It’s been a difficult and tumultuous love affair. In good times, newcomers are instrumental to the construction of the New World. They are beckoned, needed, desired. In bad times, they are the cause of all social-economic woes. They are to be ostracized, demonized, deported.
The pendulum swings: we don’t want them here; we can’t live without them.
Sometimes this epic romance plays out on a very human scale. Take the story that involved Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Arizona. Running for Congress in 2012, the sheriff was tough on undocumented immigration — but he had a secret: he was conducting a love affair with Jose Orozco, an immigrant whose legal status remains in question.
The romance went sour, alas, and the immigrant lover alleged that the sheriff threatened to deport him if he came out with their story. Babeu came out as gay but vehemently denied the deportation threat. Orozco promptly filed a lawsuit.
What struck me most about this story is the contradictory nature of the relationship and how emblematic it is of the larger American narrative. We seek and benefit from immigrants’ cheap labor, but we don’t want to acknowledge our relationship with them. We need them; we don’t want to be associated with them. In the dark of night we crawl into bed with them, but in the morning we are still in denial.
Meg Whitman, the billionaire who ran for governor in California in 2010, announced that she wanted to “hold employers accountable for hiring only documented workers.” But she apparently didn’t include herself.
The year before Whitman’s campaign, she had fired Nicky Diaz Santillan, who in a spectacular press conference revealed that she was undocumented. She had been taking care of the Whitman’s household for nearly a decade.
Santillan later testified that when she asked Whitman for help finding an immigration attorney after she was fired, Whitman allegedly told her, “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.”
Willful Ignorance and Cruel Contradictions
Most of us don’t want to know about the tragedy of detention and deportation: the psychological and economic impact on tens of thousands of American-born children whose parents have been taken away by the authorities. Nor do we want to know about the abuses that take place in holding facilities or how inmates were shackled and paraded in pink underwear on the streets of Arizona. We don’t want to hear about all the reported rape incidents that have still not been investigated, about the dangerous lack of health care in immigrant detention facilities where the suicide levels are alarming, or about deportees forced to take psychotropic drugs so they act docile in their long journeys back to their countries of origin.
None of these get on the news curve. Most Americans know that Kim Kardashian is pregnant but won’t know that many imprisoned, undocumented pregnant women are shackled to their beds when they give birth.
We don’t want to know but must know this: when a society hides behind the apparatus of draconian policies, allowing the authorities almost unchecked power to detain and deport, the only logical outcome is injustice and cruelty.
I’m no lawyer, but I know a little about the difference between de facto versus de jure. In the eye of the law (de jure), you are either guilty or not guilty. But in practice (de facto), the way society carries itself out is another matter altogether.
A relative of mine, someone who was once a boat person but who is now a very conservative Republican, said he’s anti– “illegal” immigrant and supports deportation of all of the 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants and their families. He also happens to be a wine connoisseur, however. And one night as we were drinking from his favorite cabernet sauvignon, I asked him, “Listen, would you support ICE raiding Napa?”
“No, not Napa,” he said quickly, a little shocked that I suggested it. “There’s always an exception to the rule.” That is to say, he wants his wine and drinks it, too. His “cab,” by the way, was excellent — spicy, complex, full bodied, a wonderful nose, but perhaps chased with irony at the finish — and thanks to immigrant laborers, still affordable.
That kind of contradiction, you see, is endless, and it’s deeply embedded in the American life, and sometimes deeply embedded within the same person. Here’s a story I read a few years ago that stays on my mind: it’s about a woman named Zoila Meyer who sat on the city council in Adelanto, a small town in southern California. She was against illegal immigration, but it turned out that she was not a U.S. citizen herself and didn’t know it. She found out that she’d been voting illegally and was reportedly in a profound state of shock when they put handcuffs on her in 2009. Under the cold eye of the law, she had become eligible for deportation. Facing the possibility of having to leave her American-born children behind, she found the law completely unjust.
