Ruben Salazar Postage Stamp

Last week, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of stamps commemorating historic journalists. Among the reporters earning distinction was Ruben Salazar. This legend of Los Angeles journalism is also among the pantheon of Chicano “superstars”–subject of murals, poems, and other homages. It is an exciting tribute, at least in my eyes.

To learn more about Salazar, check out these articles–one from the San Francisco Chronicle and the other which ran in the San Jose Mercury News. For a great collection of Salazar’s reports, see the book Border Correspondent: Selected Writings, 1955-1970, edited by historian Mario Garcia.

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Sun Sets on Arizona Immigration Bill

Arizona Governor Janey Napolitano vetoed HB 2807 today. The bill, which cleared the Arizona’s House unanimously, would have required local law enforcement departments to participate with federal officials in enforcement of immigration laws. To be specific, the law would not have required local law enforcement officers to aid in the enforcement of all elements of federal immigration statutes, just the ones pertaining to the policing of people who are suspected of being “illegal.”

You see, the federal government recently began pursuing its own “crackdown” on “illegal immigration” by raiding workplaces from Maine to California to arrest undocumented workers by the bus loads. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, hasn’t raided any country clubs to arrest the owners of these corporations (or their middle managers) for systematically and habitually hiring “illegals,” but if your brown and de-feathering a chicken for a living, chances are they’ve checked you out.

Arizona’s legislation required local law enforcement to “fully support” ICE as it performs its duties within the state, defining that participation as “sending, receiving or maintaining information relating to the immigration status of any individual.” In other words, it required local law enforcement officials to check people’s legal status and keep records of that status. The three areas requiring this state policy were for the “determination of eligibility for any federal, state or local public benefit”; the “verification of any claim of legal domicile if legal domicile is required by law or contract”; and the “confirmation of the identity of any person who is detained” by officers. Finally, the bill required local law enforcement officers be trained by federal officials, that local law enforcement offices establish “operational relationships” with ICE, and for ICE agents to be “embedded” with LEO.

You can access the full-text of the law here.

Governor Janet Napolitano vetoed the legislation, arguing it represented an “unfunded mandate.” Since the statute required training and promised state funds for that training if federal funds were not sufficient (which they have chronically not been), the bill required funding for which it did not provide. You can download her veto letter here.

Let me suggest, this event is a microcosm of the current status of the so-called “immigration debate.”

First, the legislation did nothing to really address the root causes of illegal immigration. While these are difficult to succinctly state, let’s say on one level, it did not reduce the economic lure of border crossing, namely, organized labor recruitment and maintenance strategies devised and implemented by employers all over the country. On another level, it did nothing to undo the sustained and oppressive presence of U.S.-based corporations in Mexico. This presence has meant the consolidation of profit in the hands of foreign entities and a small Mexican elite, as well as the literal displacement of hundreds of thousands from both their historic lands and strategies of economic survival. Couple this with the further entanglement of Mexico into the U.S./global sphere of “free trade” and you get the astronomical rise in inflation of the prices of staple crops like corn. (Now I don’t mean to suggest a state like Arizona can do much about these systemic causes, but that is, as they say, the point.)

Second, the law made immigration control into a “local” issue. While this stance has a profound amount of political cache (“If the federal government isn’t going to protect our borders, we have to!”) it has little legal reason to it. Immigration is a federal issue. Only the federal government can determine the membership of a person into the “national body” because national and international borders are their legal terrain. The last time someone tried to argue State supremacy in determining one’s legal status the Supreme Court disagreed. (It was called the Dred Scott decision; check it out.) The hundreds of examples of local ordinances and State laws that have been passed in the past two years all meet the same fate when challenged in the courts.

In this case, there is nothing in federal law that forbids local officials from helping federal officials with their duties. Functionally, however, the distinction is more important. If every local law enforcement officer did nothing other than police the State for “illegals” the “problem” would still not be fixed.

Third, the law continues to criminalize the immigrant. (Some might say, “But they are criminals.” The question is, why? How did they become “illegal” when other immigrants–say, the Irish–were not. Their criminality is not determined by their act but by the way we choose to categorize that act.) The law sought to help ICE with its raids on suspected undocumented workers and residents. It did nothing, and provided nothing, for the enforcement of employer restrictions. Furthermore, how does an “illegal” Mexican look different than a “legal” one? Inherently, these kinds of measure encourage (almost require) LEO to conduct their business according to racial profiling assumptions.

And, finally, the focus and concentration of time and energy on these kinds of symbolic and highly problematic measures is utilized by politicians to secure and maintain their own positions of power. People are feeling the crunch of this recession. They instinctively distrust the federal government. Legislators support measure like these (often completely understanding the limits of such pieces of legislation) to prey off of people’s uneasiness and struggle.  Given opportunities to stand up a provide their constituencies with frank, honest, and complex analysis of the issue, they abdicate their opportunity or, worse, get swept up in the hype themselves.  (NOTE: the State House voted unanimously for the measure, including Hispanic representatives; and, Napolitano framed her veto with a soft statement on “unfunded mandates.”)

Immigration is a more valuable political and economic issue when nothing substantive is done about it.

Navarrette’s “10 Ugly Things…” List

As one of the nation’s most high-profile Latino syndicated columnists, Ruben Navarrette Jr. provides a regular dose of U.S. politics from a “Latino perspective” to numerous newspapers.  I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with him on certain issues, but I have to admit, he really is hitting the mark with the issue of immigration.  Unlike most of the pundits out there, he finds critically-nuanced and (often) humorous ways to express the kinds of political analyses produced by a thourough understanding of both the past and present.  As a professor of Chicano/Latino Studies, let me assure you such views are relatively few in mainstream publications.

Case in point: his recent “10 ugly things about the immigration debate” list.  While it is incisive and funny, it is also good.

