against hate. Sometimes I’m optimistic that this is the case – I have had many conversations over the years where information about immigration has shifted people’s attitudes. But I’ve also had the experience where people seem perfectly aware of what deportation and detention do to people and communities, but do not care. Or worse: they rejoice in the suffering of immigrants.
To try to understand this reaction, I’ve read about Milgram’s experiments and Philip Zimbardo’s bookon the Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib. I’ve read Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. There are mechanisms that reliable enable people to dehumanize and the commit atrocities, many consciously employed by far right propaganda. Nonetheless, I continue to find it baffling. Mechanisms for dehumanization tell us how it happens, but they do little explain why. Why are humans so vulnerable to focusing their hate on vulnerable groups that pose neither harm nor threat and so quick to commit senseless atrocities?
Too often we imagine that the solution to injustice toward immigrants is a more just immigration system. But this solution will always leave immigrants vulnerable to demonization because it’s based on two classes of people: immigrants and citizens. Citizens have full membership and by definition fully belong. (This is true in theory, though not in practice – humans are remarkably adept at finding ways of arbitrarily assigning groups lesser status based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.)
In contrast to citizens, immigrants by definition do not fully belong to the community. This lack of full belonging remains true even when in every relevant respect immigrants are full members of the community. “Immigrant” is a social category – a social construction – that we have adopted to uphold an artificial distinction between “us and them”. Sometimes this category seems relatively benign, but it can always be seized upon to whip up nationalist fervor or as a scapegoat for social ills. The status of “immigrant” leaves people without the protections extended to full community members.
Instead of a more just immigration system, we should instead seek to abolish the distinction between immigrants and citizens altogether. We need to refuse to countenance a category that mandates inequality between groups of people based solely on their place of birth or the citizenship of their parents. Struggles for immigration rights are analogous to struggles for civil rights and against apartheid. To move toward justice, immigration must become the civil rights movement of our time.
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