politics, for a change

26Apr10

This Arizona immigration legislation really chaps my ass. It’s a disgrace. But here are my questions.

Is somebody going to explain to me how precisely police are going to demand that various people produce documents without racial profiling? Is there any doubt that the majority of people asked will be predominantly brown-skinned and spanish-speaking, with the occasional African thrown in for good measure?

What exactly is a document that proves you’re a citizen? I don’t carry such a document. I guess a passport will do but aren’t most Americans without passports? Drivers’ licenses, I guess, although again, not everyone has one, not everyone is carrying one at all times, they’re easily forged or passed around (16 year olds have been doing so for years to buy alcohol), and people who are not “citizens” can get drivers’ licenses. So if most of us aren’t walking around with documentation proving our citizenship, where the hell do they get off asking people to produce this shit?

And for a party that thrives on preserving the United States as the best country in the world, Republicans/conservatives have really missed the boat. This is only my opinion (and it’s my opinion because I’m not white) but there is very little the US does better in terms of quality of life than its European counterparts. Except this: the US has historically been much better at encouraging immigration and incorporating immigrants into the social fabric without forcing them to leave their beliefs, languages, cultural practices, religious garb, etc. at the check point. Europe is woeful at this: see the current hubbub over the veil. The UK is slightly better at this but they are still struggling. We see this most plainly when it comes to which citizens are the ones perpetrating domestic terrorist attacks. Here, it’s disaffected white men (and probably increasingly women) who are US citizens, who hole up in the mountains, stockpiling weapons and forming militias.* In our panic of Islamic terrorists, we purposefully forget the Unabomber and we especially forget Timothy McVeigh. And just recently, when Joseph Stack flew a plane into a Texas IRS building, we heard almost nary a word about him as a homegrown terrorist, in direct contrast to how Nidal Hasan was described. The point here is that we do not have a long history of homegrown terrorists that are immigrants or that aren’t Christian. This is not the case in Britain: where the devastating 7/7 attacks were carried out by British Muslims, all but one born in Yorkshire, the other born in Jamaica, raised in Yorkshire; and where pockets of disaffected Muslim youth are becoming increasing concerns.

This is what we do better than Europe. We welcome immigration, our national myths are about immigration. But now it seems we’re willing to give up our one advantage and cast suspicion on anybody who doesn’t look American, whatever that means.

*Terry Gross did an interview last week with cyberterrorism expert Richard Clarke, who at the very end argued that one of our most serious threats right now is the rise of homegrown violent extremism (militias, Timothy McVeigh-types) emboldened by Republican and conservative elected officials who either “egg them on” or refuse to take a strong stand against them. Here’s the link. I’m with him, I think it’s appalling. Prime example: the very tepid opposition to the crowds who called black Congressman John Lewis and Barney Frank the n-word and the f-word and the person who spat on black Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. The consensus was “we don’t support what they did, but the Democrats aren’t listening.” No, that’s just not good enough. In this country, we do not spit on elected officials and we do not hurl racist and homophobic epithets at elected officials with impunity. End of. Regardless of what side we’re on.

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7 Responses to “politics, for a change”

  1. Manual trackback—one of my readers picked it up and ran with it, FYI, but blogspot isn’t good about telling you that.
    http://fearandloathingingtown.blogspot.com/2010/04/immigration-and-domestic-terrorism.html

  2. 2 thefrogprincess

    Ah, thanks for that, dance. It’s always good to know the source of a spike in views (if one materializes). I appreciate your comments, clearly you understand the spirit of my post. Unless the conversation comes over here, I see no reason to engage over there.

    It’s clear to everyone who wants to see it that this Arizona legislation will affect legal immigrants, illegal/undocumented immigrants, and citizens alike because there is nothing that separates these people by sight. A legislation in which people can be asked to produce documents proving their legal status (which, I continue to stress, is a burden most of us don’t have to prove and might struggle to prove on the spot) indiscriminately hassles those who look foreign and, in the case of Arizona, look Mexican, regardless of their actual status. That creates a hostile environment to legal immigration. People come to this country because it promises to welcome and embrace them. They do not come to be under constant suspicion.

