The Long, Charming Reach of Racism

Being an EstadoUnidense* in Latin America should not be easy.  Forget Pakistan; there is no region of the world with more legitimate and longstanding grievances against the U.S. than Latin America.  Ecuadorians, for example, could complain about the CIA’s supposed role in the death of President Jaime Roldós in 1981, or, more concretely, the enduring impact of U.S.-imposed structural adjustment and neoliberalism on their country.

Despite all this, though, there hasn’t been a single moment here where I feel uncomfortable saying I’m from the U.S.  Most people don’t seem to have any problem separating people from policy, and realizing that I, personally, was not involved in the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954, am not an active part of Plan Colombia, and do not work for the IMF.  It helps, of course, that most people have family in the U.S., and designs on visiting or living there at least at some point during their lives.

Being from Arizona, though, is a different matter.  I haven’t actually lived in Arizona for two years now, and yet my first reflex is still to tell people that’s where I’m from.  As soon as I do, I can see people thinking, “Where have I heard that name before?” A second or two later, their faces tense up, and I quickly add, “Yeah, I’m from Arizona, but I don’t support that terrible immigration law.”

With SB 1070 partially going into effect tomorrow, there has been another wave of media coverage of the law in the last few days.  I have to say, I’m a bit astonished that, here in the Amazon, people are talking about what’s happening in a state that is—even by Red State standards—a backwater (we’re worse than Mississippi in education).  I’ve tried to explain a half-dozen times now why it is that Arizonans seem to dislike Latinos so much: “But we just want to work” is the refrain I get over and over again, or, last night, “What, are we so ugly?”

At first, I wondered what Arizona’s legislators would think if they knew how far this law reached and how deep condemnation of it runs.  If only they knew how strongly world opinion was against them. Then it occurs to me, though: the whole idea of conservativism—and the U.S.  exceptionalism they celebrate—is to be indifferent to the rest of the world.  Other countries think the death penalty is barbaric?  We’ll show them—we’ll execute people, and do it by firing squad at that!  We’re the only developed country without a public health care system?  Damnit, we’ll keep it that way, waste of money and lost lives be damned!  The fact that all of Latin America now thinks Arizonans are a bunch of racists is, by all accounts, a plus: good, maybe now they’ll stay home (and we can pick our own lettuce)!

In many of my conversations, I denounce Arizona’s law, explaining that I—unlike most of my fellow Arizonans—actually pay attentiont t the studies that show immigrants don’t really come to the U.S. to cause crime and steal jobs.  Unaware of the irony in what they saying, not a small number of Ecuadorians have responded to this by explaining to me that, “Well, here immigrants really do cause crime.” Many Ecuadorians, sadly, are also incredibly xenophobic: Cubans and Colombians are to Ecuadorians what Mexicans are to U.S.-ians and Poles are to the British.  It would seem that some of these things are universal and…

Jan Brewer, at least, would be proud.

…wait, what am I getting at?  Maybe the Republicans are right—sometimes it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks.  Xenophobia and racism and scapegoating are intrinsically wrong, whether or not the world community gets its act together to consistently denounce it.  And so, I say, fuck you Jan Brewer—fieldwork was already complicated enough before you made it harder.

*There’s no perfect translation, but “American” doesn’t sound quite right as a nationality in Latin America.

Broken Bones and Open Borders

Here’s an exciting life update: I broke my wrist.  I’m not going to go into how it happened, except to state that it did not involve alcohol and that my cover story is that it involved a fight with zombie ninja pirates.  Not a huge deal, but definitely a frustrating and unneeded at a stressful time of the year.  At least I could get a jet black cast that matched my wardrobe.

Immediately after the “incident,” I pushed myself through five hours of statistics in the library before heading off to a review session, at which point some of the more reasonable students in my program convinced me to go to the hospital to get my now comically swollen arm x-rayed.  They bid me adieu with the standard but ominous NHS send-off: “I hope you don’t have to wait too long.”

