One of the areas today that most needs what art abounds in — creativity, artfulness, and vision — is immigration policy. The arts can contribute to re-thinking immigration in both the popular imagination and in legal policy in ways that reflect the increasingly open, curious, and culturally interwoven nation, continent, and globe that we inhabit. The arts can also guide us toward policies crafted with greater generosity, compassion, and pragmatism than the immigration policies crafted during the nineteenth-century era of colonial U.S. imperialist expansion and pseudoscientific racism. They can guide us beyond cultural Eurocentrism toward greater openness, curiosity, and dialogue with the numerous cultures of our country and globe. When given the chance, apart from coercion, and in spite of prohibition, America’s peoples have long mixed with each other — liking, loving, and learning from each other.

A Visual Exploration of American Identity

Yreina D. Cervantez’s Ruta Turquesa and Tierra Firme, created in 1994 as a response to the Proposition 187 initiative to prohibit “illegal aliens” from using health care, public education, and other social services, recalls the archeological fact that the peoples of the Americas moved and traded freely across what only recently — that is, since 1848 — has been called the U.S.-Mexico border, and that Latinas and Latinos in general are descended from the ancestral peoples of the Americas. The mid-1990s was also the era of English-only initiatives and of the resurgence of anti-Mexican and anti-Latina/o immigrant sentiment that recirculated the old nation-building myth that Mexicans and other “Spanish” were immigrants or foreigners, not really Americans. It is instructive that this cultural and racist chauvinism was fomented in the immediate aftermath of the United States’ annexation of Mexican California, alongside anti-Indigenous sentiment that set to work redefining “real Americans” as English and other northwestern European colonists, immigrants, and their descendents, as opposed to the descendents of the Spanish, mixed-race Mexicans, other Latin Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and the numerous Indigenous peoples who had survived policies of extermination.

The Americas are the homelands of Indigenous peoples and Latina/os of mixed Indigenous ancestry. In response to the ubiquitous anti-immigrant query, “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” Cervantez remarked to me that Latina/os in the United States are where they came from: the American continent.

Consuelo Jimenez Underwood also reframes our way of thinking about national borders, immigration, and community. Some of her most recent weavings, paintings, and installations focus attention on the detrimental effects of U.S. border policies on the ecological communities of natural wildlife that know no such borders. Her 2011 exhibition Undocumented Borderland Flowers featured painted and woven maps of the U.S.-Mexico border sprinkled with the flowers “of” the four border states, appearing as they do in nature, on both sides of the border. In Underwood’s map of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the border is a red, painful wound, the stitching from one side to the other a fragile endeavor. Against a unifying blue field, national borders and north-south divides of the continent promise to heal, over the long run. But will the Earth heal, wondered the artist to me, given the tremendous ecological damage that the region is undergoing?

Underwood’s Flags series repictures U.S. and Mexican flags, weaving stylized, abstract flowers in place of stripes, machine guns in place of stars or flowers, and the ubiquitous triangular silhouette of the flagpole emblem as flower- and butterfly-stamped fabrics that recall tablecloths, bandanas, and housewives’ summer dresses. Her work makes us re-think the nationalism that flags represent in terms of the people and other life forms that naturally inhabit the land and work to survive upon it. (See the YouTube video on Undocumented Borderlands posted by the Fresno State Collegian and the 2012 Craft in America PBS series episode featuring her work.)

Diane Gamboa — an artist long known in Los Angeles for her early performance art and installation work with the urban-edge Chicana art group Asco and her signature walking “paper fashions” and gender-bending punkish portraits — has just completed a six-year series meditating on migration, racialization, and fear of cultural otherness. She recounts that her six-year Alien Invasion: Queendom Come series (2006–2012) started with her asking why only Mexicans are called aliens while others are called immigrants. In drawings and paintings of turquoise-fleshed, gender-bending powerful women (who might also be read as trans-gender male-to-female figures), and in related paper fashion installations and performances, Gamboa sardonically links the fear of women or the feminine, people “of color,” and extraterrestrials, with mass media-produced apocalyptic imaginings of 2012. Instead of scary creatures, her Amazonian aliens are powerful and desirable. Her work humorously and pointedly suggests that “queendom come” looks pretty good.

The cultural habit of thinking of Mexicans and other Latina/o immigrants (or seeming immigrants) as aliens and illegals replays in the national imagination the B movie script of danger, contamination, domination, criminality, and sub-human difference that allows for dehumanizing treatment of Latinas/os, but when the day is done, dehumanizing others dehumanizes us, as the unpleasant, unharmonious, and ugly energy of “haters” (racists, border vigilantes, neo-nazi skin-heads, cultural chauvinists, sexists, homophobes, religiously intolerant fundamentalists, and racist anti-immigrant nationalists) shows.

An Ethics of Respect and Interrelationship

Polarizing, dehumanizing views of immigration that are rooted in wars of imperialist expansion and their attendant fears don’t serve those of us born and raised during or after the Civil Rights Movements. For us, racial mixing and cultural difference are much more familiar and natural than they were to the slave-holding, Eurocentric, anti–Native American founding fathers. For at least half a century in the United States, and increasingly so, self, family, and friends are people whose ancestral roots cross various continents. Humanity appears more interrelated because we are more related, quite literally. When “immigration” is neither a euphemism for military invasion and colonization, nor a euphemism for slavery, nor used in an attempt to invalidate Native American reclamation to the Americas as homeland, but rather when immigration refers to the peaceful movement and resettlement of people, we can feel appreciation for those who come in search of economic, social, and political well-being. We can feel compassion for those who leave home and hearth to protect life itself against starvation, civil wars, and patriarchal or homophobic violence.

In light of ethnic and religious intolerance, and in light of the global environmental crisis, immigration policy would do well to shift to reflect a humane ethics of respect rather than fear, of recognized interrelationship rather than false belief in essential difference, and of creative aperture rather than ethnocentric and nationalist closure. Gone are the days when immigration quotas were controlled by ideas of Eurocentric racial preference. But what should also be revised is the overwhelming preference given to highly educated immigrants and the dehumanizing insensitivity to the plight of the less educated and poor who seek the opportunity to work here. It is a myth that the United States does not need and indeed demand labor in every economic sector, and it is this fact that accounts for legal and undocumented labor immigration. The fact is that Mexican and other Latin American immigrants are an integral part of our economy, from planting, harvesting, packaging, cooking, and serving our food, to helping care for our children, homes, buildings, and cities, to making and selling our clothing, and so on through every labor sector, including the most prestigious. Disparaging, marginalizing, and yet greatly benefiting from the exploited labor of working-class immigrants is cruel, hypocritical, and unethical.

Likewise, it is in our hands to banish sexist and hetero-normative biases that do not recognize that women and sexually queer people sometimes leave their countries to avoid violence that can be fatal — violence that they hope to escape by coming here. In striving for a more perfect democracy, we should rethink the biases that have favored immigrant groups from countries in which our government has vested ideological interests, while denying entry or consigning to refugee camps those from countries undergoing warfare and genocide but deemed economically or geopolitically expendable.

Rethinking immigration policy and immigration in the national imagination could, and should, pivot on casting aside the racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism inherited from a bygone era that classified some humans as less human and others as superhumans. Immigration policy should move into the twenty-first century and reflect the personal, cultural, and global well-being that arises when peoples of different cultures share their ancestral knowledge of this continent and the rest of the planet. Only then will we begin to coexist in a sustainable fashion with each other and the larger natural world of which we form a vital part.