Mother of Exiles

Since September 11, immigration has resurfaced as a political lightning rod. YES! contributing editor Pramila Jayapal reflects on what is at stake for all of us in the debate over immigration.

A few weeks ago, I debated a high-ranking official in the Department of Justice at a gathering on the topic of national security. In defending programs such as Special Registration, which required Arab and Muslim men from 25 countries to be fingerprinted and registered (and was ended because it was both ineffective and discriminatory), the official said that we need to track immigrants just as we need to track sex offenders.

Although innocently made, this disturbing comment provides a glimpse into why it is so difficult have a sensible discussion of immigration. The September 11, 2001, attacks unleashed enormous anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment, reinforced by Bush Administration actions that initially targeted Arabs and Muslims, but now affect all immigrants, including Latinos and Haitians. Immigration policy has become increasingly divisive in national politics and even became the focus of a high-stakes battle within the Sierra Club this spring.

Sierra Club members recently rejected a slate of anti-immigrant candidates for the club's board of directors. But this election was not the first high-visibility attempt to use the environmental group as a platform for anti-immigrant campaigning; efforts like this date back to 1998.

Any debate that pits environmentalists against immigrant-rights advocates or Latinos against Muslims is harmful. It is especially dangerous now, when the government is testing just what weakening of civil rights we will accept in the name of security. Instead of accepting this debate as it is handed to us, we should remind ourselves that society's vulnerable members, such as immigrants, are the canaries in the coal mine. For our own sakes, we must seek solutions that are compassionate and comprehensive and do not marginalize any group in the name of furthering—or protecting—another.

Who is American?

Underlying much of the debate around immigration is the profound question of who we consider to be part of America, and who is entitled to American justice and democracy. Over the past two centuries, America has changed dramatically. Today, our cities and towns are filled with people who look many different ways, speak various languages, and display various cultural values and traditions. The 2000 Census shows that approximately one-third of Americans are Native American, African American, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, or Hispanic. Nominally, we celebrate America the melting pot, but in practice, we're not so sure who we want to allow into the pot.

Understanding anti-immigrant sentiment is impossible without a discussion of race. While there was always hate and anger directed at any new group of immigrants, whether Irish or Italian or Jewish, the first anti-immigrant law to be passed was the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882.

Today, anti-immigrant groups often assert that America is being “overrun” by immigrants. In fact, the annual rate of immigration was highest in 1913. In 1900, approximately 10 million people, or 13 percent of the U.S. population, was foreign-born, compared to approximately 10 percent today.

The difference, however, is that almost 70 percent of today's immigrants come from Latin America, Asia and Africa, whereas in the early 1900s, 80 percent came from Europe. The role of racism in today's debate is inescapable, especially when anti-immigrant literature often relies heavily on issues of race.

All immigrants to this country share in common many of the reasons for their journeys: to find a better life, food, shelter, escape from torture, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and work. In this, we all remain united.

Why do people migrate?

In the U.S., I often hear people disparage immigrants fighting for their rights by saying they should be happy with what they've got because they chose to come to America.

In reality, as the photographer Sebastiao Salgado wrote in the introduction to his book Migrations, “few people uproot themselves by choice. Most are compelled to become migrants, refugees, or exiles by forces beyond their control, by poverty, repression, or war. ... Some know where they are going, confident that a better life awaits them. Others are just fleeing, relieved to be alive.”

Studies show that immigrants to the United States work hard, paying an estimated $70.3 billion in taxes and receiving just $5 billion in welfare benefits and $11.5 billion in education benefits. Too many people in America, however, are swayed by fear, prejudice, and misinformation, buying in to the language of “us versus them.” Some are simply unconscious about their prejudice. Some have been seduced by negative media images without actually getting to know real immigrants. Others deliberately use fear to further a message of hate and racism.

Either way, the effects are very real on many of today's immigrants as they are scapegoated and targeted by neighbors, colleagues, and government, and witness the destruction of their hopes and opportunities.