I’ve approached every experience I’ve had with the NHS so far as if it is the ultimate show-down between private and socialized medicine, with me as scorekeeper.  I’m ready to concede now, though, that – as enthusiastic as I am about participant-observation as a mode of research – the experiences of an accident-prone twenty-three-year-old are probably not sufficient for making a conclusive declaration about either system’s relative merits.  Sure, I didn’t have to wait more a few hours, and I definitely appreciate the $0 bill—but then again, I don’t have cancer and am not waiting for elective surgery.  Thus, I’m abandoning wholesale evaluation in favour of something a bit more obscure: metaphor and symbolism.

One thing that hit me during this most recent visit to an NHS “Accident and Emergency” Room was how little information they wanted about me.  Of course, they wanted to know my date of birth, medical history, and all about my injury.  But certain things we in the U.S. are accustomed to putting into endless forms – occupation, address, nationality, insurance – just don’t matter that much.  The NHS’s goal is to serve the person in front of them, not track them down with a bill or pick a fight with an insurance company.

The brilliance of it is that the NHS is, at least in some ways, impossible to exploit: I can lie or misrepresent myself to no end, and it doesn’t much matter, because the system doesn’t much care who I am so long as I need medical treatment.  We live in a world where government’s exist to categorize and classify and monitor—and yet the NHS is, in a weird way, surprisingly anonymous.  Somewhat counterintuitively, this makes me feel much more like a human being and less like a statistic.

- – – – -

This week in class, we’re discussing “statelessness.”  By “stateless,” we don’t mean refugees who have been ejected from their nations; instead, the term refers to people who literally have no nationality at all and thus—in a world where there is practically no designation more important than citizenship—do not really exist.  It’s a form of non-status that affects fifteen million people worldwide, non-persons ranging from Turkish Cypriots to the children of undocumented immigrants in countries that do not grant birthright citizenship.

All of the literature we’ve read on statelessness focuses on the stateless people as the problem: how, in the modern world, does anyone manage to have no birth certificate or passport?  And how do we fit these square pegs into the round holes of the nation-state system?  How do you legislate for people that are, just by merit of their persisting physical presence, lawless?  I think these are all stupid questions, to be honest.  For most stateless people, having no nationality is a horrible thing—but for some (I’m thinking, for example, of Roma, some indigenous groups, communards), perhaps it reflects their realization of how absurd our modern ideas of citizenship are.

The recent crackdown in Arizona has thrust immigration back into my brain in a big way again for the first time since I stopped taking classes with Professor Fernandez-Kelly at Princeton.  Freshman year, I spent dozens of hours collecting statistics and studies about undocumented immigration, in the hopes that the accumulation of piles of data would convince people that immigration is actually good for all concerned.  With the benefit of a few years of experience—and having watched comprehensive immigration fail over and over—I’m convinced that advocates for sane immigration policy need to go beyond reason.  We need to ask why it is that so much hinges on the lotteries of birth, and why categories and boundaries are so important.

When I think about problems like “statelessness”, I can’t help but think that the problem isn’t with the people, but with the states that throw up barriers between them.  My utopian imagination is once again drawn to a vision of a borderless world, in which we find a better way to sort ourselves than by pre-natal dice-rolls and invisible lines scrawled across the map.  I imagine states that exist to support whomever knocks on the door—acknowledging that we are, after all, in this together—rather than bringing one group in and leaving another outside.

It’s a weird time to live in Europe.  With politicians across the continent talking about gut-wrenching cuts to public services, I can’t help but think that I’m witness to the demise of one of the world’s great political experiments: social democracy.  Of course, I’m pretty sure the creators of the NHS didn’t have such lofty goals as universal citizenship in mind, but—metaphorically at least—I think they’ve created something that reaches towards them.  I’ll be sad if I have to see that go.

- – – – – -

Jukebox: Gaslight Anthem – The Boxer

LSAT, Redux

Tonight is Worcester College, Oxford’s first pub night.  All the new graduates will gather around the buttery and partake of some low-price English ale.  Sounds like a good chance to meet people and make new friends.

