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Central Americans at the border

July 14, 2014

In response to spit(e)ful Murrieta, CA, and preemptive League City, TX, and to reiterate the adage that “we are here because you were there,” I’ve compiled a list of pieces reminding us that migration and displacement have histories. In the cases of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, that imperial and economic history is not pretty.

Also, because the favorite interrogatory of anti-immigrant protestors seems to be “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” let’s have the experts remind us that immigration law has a history too — one that’s quite convoluted, structured by colonialism and racism, and hardly as straightforward as the aggressive question suggests. Indeed, I would ask: what part of illegal — or legal — immigration do you understand? But, of course, the protests aren’t at all about legality and illegality, knowing the rules and following the procedures. They’re about belonging and non-belonging, race and racism, the deserving and the un-deserving. Historical and legal details aside, the thing that gets me the most about the question (besides its obvious hypocrisy for the typical American who doesn’t know the answer) is that it not only ridicules its imaginary interlocutor as self-evidently stupid, but also naturalizes national borders as though they were cut into planet earth, as though the exercise of national sovereignty and its “legal” machinations implemented through some 140 years of restrictive immigration policy were always and forever the case — much less just

Since I can’t find an on-line distillation of Mae Ngai’s book, let me just quote one passage from it:

The controversies over immigration policy taking place at the beginning of the twenty-first century center on whether immigrants contribute positively or deleteriously to the nation’s economy and culture, but there is virtually no political support for open or numerically unrestricted immigration. If the principle of immigration restriction has become an unquestioned assumption of contemporary politics, we need to ask how it got to be that way and to consider its place in the historical construction of the nation. (5)

I like this passage because it frankly questions the assumption that nearly all contenders over immigration reform take for granted: why do we have numerically restricted immigration in the first place?


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