Tag Archives: immigration

Why Immigrant Rights are Human Rights

1 Oct

A few years ago, a former Mayor of Portland, Oregon asked me the question “why are immigrant rights human rights?” I responded with a clumsy jumble of words having something to do with the United Nations and about ten other things adding up to a total of about 11 too many ideas all poorly spoken.

5 minutes after leaving his office the answer I wish I’d given came to me. I ran it over in my head all the way home. It went something like this:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. The Nazi atrocities that came to light during that war inspired the United Nations to convene The Commission on Human Rights to draft a the Declaration as a foundation upon which the Commission would create covenants and conventions that aspired to ensure that atrocities like those committed in Nazi Germany could never be repeated.

Approximately 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis. In addition, between 250 thousand and 1.5 million Romani, 25,000 LGBT people, 2-3 million Russian prisoners of war, and as many as 2 million ethnic Slavs were also killed.

In the face of such horrors, it was deemed necessary to acknowledge the right of people to move freely, including the right to cross national borders and seek asylum from persecution and oppression.

That’s why immigration is a human right.

These rights are described in Articles 13 and 14. They read,

Article 13.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  • (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Today, in order to live by the spirit of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if not the original wording of its writers, we have to address the many forces beyond war and political persecution that drives global migration.

For example, consider Mexico. Unfair U.S. trade policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement have devastated the Mexican economy. It is the most powerful force driving Mexicans to immigrate to the U.S. without documents. These people over whose heads we are fighting about “illegal” immigration are economic refugees.

And they are only among the latest wave.

For decades, U.S. agribusiness has laid claim to rich agricultural lands in the global south. Once there they turn farmers into farm workers and inwardly directed economies where people grow crops and make things they themselves consume into outwardly directed economies based on growing single crops such as pineapples, or sugar for export. The people of these communities become dependent on the wages they receive from multinational corporations and their local contractors. Over generations, they may even lose the knowledge necessary to return to what they once were.

Regardless, when more profitable labor markets open elsewhere, companies leave and communities are devastated. People are impoverished and then driven out, forced to follow the money. But though capital is free to cross borders, people are not. By building fences legally or literally, we are banishing them to a kind of poverty most of us in the U.S. could not begin to imagine.

And agribusiness is only one type of enterprise that is robbing people around the world of sovereignty and self-determination.

Our understanding of human rights must adapt to a changing world. As long as capital can move freely, making people dependent on foreign incomes, people should be able to follow the profits they helped to produce, even if it means crossing our national borders.

Constructing Race: Pew Center Report On Asians

21 Jun

The June 19 release of the Pew Research Center report, The Rise of Asian Americans is generating buzz that is, frankly, giving me a headache.

The report summary opens with the following:

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success….

Asian Americans trace their roots to any of dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Each country of origin subgroup has its own unique history, culture, language, religious beliefs, economic and demographic traits, social and political values, and pathways into America.

But despite often sizable subgroup differences, Asian Americans are distinctive as a whole, especially when compared with all U.S. adults, whom they exceed not just in the share with a college degree (49% vs. 28%), but also in median annual household income ($66,000 versus $49,800) and median household wealth ($83,500 vs. $68,529).

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) responded with a statement summed up by the line,

We need to move beyond one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism about Asian Americans in order to better understand and address the diverse experiences facing our community members…

NCAPA’s response is a good start, but I’ll take it a step further.

The problem with the Pew report is that it constructs an idea about race that is very problematic. Bear with me here and I’ll explain.

The racial category Asian lumps together widely diverse groups with no common language, phenotype, or culture who come to the U.S. under vastly different circumstances. How, exactly, do you arrive at a “distinctive whole” from which you can deduce an average experience of, say, Japanese Americans and Laotian Americans?

The first wave of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. came through Hawaii in the 1800s as contract laborers lured by lies about grand opportunity and riches. The more recent wave of Japanese immigrants is being recruited to the U.S. as highly skilled workers or business investors.

The vast majority of Laotian immigrants on the other hand, came to the U.S. since 1973 as refugees of war. Here’s what that means for them, according to the Laotian American organization Legacies of War,

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance over Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. The bombing was part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government…

Today, about one third of Laos, a country about the size of Utah, is contaminated with unexploded ordinance. Civilian contact with these unexploded weapons has resulted in 20,000 casualties since the war ended.

How do you mash together Laotian war refugees and Japanese business investors and come up with an average or mean experience?

Much ink is also spilled on the subject of how highly educated the new wave of Asian immigrants are. But this statistic reflects bias within the immigration system as much as anything else. Visas are fast tracked for highly skilled workers and business investors. The elite immigrants who come to the U.S. on these visas are from economically diverse countries, many with extraordinary levels of poverty. Yet the suggestion is that high levels of education are the product of racial or cultural characteristics.