I will not be in attendance.  Instead, I will be leading a group of Princeton undergraduates in some illicit activities that rhyme with “team stunnelling” beneath Princeton (must talk in code – Shirley has spies everywhere).  Admittedly, it sounds like fun, except for the fact that it means that I am, in fact, still in Princeton.  And no, it’s not because of a sudden wave of nostalgia, but because I don’t have a visa to the U.K.

This post could easily turn into a rant against the U.K. immigration system.  There are undoubtedly some absurdities, like the fact that my application had to be sent to Los Angeles when there is a consulate in New York, or that their “online” application has to be submitted on paper, or that it took them a full week after I FedEx-ed it overnight to their office to acknowledge that I had sent them anything.  All in all, though, it’s hard to get too mad, since this whole situation is largely of my own making.  I also considered using my whole experience—the confusion of poorly designed websites, the unintelligible array of forms, the utter lack of customer service—as an opportunity to identify with the plight of other immigrants trying to start a new life.  But I think that would be a bit of an insult; they get screwed by the immigration system, I got screwed by my own carelessness.

There are, of course, parallels to my current predicament.  Like, say, for example, last year, when I couldn’t take the LSAT because I filled out my registration form with the name “Alex V. Barnard” when my ID names me “Alexander V. Barnard,” a discrepancy that my test admission ticket warned me would prevent me from entering.  I am not so humble that I won’t acknowledge that, in some situations, I am a pretty smart guy, but god I can be so dumb. Perhaps I am slated for academia, not because of any brilliance but because of my own absent-mindedness, which makes me suited only for a career that requires abstract theorizing and not an iota of awareness of details.

On the plus side, I am still going to Oxford—I’m just not entirely sure when.  Under ordinary circumstances, showing up a bit late for school wouldn’t be a huge issue, except that I’m moving to a foreign country in which I don’t know anyone in an unfamiliar university system where I will be studying something I know nothing about.  And, of course, there’s the fact that I have a very special visitor coming next week (read: Jackie).

Sigh.  I need a personal assistant.

A Brief Rant – Read a Book, Joe Wilon

I didn’t watch Obama’s speech last night, partially because I was passed out sick (those parasites take a long time to die), partially because I’m already convinced that whatever Obama pushes is the best feasible option for health care reform, and partially because I’m sickened by the prospect of what that “best feasible option” likely actually is. Like everyone else, though, I’ve been following last night’s “big news,” which is, of course, Congressman Joe Wilson’s verbal outburst, telling Obama “You lie!” when the President announced his plan wouldn’t cover undocumented immigrants. While I’ve been trying all morning to share a few choice thoughts with Mr. Wilson, his website appears to have crashed from high traffic, so in an effort at mental catharsis I am posting them here.

I am not – repeat, not – particularly offended that a congressman would have the audacity to heckle a sitting President during a speech to Congress. While the sheer lunacy of Republicans (calling healthcare reform Nazism, for example) puts this sentiment to the test, I generally believe that we shouldn’t overly resign ourselves to respectful, silent awe of our leaders. I rather prefer the British model, where the Prime Minister has to stand weekly and be badgered from all angles and all issues, decorum be damned.

No, what annoys me far more is the moral inconsistency and factual inaccuracy that underlie the position behind Wilson’s verbal expulsion. I’ll deal with the former first. Even if we accept that undocumented aliens are “criminals,” does that really exclude them from health care? After all, we provide health care to those we incarcerate and (at least, supposedly) even provide health care to “illegal enemy combatants” and prisoners of war. While I shudder to think of how Wilson would respond to this point—frankly, I imagine it’s more likely he would say “no” to health care for all the aforementioned groups—I think that our particular obsession with not giving health care to immigrants is a bit out of line with our general social consensus about health care being a right for all.