In September 2002, at a hearing called Justice for All in Seattle, a young Afghani refugee described the horrors he had gone through before coming to America, reminding the audience that, “I did not come to America for a good life. I came here to be treated like a human.”

At the same hearing, Issa Qandeel, a U.S. citizen of Jordanian origin, testified: “I thought I found the land of my dreams. ... Now these dreams seem blurry, and that land seems too far away. The sadness is indescribable, and there is nowhere to go when you are home but still feel homesick.”

The people, united ...

In February 2004, President Bush—looking for the support of Latino voters in an election year—unveiled a “temporary guest worker” proposal that he claimed would lead to reforming a broken immigration system. The proposal, which has yet to be translated into any real legislation, closely resembles the oppressive bracero program of the 1940s, providing cheap labor for U.S. companies without ensuring either basic rights on the job or a path to citizenship.

As author and professor Ronald Takaki detailed in his book, A Larger Memory, this is an age-old tactic for keeping workers divided and keeping wages low. Plantation managers devised a policy reported in an 1895 Report of the Labor Commission on Strikes and Arbitrations: “Keep a variety of laborers, that is different nationalities, and thus prevent any concerted action in case of strikes, for there are few, if any, cases of Japs, Chinese, and Portuguese entering into a strike as a unit.”

But when bosses used this policy in 1920, bringing in Filipino workers to supplant striking Japanese workers, the workers united together on strike, demanding “no barriers of nationality, race or color.”

Today, also, many are refusing to be divided. Large unions (which have reversed course since the days of supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act) and immigrant advocacy groups oppose Bush's proposal, calling instead for immigration reform legislation that provides a path to citizenship (including legalization), real protections for immigrant workers, a reduction in the long waits for immigrant families to be reunited, and civil rights and liberties for all.

An example of this unity was the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in October 2003, when workers' rights, civil rights, and immigrant rights activists joined together to bring 900 immigrants from cities across the country to Washington to lobby Congress for comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

The success of anti-immigration groups depends on capitalizing on current fears about the loss of U.S. jobs through offshoring, the overwhelming of America by people who speak different languages, or the environmental impacts of immigration. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, like the strikes in the early 1900s, was a rejection of those attempts to divide and conquer, and a reaffirmation of a vision of moving forward together.

Likewise, the Sierra Club's overwhelming rejection of the anti-immigration campaign opens doors to progress. This vote was the latest battle in a struggle that dates at least to 1998, when a group of Sierra Club members attempted to get the club to adopt an anti-immigration platform. That effort failed by 60 percent, but in February 2003 board member Ben Zuckerman tried to pass a resolution that would have reversed the membership's policy of neutrality on immigration and instead called for the club to urge restrictions on immigration.

A continuing force behind these efforts is the anti-immigration group Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), co-founded by John Tanton. In recent Sierra Club debates, Zuckerman described Tanton as a “most intelligent and courageous human being.”

In a 1986 memo, Tanton argued that anti-immigrant issues “must be broached by liberals. ... The conservatives simply cannot do it without tainting the whole subject” by attracting charges of racism.

In 1988, an internal memo by Tanton to his colleagues at FAIR was released that raised fears about falling white birth rates and high Hispanic rates: “as Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? ... Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!”

The recent slate of anti-immigrant candidates for the Sierra Club board included former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, the chair of the board of FAIR.  In a speech called “How to Destroy America,” Lamm argued that if he wanted to destroy America, he would “turn America into a bilingual or multi-lingual and bicultural country.” Lamm went on to say: “I would make our fastest growing demographic group the least educated.  I would add a second underclass, unassimilated, under-educated and antagonistic to our population. ... I would get all minorities to think their lack of success was the fault of the majority. ... History shows that no nation can survive the tension, conflict, and antagonism of two or more competing languages and cultures.”

Tanton and his friends claim their campaign is about how many people the United States can hold. But simply talking about limiting access to the juicy pie we have here in the U.S. without looking at how we came by that pie, or at the effects of our over-consumption on the world's resources, is disingenuous and dismissive. Although Americans constitute less than 5 percent of the world's population, we use more than 30 percent of the world's resources, and an American baby drains as many resources from the Earth as 35 Indian kids.