So let’s get it straight. The term “Asian” in the U.S. was chosen by Asian American activists as an alternative to the pejorative “Oriental.” The Oriental is the creation of Europeans for whom the Orient was an object of curiosity and a source of riches to be studied and exploited. In modern times, the study of the Orient, especially in contrast with the civilized world of the Occident (aka Europe), solidified an idea of Orientals as exotic, potentially dangerous Others.

Activists back in the 1960s decided they wanted to reject the label Oriental and call themselves Asian American instead. Subsequent generations of Asian Americans have gathered as a coalition under the Asian American banner in order to resist being treated like Orientals. But don’t get it twisted, the idea of an Asian or Oriental race is a creation of white people, not of Asians.

There are many problems with the Pew report. Chief among them,

  1.  lumping us together tends to trivialize the very real service needs of those who are less well-off and,
  2. reports like this are powerful molders of Asian racial identity, popularizing ideas about Asian traits, capacities (and threats), and, of course, always in comparison with the supposed failures of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.

On that first point, Hmong and Vietnamese immigrants are among the poorest ethnic groups in the U.S. There are real consequences to characterizing them as part of a “distinctive whole” with more successful groups when it comes time to seek funding for poverty alleviation programs.

That’s not to say that Asians don’t enjoy racial privilege over other groups of people of color. We do. The widely divergent histories of how different people of color entered the U.S. (or in the case of Native Americans, how the U.S. entered them) have resulted in very different contemporary realities. But studies like this marginalize those important historical differences and strengthen racist stereotypes and racism, not just against Asians, but against all our interests.

The Privilege Game

27 Apr

In the classic book, Faces At The Bottom Of The Well:  The Permanence of Racism, legal scholar Derrick Bell put forth this proposition: “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.”

I consider Derrick Bell a racial justice hero. To acknowledge the permanence of racism is indeed the ultimate act of defiance because this fact, once we acknowledged, leads necessarily to the conclusion that simple reform (what another great hero, the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, once told me leads only to re-formation of a broken system) will never lift us out of white supremacy. To end racism, we must look beyond reformation to transformation.

It’s a radical notion, but I’m a believer.

On the other hand, I’m also a practical sort. If we are to one day find ourselves at the threshold of radical transformation, we need a map to help us find our way, and then focus on getting there one step at a time.

On any map there are many paths to one’s chosen destination. For racial justice advocates, I think one path is the changing racial demography of the U.S.

By the year 2042, it is predicted that we will be a majority minority nation, with Latinos representing about a third of the population by no later than 2050. That means whites will soon no longer constitute the majority ethnic group. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country and a bastion of whiteness and conservatism, is in decline.

What that means is that pretty soon, white supremacy may meet its greatest challenge. If we can get it together, people of color won’t have to ask whites for permission to create policies that address the destructive legacy of racism. But, the big question is, will we get it together and act as the majority, or will we remain divided and allow whites to remain in control as the largest minority?

To me, all of this hinges on something called privilege.

Racism endures in spite of generations of resistance because it is enforced by violence and intimidation, and empowered by privilege. It’s a carrot and stick situation. Without the carrot, the stick isn’t enough to keep us all doing our little bits to maintain white dominance.

Privilege, as I and and the Free Dictionary understand it, is special permission, special rights, or exclusive benefits granted as prerogatives of status that are exercised in order to exclude or harm others. Because privilege is given, it can also be taken away. And, because privilege always comes at someone’s expense, it keeps the majority of us who don’t have the power to grant privileges acting like a bunch of divided minorities.

Throughout history, white privilege has been granted to folks who didn’t used to be white. They Irish were labeled sub-whites to exploit them, and then were whitened to get their help in exploiting someone else even more. Around the middle of the last century, they decided Jews were white. And not too many years later, they began a process of whitening Asian Americans by granting us the status of “model minority” in order to promote the idea that if Asians can make it, the cause of poverty and lack of opportunity for Black and Brown people isn’t racism, it’s Black and Brown people.

And now they’re trying to do a job on Latinos by playing the good immigrant vs bad immigrant game. If you’re a “bad” immigrant, you’re “illegal.” That’s right, you’re illegal, you know, like crack cocaine or an unregistered gun or something. As an illegal person, you have hell to pay and more. Intimidation, violence, arrest, indefinite detention, deportation, and the list goes on.

But, if you’re a good immigrant, you get… Well, okay, I guess there’s not much of a carrot in this case. It’s mostly all about the stick. But at least you’re exempted from being treated like you’re illegal. So it pays to allow yourself to be cast as the good immigrant and allow the bigots to persecute the so-called bad guys and avoid the label “racist” by calling you “friend.”

You don’t get to have privilege without that nasty downside, whether you want it or not. And that downside is something we all pay for. It diminishes our humanity and it keeps us all vulnerable to being losers in the privilege game.

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