Of course, the crux of the issue is the Republican terror that offering health care to immigrants will create an incentive for them to come here, breaking the law (something no one worries about with members of the Taliban). While I personally find this argument to be stupid beyond all reason, a cursory engagement with some “facts” would probably be more helpful for Wilson than to hear me tell him he’s an idiot. First off, coming to the United States is physically very challenging and dangerous, which is why nearly anyone who has looked at the demographic composition of undocumented immigrants has discovered that they are generally young, healthy individuals, despite sensationalized reports of migrants carrying tuberculosis and AIDS into the United States.* Most importantly, migrants simply do not come to the United States to take advantage of social services: a statistically negligible proportion of migrants in one study reported interest in tapping health care or welfare benefits as their motivation for coming to the U.S.** Migrants come to work, plain and simple, and tend to keep their heads down otherwise (part of why their crime rate – when immigration violations are factored out – is also low).

Once Wilson’s website is back up, I’ll send this along. Of course, none of these arguments—particularly the ones I am supporting using social science research—have any significance in the public debate. I’m okay with screaming at a wall, if the alternative is to be silent, though.

*Doug Massey, 2002, “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors.”
**Berk, Marc, Claudia Schur, Leo Chavez and Martin Frankel, 2000, “Health Care Use Among Undocumented Latino Immigrants.”

On the Border

On my drive from Flagstaff back to Bend last week, I took a detour to see the border (Okay, I was actually going to San Diego).  It was a riot – insofar as it is hot and ugly and I had to go through three Immigration and Customs Enforcement checkpoints.  I didn’t have it too bad, of course: it would appear that if you’re white, they wave you through, and if you’re brown, you have to submit to a thorough search of your car.

Please search my car so you can at least maintain the pretext that you're not racial profiling.

Please search my car so you can at least maintain the pretext that you're not racial profiling.

Anyway, this is what the border itself looks like:

An easy trek.

An easy trek.

I took the picture because I think the physical border itself is worth pondering.  I don’t talk to people about immigration much anymore.  The hysteria has died down, along with hopes for immigration reform anytime soon.  When I do, though, I inevitably get the impression that people think that those people crossing the border are the most desperate and destitute their countries have to offer. It’s a sentiment that is expressed not just by deranged paramilitary Minute Men but also well-meaning erstwhile friend of immigrants. And it’s a view enshrined on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

I was surprised my freshman year when I learned that this view is dead wrong. A long term, longitudinal study of tens of thousands of immigrants conducted by sociologist Doug Massey has determined that undocumented immigrants from Mexico come from poor communities, but tend to be the most educated and most skilled people from those places. Of course, no one ever believes me, which is where this picture comes back in.

Immigrants used to cross the border in beautiful San Diego, where it’s perpetually 72 degrees. We’ve since cracked down, but they’re still coming – except through Arizona, where it’s 110 in the shade. When you actually look at the border, it obvious that immigrants are in fact incredibly motivated people, especially when in a “good” year only 256 die in the attempt.  Frankly, I’m scared to drive that stretch of road; and they’re walking.  All that, and they’re coming here and doing this, which quite frankly looks like it sucks:

Don't support immigration?  Then go pick your own goddamn lettuce.

Don't support immigration? Then go pick your own goddamn lettuce.

“Fixing” immigration isn’t as complicated as we make it out to be.  We know how to make a sensible policy, because we’ve done it before: a mix of amnesty, more low-skilled visas, and assimilation programs could easily allow the U.S. to reap the benefits of immigration while avoiding its negative abnormalities. The issue is not one of policy, but of perception and political will, and of convincing people to look at immigration a different way.  It’s not enough just to convince people that immigrants aren’t actively ignoring our language, flooding our emergency rooms, and stealing our jobs (though they aren’t).  I think we also need to show that immigrants possess the initiative and aspirations that we think make someone “American.” Who knows, maybe the picture doesn’t make that case, but I think it’s a case worth making.

Mr. Obama: Tear down this wall!

Mr. Obama: Tear down this wall!