When it comes to immigration, one’s private practice and public stance can be a conflicting mess when compared side by side, a jumble of incongruity. Take the case of former CNN news anchor, Lou Dobbs, who made himself a spokesman against undocumented immigrants (in his words, “illegal aliens”) who sneaked across our southern border. Dobbs practically built his career on it, claiming that undocumented immigrants were responsible for bringing 7,000 cases of leprosy to the United States in a three-year period. The statistics were false: it was 7,000 within a thirty-year period. But he did not apologize for these wildly inaccurate claims. Nor did he give an interview to the Nation when it reported that he had undocumented workers working to keep up his multimillion-dollar estates in New Jersey and Florida and his stable of horses.
A Broken System
It’s de facto that the current immigration law is broken and in dire need of an overhaul. Not only is it broken for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, it is also broken for the thousands of immigrants who are unable to get visas to work in the United States, for American businesses that can’t hire the workers they need, and for the families who wait for years to get visas to join their relatives in the United States.
You don’t know me and I don’t know you.
Since September 11, immigrants have been on the defense. Anyone seen as “the other” has automatically become suspect. The dust cloud from the destroyed World Trade Center in some way hasn’t fully settled. It continues to veil our nation’s once blue and gracious sky. To live in America these days, I’m sad to say, is to accept a new set of norms.
Mass deportation of undocumented immigrants who toil on our land has become the new norm. Those without proper papers get swept up in wide-sweeping government dragnets, and many are sent to detention centers to await deportation. Never mind that this norm shatters the lives of the husbands, wives, and children who are left behind.
Documented immigrants also face unfair treatments. Those with criminal records who have served time if found guilty of a crime — sometimes a misdemeanor offense — can be eligible for deportation. A classic case: A construction worker peeing in the street because no toilet was provided at his work site was arrested for indecent exposure. He was sent back to Cambodia, a country he had no memories of since he fled as a little boy. A green card holder, he left behind a wife and several children in the United States and became an exile from America, the only country he knew and loved.
Reasons for Hope
But the pendulum swings once more. The national conversation is shifting now, and the wind of change is blowing.
Immigrants themselves are speaking up. Dream Act students went to Arizona, where immigration laws are among the strictest in the country, to be arrested as part of a new civil rights movement that harkens back to the Alabama marches of the 1960s. Children of the deported voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012, in hope for immigration reform. They have become a major voting block, and they are not going away.
Faith leaders, too, are speaking up. An interfaith coalition is being built on the behalf of immigrants. These faith leaders all speak the idea that reform is not alien to American interests. Instead, it is very much in our socioeconomic interest — not to mention our spiritual health — to integrate immigrants. Our nation functions best when we welcome newcomers and help them participate fully in our society.
And speak we must. In America, and in the context of a free and open society, immigrants are often the canary in the coal mine. In economic downtimes they are often the first to be blamed. And in the U.S. war against terrorism, they become the scapegoat. They are a kind of insurance policy against the effects of recession. They can be laid off without legal implications, deported when their labor is no longer needed, providing a release of the social pressure valve when nothing else works.
If you out me, I’ll deport you.
You don’t know me. I don’t know you.
If I am sympathetic to the plight of immigrants of all kinds, I have good reason: I was once a Vietnamese refugee. Like millions who left Vietnam, my family and I fled that country illegally, without passports. We entered another country without visas. That I am a writer and journalist today is due to American generosity. My Americanization story is a love story, a success story. Because America embraced me, I in turn embraced it.
But I see now that we are at a decisive moment in history, an important crossroads. In one direction is a global society defined by openness and by the understanding that we as a nation have always depended and thrived on the energy, ideas, and contributions of immigrants. It’s a promised land that can only be envisioned by the newcomers to our shores who still, despite it all, dream the dream.
In the other direction is a country ruled by distrust, xenophobia, continual exploitation, the need for strengthening law enforcement, and a wall along our southern border that might one day rival the Great Wall of China. This direction creates a society that’s willing to look away while an entire population lives in fear within a de facto police state. It’s a country in which immigrants become the enemy.
But such is our complicated love affair. Yet I am thankful that for every “you don’t know me, I don’t know you,” there’s a poem like “One Day,” which Richard Blanco, the child of immigrant parents, read at Obama’s 2012 presidential inauguration. The poem speaks of hope as “a new constellation / waiting for us to map it, / waiting for us to name it — together.” Us, that is, one nation built by calloused hands, bent backs, and hope — built by the tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. All of us.