In addition, the conditions that today's immigrants seek to escape often can be tied directly to U.S.-backed wars that throw countries into deep poverty and destroy internal systems. Simultaneously, countries around the world struggle to fight the power of transnational corporations to change farming practices and skew the terms of trade, and IMF/World Bank-imposed policies that undermine traditional, sustainable economies.

Nevertheless, there is a place for discussion of how to manage immigration to the U.S. If immigrant-rights advocates and environmentalists join together instead of fighting each other, perhaps we can create the space for a true progressive agenda to emerge.

The recent vote at the Sierra Club is a first step in building the trust we need for a real discussion between immigrant groups and environmentalists.

Crisis and opportunity

None of today's issues—the environment, poverty, workers' rights, human rights, immigration, or the power of multinational corporations—stand alone, and none can be solved alone.

Only in the U.S. have I seen such big gaps between the environmental and social justice movements. It is up to us to fix that. The beautiful moments when the two embrace—the “battle of Seattle” outside the WTO summit, last year's anti-war march, the struggle for environmental justice that has the African-American community working together with environmentalists to stop toxic waste dumps in their communities—are powerful and invigorating.

What does that mean for you, me, or anyone who refuses to accept the terms of the debate as framed by the would-be dividers?

It means we need to get active. The campaign launched to stop the anti-immigrant takeover of the Sierra Club was an excellent example of what we can do together; turnout for the election broke records. And many environmentalists already recognize the need to limit resource consumption through recycling and reusing materials, supporting local economies, and buying organic food.

But let's also educate ourselves on immigration, including what it takes to become a citizen, how long immigrants must wait to bring immediate family members to this country, and the discrimination faced by immigrants on the job and in schools. Visit an immigration detention center and imagine what it would feel like to be locked up for months or years without access to legal counsel while waiting for your case to be heard.

Urge your congressional representative to support the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill and the Civil Liberties Restoration Act currently before Congress. These bills, which were drafted by a coalition of immigrant and civil rights groups, propose logical and humane ways to address who gets to share in our-already-too-big slice of the pie.

Let's imagine a world where we all look honestly at U.S. foreign policy and its direct impact on migration patterns. Let's discuss together the hubris of globalization policies that encourage transnational corporations to exploit the resources of other countries. Let's acknowledge, too, our own hypocrisy in bristling at the idea that foreign workers might take “good American jobs” when foreign trade was, in large part, responsible for creating those jobs in the first place. Let's show true global leadership by figuring out how to meet the needs of American workers and how to share our resources. Let's use our collective intelligence to design an inclusive social contract for America, and let's start by modeling this behavior on an individual level.

On a recent plane flight, the woman in the seat next to me, a Caucasian woman from a small town in Washington, told me that she had stopped going to her hairdresser because she said bad things about immigrants and “people who don't look like us.” “I told her why I wasn't going to have her cut my hair anymore,” she told me, “because if I hadn't, she would have kept repeating those hateful things to people and then they might have gone home and told their kids. That's how hate gets spread. But we can stop it.”

We should all be inspired by my flight companion. It may seem that treatment of immigrants has nothing to do with most of us. But designating a group beyond the protections of law endangers all of us—even when the group is “terrorists,” “enemy combatants,” immigration “absconders,” or, yes, even sex offenders. Pastor Martin Niemoller said it best: “When they came for the Communists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Communist. ... When they came for the Jews, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no longer anyone who could protest.” What is being done to immigrants is testing the limits of what we will tolerate; if we do not object, we allow it to be done to any of us.

Let us reject divisiveness. True leadership in foreign or domestic policy, in issues of the environment, immigration or poverty shines through only when we think from a place of expansiveness, not of fear. It's up to each of us to do our part to change the debate from “us versus them” to “us and us.” We have important work to do to uphold our tradition as the Mother of Exiles, shining the lamp beside the golden door.

Pramila Jayapal is founder and director of the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington and author of Pilgrimage to India: A Woman Revisits Her Homeland, Seal Press, 2001.

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