Arizona’s War Against Itself

Today is the decision day for Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. She has until the end of today to decide how she will move on House Bill 2807. The piece of legislation–which cleared the States Senate by a vote of 20-9 and the House unanimously–is intended to make it easier for federal immigration officials to do their job by requiring State and local law enforcement to participate while making it illegal for local authorities in the state to bar their law enforcement officials from becoming immigration officials.

This kind of legislation is becoming evermore common in the early 21st century U.S. It is fueled by economic frustrations, an inability of government to recognize and build on consensus relating to the issue of immigration, and, yes, some racism.

The larger context framing these actions is just plain ignorance. Most people do not understand the historic or legal foundations of immigration and immigration enforcement. They don’t understand the economics of it, or the politics of it. More tragically, in a society fixated on “debating” the issue within the narrowest parameters, we, as a society, simply do not understand how this issue relates to larger issues of global human rights.

I believe that many legislators do understand some of these facets of the issue. When they support legislation that includes elements which will be struck down by the court system, they are doing more than just hoping. They are deliberately manipulating their constituencies. They are building power based on fear. They are forging consensus based on hate. They are mobilizing divisiveness.

A brief article on the above can be found in this piece from the Arizona Republic.

White Racism and Immigration

The ways white racism informs the so-called “immigration debate” are multiple, sometimes contradictory, and always complex.  They have as much to do with the ways people define and conceive of “them” as they do with the ways they do the same for themselves–the myriad ways they construct “we.”  Both processes are heavily reliant on the sets of meanings framed by historic processes to be assigned to people based on their “racial group” membership.  Both are processes reliant on “race.”

Thinking about race is not a problem in and of itself.  It is important to remember that even if people think of race in negative ways, that is only a problem for that person’s interpersonal relations.  The danger lies in using these sets of meanings as the rationale for a larger legal, governmental, or economic system.  The problem is when these “ideas” determine who has access to power, wealth, opportunity, and even visibility.

If you want a rich source of examples of the above, check out this post on the Washington Post.  It is a short summary of some of the public web comments posted to a report about the exodus of immigrant families from Prince William County in Virginia, one of the hundreds of locales in the U.S. that has been experimenting with racist (yes, racist) restrictions against “illegal immigrants.”  The inciting report can be found here.

Read these and ask yourself what assumptions about people (who “they” is and who “we” is) inform people’s ideas. about this heated issue.

Blame the Immigrant, Protect the Capitalist

Plausible deniability and the further criminalization of the Latino worker. That’s a credible and accurate way to describe the recent legislation signed into law by Mississippi Republican Governor Hayley Barbour. It represents, in the words of alternative journalist David Bacon, “the farthest-reaching employer sanctions law of any on the books in the US.”

At its heart what the legislation does is force employers to verify their worker’s legality using a system called “E Verify,” an untested system which is not even a complete database of the needed information. Of course, had the State required the use of the Social Security System records (which federal law uses) they would have required the use of a system with provable errors and inconsistencies.

The tragic thing is, employers are free from sanction if they use this flawed system but the employee, if found to be working without documentation, can now be charged with a felony.

See David Bacon’s thoughtful piece here.

Plausible deniability. That’s what this law provides employers. While, at the same time, it protects their interests to hire undocumented workers and shifts the blame from them and their desired manipulation of people’s precarious legal status to maximize profits to the worker, struggling for survival.

Mexico’s President Defends Mexicanos in the U.S.

Felipe Calderón, president of Mexico, is in the U.S. this week on behalf of the trade relationships between the two nations.

While his visit is making the news in Texas and Louisiana, where he has given speeches and met with government officials, it hasn’t been much of a lead story in the national media. Lou Dobbs, in typical xenophobic style, had a reactionary “panic piece” on his show the other day. [Watch it here.] Some of the other media outlets are discussing the trade issues Calderón is here to represent, but it remains a smaller story.

It’s too bad because Calderón’s visit has included some interesting public remarks on his part. First (as Dobbs reports above) he confirmed in an indirect way that he has relatives who reside in the U.S. illegally. Further, he delivered comments reiterating Mexico’s interests in protecting the rights of its citizens whether at home or abroad. While he was not overt, he also made clear suggestions that it is important for the U.S. to pass some form of immigration reform to provide a pathway to legality for the nation’s 12 million illegal migrants. “The American economy,” he said, “cannot run without Mexican labor, which contributes to the prosperity of this country”

Contrary to Dobb’s report, Calderón also spoke about the necessity of reforms and improvements in Mexico. “It’s not my dream to spend the rest of my life seeing how Mexicans risk their lives crossing the river or the desert to find opportunities,” he said.

See a recent story on his visit here.

Of course, part of the way he and his party define their vision for an improved Mexican economy is “free trade.” That is why Calderón and Bush are meeting this week, after all. But so-called “free trade” has historically (and recently) opened Mexico up to foreign corporations which have done little in terms of improving the lives of everyday Mexicans. They’ve done a lot to imrpove the bottom-line of these corporations and their stock holders, however.  Much like the case of these same corporations in the U.S., when labor can be found cheaper elsewhere, they move, leaving behind unemployed folks and, often, pollution.

In and of itself, this is not surprising.  Maximizing profit is the bedrock of any capitalist system.  But policies of “free trade” and international finance take this assumption one step further.  They rationalize that any and almost all measures taken by a government should work to increase those profits.  If so, who do governments represent?

But here’s the saddest part. Here we are, a nation obsessed with the issues of immigration and globalization, two processes which are intimately connected, and here is the President of the nation we are most intertwined with on both counts visiting the U.S.  And he’s here to discuss “free trade” with our president and other hemispheric interests. And do people here even care?  And is our media even helping us, as an affected public, understand what is at stake?