Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Welcome to America

There's been a small flurry of stories recently about the detention of illegal immigrants, touched off in part by the death of a long-time New York resident after he was locked up for overstaying his visa years ago. (Democracy Now! also did a story on this case, which you can see here.) As the New York Times piece points out, there have a been a number of other deaths of detainees in recent years, which is not surprising considering the number of people the U.S. government currently has caged simply because they didn't satisfy the bureaucratic requirements for breathing American air.

According to the Detention Watch Network, we are incarcerating over 280,000 people a year at a cost of $1.2 billion as part of the crackdown on illegal immigration. Detainees often wind up in regular jails with the general prison population, and even in dedicated facilities they are sometimes subjected to brutal treatment. (Click here for some of the detainee stories compiled by Detention Watch Network. The Nashville Scene recently did a long piece on a private jailer, Corrections Corporation of America, which operates a notorious detention center for families in Texas. You can read that article here.)

Personally, I'm baffled by the popular outrage over illegal immigration. I just don't understand why people get so bent out of shape over the issue. The supposed threat of terrorism from undocumented or non-compliant aliens is laughable. It's true that the 9/11 hijackers exploited loopholes in the immigration system in order to stay in this country, but they were determined criminals who would have found a way around pretty much any regulations that could be created. It's insane to deny hundreds of thousands of people basic human rights because a tiny handful might be murderous fanatics. This is another example of the state marketing its abuse of power with the "We'll keep you safe" slogan. I'm not buying it. I don't understand why anybody else does.

The argument that immigrants have to be expelled because they're "stealing our jobs" is equally dubious. My friends who farm here in Tennessee would never hire undocumented immigrants, yet they find it almost impossible to hold onto American workers, even at a decent wage. Given the current downturn in the economy, Americans might become more interested in the kinds of jobs immigrants have been doing, but so far that doesn't seem to have happened. If and when it does, the issue should be protecting all workers' rights to decent conditions, not setting U.S. and immigrant workers against each other. All that will do is foster hatred and violence, and leave Americans slaving for the same lousy deal the immigrants currently get.

Regardless of how welcoming you think this country ought to be to immigrants, locking them up for months on end is unjust and expensive--but then again, why should they be treated any better than the natives? The truth is that all those jailed newcomers are getting a real taste of America. As of June 2007, there were about 2.3 million of our people behind bars. That's an enormous chunk of our population--disproportionately poor and minority--removed from the economy and the political process. (Incarcerated felons are denied the right to vote in almost every state. In some cases, they lose voting rights permanently.)

What it boils down to is that a staggering number of people in this country are rendered voiceless and invisible--and the rest of us are supposed to think it's being done for our benefit.

The Captivity is as Barbarous as the Crime, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1810s. Image from Web Gallery of Art.


whodat said...

What I hear about people rant about illegal immigrants it's that they are working under the table and not paying taxes while also being given free health care and social services, so that they're a drain on public services (whether they're in jail or just getting public health services); that it slows down children who are native speakers of English to be schooled with children who don't speak English, and that immigrants don't come here to be Americans and have no interest in assimilating, but are here to enjoy America's opportunities while remaining faithful in their hearts and customs to their native countries. States closer to the border have more folks more irritated and aggravated by the problems of supporting an invisible population not paying taxes than other states do ... but the struggle of basic communication in any state with any significant immigrant numbers can get high. The incredible stress relief when I go to Hyannisport at Christmas and everyone speaks English and has the same manners and customs is something I would not have believed if I hadn't experienced it, like, I almost bump into someone at the end of the aisle in the grocery store, and that person says "Oh, excuse me!" and smiles and moves over, it's enough to move me to tears of joy and incredulity.

What I hear from immigrants is that the US makes it too hard to become a citizen, that many immigrants want citizenship but are unable to navigate the INS system enough to get on the citizenship track ... even with the help of good immigration attorneys and when the applicant has advanced degrees and is working here as a professional, it takes 10 years. Whitman Walker clinic throws a good bit of pro bono immigration work our way and while their plights wring my heart, I must confess I have second thoughts about bringing more people sick with AIDS into the country.

I don't know the answer, but I know the anger on both sides is legitimate.

BitterGrace said...

You're right, there are legitimate concerns on both sides, but I think the current debate is skewed unfairly.

The burden on public services in places that have a lot of poor immigrants is definitely a problem, but gee, think how many of those people could be cared for with just a fraction of the 1/2 trillion dollars we've spent in Iraq. It's all about priorities.

The tax argument is problematic, since a lot of illegal workers do in fact pay taxes--and even completely undocumented immigrants at least pay sales taxes, which are a huge part of the revenue stream in this state.

The cultural factor just seems like something that has to be managed rather than solved. It's very frustrating to me when I come across a someone in a service job who can't speak English--but when I got back from Scotland last fall, it was a huge relief to walk through the airport and hear people speaking Spanish! It felt like the sound of home. I think I feel a lot less attachment to any fixed idea of American culture than most Americans do. If this is a Spanish-speaking country in 50 years, that'll be fine with me.

I have to admit that the one time I felt real resentment about lax immigration was after a workplace shooting near where we lived in Maryland. The shooter was an African immigrant with a very clear history of violence and mental illness, but he was still allowed into the country unmonitored. His was a case where detention and treatment would have been warranted.

whodat said...

"...think how many of those people could be cared for with just a fraction of the 1/2 trillion dollars we've spent in Iraq. It's all about priorities."

Well, it is and it isn't. We have a war budget and a social services budget. It's not like the war money would be spent on social services if not on war. They're two different things.

And again, I can see both sides.

I think we're bursting at the seams and should close our borders for awhile, to let our melting pot do its thang. Either that or forget about borders altogether. I think it's the ambiguity that disturbs.

whodat said...

I think it's also disconcerting to folks whose families have been here a couple hundred years to hear "Press 1 for English," or hear about proposals to declare English our national language. The nation is changing/has changed faster than we can absorb it, and the resultant anxiety manifests as anger.

BitterGrace said...

"It's not like the war money would be spent on social services if not on war."

True, it couldn't with current funding, but we could certainly do it in future budgets. There's nothing in the Constitution that mandates a huge percentage of our national wealth going toward "defense." The President and Congress have the power to set spending priorities.

If it's either/or, I vote for forgetting borders altogether. If corporations no longer have to recognize them, why should people?

BitterGrace said...

Oops, just saw your second comment. I think you are right on that the anger has its roots in anxiety, but that that doesn't justify abusing people or denying them their rights. Desegregation made white people anxious, but that was no reason to preserve Jim Crow.

I guess I'm kind of Darwinian on the cultural issue. It's sad to see things pass away, but it's just part of the evolution of human society. I don't think there's any way to stop it, or any reason to try.

whodat said...

Yes, change is the only thing that's permanent, for sure.

I would vote for no boundaries, too. But it would be an administrative nightmare for the beaurocrats, can you imagine? (apologies to John)