    I know I’m preaching to the choir, dance, but I’ll also say this: while very few people condone illegal immigration or encourage it, our economy is built on it. Should policies like this continue, I suspect we’ll see drastic effects on local and national businesses. People are all ready to run undocumented workers out of town; I guess we’ll see whether they’re also ready to see businesses collapse without their labor.

  3. Your guess that most US-born people can’t prove their citizenship at the drop of a hat is undoubtedly truer than anyone wants to think about.

    A “document that proves citizenship” is, for US-born citizens (or kids of citizen parents born abroad), a birth certificate and nothing else. It’s the core document, because we’re one of the few nations in the world with a birthright-citizenship system, and the rest of our own individual paper trails start with it.

    My dissertation is a history of birth certificates and birth registration in the US, so of course I think they’re important, but most people don’t realize how recently Americans developed the assumption that any US-born citizen ought to be able to prove that fact on paper.

    As recently as the early 1940s, 1/3 of working age US-born citizens just didn’t have one, anywhere. The short answer on why: federalism. Arizona took until 1926 to build a birth registration system good enough to catch anywhere close to 90% of each year’s births; New Mexico hit the 90% mark in 1929, and Texas in 1933. For most of the 20th century, US-born people who wanted to file for Social Security old-age pensions couldn’t reliably be expected to have government-issued birth certificates. Historically, the people whose births on US soil have been least likely to be recorded have been rural people, particularly if they weren’t white and English-speaking, and particularly if they were born in the Southeast or Southwest.

    The US is busy building systems that assume that our own recordkeeping about birthright citizens is flawless, but it isn’t. Even US-born citizens have trouble with the new(ish) Medicaid requirements for citizenship proof… not to mention the 4.1 million people with US birth certificates who are about to be up a creek without a paddle birth certificate because they were born in Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico just declared all its previously-issued birth certificates invalid… because of concerns that noncitizens with Latino last names were using Puerto Rican birth certificates fraudulently.

  4. 4 thefrogprincess

    Thanks, Shane, for weighing in with the stuff you’ve found for your dissertation. I’m really intrigued by the link you make to our birthright citizenship which, because it’s tied to such a “natural” process, is precisely the kind of system that wouldn’t create a lot of paperwork.

    • thefrogprincess—

      Perhaps I should have been clearer. My point wasn’t so much that birthright citizenship (via birth certificate) doesn’t create a lot of paperwork, but that government’s capacity to do that paperwork has been historically variable and that the distributed, federalist structure of US government made it even more variable.

      Before Americans accepted that birth registration (and generating birth certificates) was a proper function of government, we generated our own private or non-governmental birth records: family Bibles, church records, insurance policies, etc. Slaveholders’ account books often tracked births because the market value of an enslaved person had to do with his or her age. All of those forms of family recording belonged to the era before widespread bureaucracy— but they were legally admissible because government birth records were so spotty. The paperwork was there– genealogists specialize in knowing about it– but the majority of it wasn’t kept by government entities.

      I work on how and why Americans decided, or learned, or taught one another, that a government birth certificate was more important and more valid than any of those other, privately-kept forms of identity/birth documentation– and what changed in American law once that assumption started to take hold. The Arizona law is one more recent example of those changes.

      • 6 thefrogprincess

        Thanks for clarifying, Shane. I guess what I was thinking was that in its modern form, birth certificates, though they prove our citizenship, are not the kind of documents that we carry around with us to prove our citizenship, if asked by police. We use them for certain purposes but we don’t carry them around in our pockets to produce when asked on the street. I just wondered if part of that was because, on the street in this country, we need no proof of being born, if that makes sense.


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