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May First, 2010: What I Think About Immigration

In Politics on May 5, 2010 at 11:31 am

Yes, I know it’s a few days later, but I think it’s fitting that I’m writing this particular post on Cinco de Mayo.

A flash back to my time in Japan: On more than one occasion I was stopped by police, asked to show my ID, what I did for a living, where I worked, etc. I was stopped because I was very obviously a foreigner, and the police in Japan routinely ask for ID from those who are obviously not Japanese. I would not say that I was harassed per se, but the whole process was inconvenient and somewhat humiliating.

More to the point though, I hated these incidents because of what it said about Japan. Every time I got stopped by a police officer, Japan revealed itself to be a country possessed of an alienating insularity. I wanted Japan to be a better country than that, a modern country, a country that didn’t really mind if foreigners were about. Clinging to national identifications seems deeply childish, and the police stops that I had to put up with did not really accomplish anything. The only thing that they did was remind me that I was a foreigner, and that Japan (as much as I loved it) could be a real dick sometimes.

Which brings me to Arizona.

I would like to believe that the U.S. is a bit more enlightened than Japan, a bit more inclusive and broad-minded. I would like to believe that the U.S. will never behave like an insular island nation, insecure in its own cultural integrity. On May first, a substantial amount of Portland’s Hispanic population was in the streets, protesting more generally for recognition and equality, but with a special emphasis on Arizona.

I have a hard time, thinking about immigration. On one hand, I do think that people should come to the U.S. legally, that crossing borders without authorization is, indeed, a crime. That said, simply trying to deport everyone in the U.S. illegally would be a massively impractical (and probably inhumane) undertaking. Something else needs to be done.

The protesters and various speakers over and over said that they were in the U.S. for jobs. That’s the crux of it, right there. Every year, thousands of people make the completely rational decision that it is preferable to be illegal in the U.S. than poor in Mexico. I find that very, very affecting. Being poor, out of work, and generally on the lowest rung of the social ladder in Mexico is so bad, that every year a very appreciable number of people make the decision that it is better to be surrounded by hostile law enforcement, live without documentation, and be in the midst of a language that you don’t understand. They choose that in favor of poverty in their home country. Think about that- think about being so completely destitute and desperate that you decide to smuggle yourself to, say, Russia in order to actually support yourself. That would take a certain amount of wherewithal.

The U.S. does not have an immigration problem with Canada. There is a reason for that- Canada offers a range of economic options for its dwellers. It’s a perfectly nice country, and the poor in Canada are not so desperate that they choose our illegality over their poverty. Canada has jobs and social infrastructure, and that’s why the Canadian unemployed tend to stay there.

The fact of the matter is that illegal immigration from Mexico is going to be a problem until Mexico gets its act together. This is not something that we can necessarily fix quickly. It has taken us over a year to fix the comparably coherent domestic economy, and as much as I’d like to believe in American economic and political power, we cannot pull up Mexico by ourselves.

Until then, yes, the people who are here from Mexico (a dysfunctional, corrupt, and impoverished narco-state) ought to be accommodated in a humane matter. This does not mean that we should open the border to all comers, but it does mean that if someone has been in the U.S. for over a decade, contributing to the economy and possibly even with a family here, then amnesty should be considered. (One set of my great grandparents also came to the U.S. illegally, so the family story goes. That also certainly effects my views on the matter.)

I most certainly don’t think that anyone who looks foreign should be stopped by police and asked for ID. I brought up my experiences with Japanese police not so much to identify my situation with that of Hispanic immigrants, but because I knew that I had it easy- I was an American white guy. I’m sure those police were much harder on the people whom they heard speaking Mandaring, Cantonese, and Korean. I’m sure the Arizona police will be much harder on Hispanics. (To be fair, the Portland police were out in force, and I didn’t see any incidents of nastiness. They seemed much more concerned with directing traffic.)

The whole march had a kind of carnival atmosphere to it, and as much as I tried to stay a disinterested observer, snapping away with my camera, I couldn’t help but experience great feelings of empathy for the families carrying flags, placards, and signs in English and Spanish. The pro-pot protesters in the square looked somewhat sophomoric by comparison. Here were people asking for things like jobs and familial coherence. They were asking for something that I thought was immensely reasonable. It is a shame that their requests have to be shouted.

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