Monday, May 17, 2010

Not one of those people

Does the how and why of foreigners’ immigration to the United States shape their views on immigration policy? While Hispanic groups have reacted ferociously and spoken out loudly against Arizona’s new xenophobic immigration laws, I have not heard anything from other associations that represent West Indian, Asian and African groups. My social and familial circle, which includes a large proportion of immigrants, has been mute on the topic.

I suspect this is because foreign-born residents do not see themselves as part of a collective group. Jamaicans who move to the United States for all kinds of reasons – from a sense of elitism, to the desire for better economic circumstances – view themselves as different from Haitians who risk life and limb in patched boats to Florida to escape their country’s social and economic instability. Asians who are wooed to the United States for technical and industrial jobs view themselves as different from Mexicans who cross the border to take menial jobs in meat packing plants and on fruit farms.

Surely, the legal status of the groups has something to do with the perceptions, but it also has to do with choice: which group chooses to move to the United States, and which group, in large part, is forced to come because of political violence, a bad economy, or other poor conditions in their home country. People who choose to move to the United States are usually of better economic circumstances – before and after they move. They are not typically the faces you see on television in ICE raids, or as the faces of the needy; and if they overstay their visas or have other immigration problems, they can usually afford legal representation.

Racial prejudices are also an undeniable part of the immigration equation. Cubans who arrive on the Florida shores the same way Haitians do have an easier time of settling and assimilating because they look like the majority of politicians, decision-makers, police officers, and others in positions of power. Similarly, no one ever thinks of white Europeans as immigrants and they are never the face of immigration woes.

As a society, we – including foreign-born residents – have decided that some immigrants are tolerable and others are not. Arizona’s law is a great example of how policy decisions are made on factors that have little to do with border protection, and more to do with keeping specific people out. Consider: a white British male and a Hispanic male, both walking down the street in Arizona; of which of these is a police officer likely to have a “reasonable suspicion” of illegal immigration status? On what basis do you think the officer would make that determination?

American-born Blacks are keen to the threats the Arizona laws represent to civil liberties, and have joined Hispanic groups in decrying them. Where are the rest of us “other people?” While we may not see ourselves as all in the same boat, surely we are not naïve enough to think that the non-brown, non-foreign language speaking ones among us are exempt from a growing anti-immigration sentiment. For many Americans, the gates that were once flung open to the tired and poor huddled masses yearning to be free should now be closed to preserve jobs, ease the strain on social services and protect the English language – it doesn’t matter how or why you got here.

1 comment:

  1. Toni I think you hit the nail squarely on the head. People who come here by legal means think that illegal immigrants are "lesser" than them, never mind the circumstances under which they came here (keep in mind that that legal person may have been brought here by someone who came illegally and adjusted status based on marriage, amnesty etc). Bottom line is when immigrants get to the land of milk and honey with the streets lined with gold, they want to close the door behind them and throw away the key. We make up all kinds of excuses; "they are straining our healthcare system, they are taking away our jobs (as if Americans are clamoring to plant lettuce in the fields in Arizona) all because we don't want them to enjoy the "freedom" that we now have for ourselves. America is shifting from racial discrimination to ethnic discrimination, fighting to shut out the brown people who they are scared will "take over" their country. These same Americans whose ancestors were immigrants themselves who were welcomed with open arms centuries, decades or just a few years ago, are acting entitled and somehow think they have the right to treat "those people" as lesser beings.