Saturday, May 03, 2008

How Can A Person Be Illegal?

May 1st passes by mostly unnoticed in this country. May Day is The Labor Day. I know, that seems confusing to many in the United States who understand Labor Day to fall in September and think of it as the biggest sale day of the year. The other Labor Day is acknowledged in many parts of the world as celebrating the social and economic achievement of the workers/ labor movement. Some in the US are cognizant of the importance of this day.

In Seattle, this May 1st, the members of the LGBT community (of whom my sister is one) protested the conditions faced in the US by the many workers from other nations, such as, facing unreasonable searches, separation from family, deportation and generally degrading treatment. It takes a group of people fighting for their rights to recognize the anguish of another marginalized group. Till yesterday, I called the many Mexicans and other workers in this country who did not have legal visa status "illegal immigrants." Today I am so ashamed that I have been using this term without thought.

Even though in the past I have written about immigration issues (deaths in custody, benefits of migration & intimidation by ICE), in everyday language, I have been using the term "illegal immigrants" to refer to the many guest workers who fell out of status or those who crossed the border in search of a better life. It is a term much in use by the media, the authorities, politicians and people you meet (like at the gym or the grocery store). So, I never gave it another thought.

But what does it mean for a person to be "illegal"? No person is born illegal. If a person does something that all of us can consider to be illegal- such as murder someone, or steal from someone or hit someone- then they would be a criminal. But despite having committed an illegal act, the person would not have become illegal. It is a strange concept to have people who are illegal. As if they need to be wiped off in order to restore legality. Terms like this dehumanize people and allow us to treat them as if they are criminal or worse. Even if it is the economic situation created by the developed world in the immigrant's nation, that has lead to a centrifugal movement. Even if it is the economic situation in the developed world, which depends on cheap and unsupported labor, that has drawn the itinerant worker across the border.

Immigrants are blamed for a lot and credited with little. We can all probably think of some Americans (and for that matter, Europeans and Australians) today who behave like ignorant bigots mindless of their own ancestors' struggle for basic rights and to better their family fortunes by moving across borders. They say that their ancestors came to this country legally and worked hard for the prosperity they have. However they forget that the story of America's settlement hasn't been pretty in the past. For instance, did you know that from 1882 to WWII, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by the American congress, withheld citizenship to the Chinese person along with "convicts, lunatics and idiots"? Prior to 1880, the Chinese were allowed in, in droves, to work the most back-breaking jobs at low pay.

Unfortunately, we are not much further along in 2008. The way we treat migrant workers is shameful. These are people driven by the same desire to better themselves that most of us can relate to. Let's look within ourselves to find better solutions for economic problems than demonizing those less fortunate.

[Please click on the bottom photograph to see more pictures from the past and the present at the host website of Ellis Island. This particular picture is from 1892 and shows European immigrants. The top two signs were part of a vile email I received whose purpose was to drum up anti-immigrant hysteria.]

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