Thursday, May 04, 2006

Immigrants' Rights and Civil Rights: Two Movements, One Elusive Goal?

From the New York Times, an article about the "Growing Unease of Some Blacks On Immigration":

But despite some sympathy for the nation's illegal immigrants, many black professionals, academics and blue-collar workers feel increasingly uneasy as they watch Hispanics flex their political muscle while assuming the mantle of a seminal black struggle for justice. Some blacks bristle at the comparison between the civil rights movement and the immigrant demonstrations, pointing out that black protesters in the 1960's were American citizens and had endured centuries of enslavement, rapes, lynchings and discrimination before they started marching. Others worry about the plight of low-skilled black workers, who sometimes compete with immigrants for entry-level jobs. And some fear the unfinished business of the civil rights movement will fall to the wayside as America turns its attention to a newly energized Hispanic minority with growing political and economic clout.

"All of this has made me start thinking, 'What's going to happen to African-Americans?' " said Brendon L. Laster, 32, a black fund-raiser at Howard University here, who has been watching the marches. "What's going to happen to our unfinished agenda?"

Immigrant leaders defend their use of civil rights language, saying strong parallels exist between the two struggles. And they argue that their movement will ultimately become a powerful vehicle to fight for the rights of all American workers, regardless of national origin.

"African-Americans during the civil rights movement were in search of the American dream and that's what our movement is trying to achieve for our community," said Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, which organized the April 10 demonstration that drew tens of thousands of people to Washington."We face the same issues even if we speak different languages," said Mr. Contreras, who is from El Salvador and listens to Dr. King's speeches for inspiration.

Mr. Jackson, who addressed the immigrant rally on Monday in New York, echoed those views. He noted that Dr. King, at the end of his life, focused on improving economic conditions for all Americans, regardless of race. And he said the similarities between African-Americans and illegal immigrants were too powerful to ignore. "We too were denied citizenship," Mr. Jackson said. "We too were undocumented workers working without wages, without benefits, without the vote. "We should feel honored that other people are using tactics and strategies from our struggle. We shouldn't say they're stealing from us. They're learning from us."

Mr. Jackson said corporate employers were fueling the tensions between blacks and immigrants by refusing to pay a living wage to all workers. John Campbell, a black steel worker and labor activist from Iowa, agreed."This is a class issue," said Mr. Campbell, who has been disheartened by black critics of the immigrant marches. "We need to join forces. We can't improve our lot in life as African-Americans by suppressing the rights of anyone else."

And from Immigration Prof Blog, Jennifer Chacon has these thoughts on the same subject:

But not all Blacks in the U.S. came here as slaves -- some are immigrants. Some of these immigrants are here legally, others are not. Many of these immigrants -- authorized and unauthorized -- face discrimination similar to that experienced by the decendants of slaves. Furthermore, they face the problems of immigrants. Black noncitizens, like other noncitizens, face removal under increasingly harsh immigration laws. Haitian migrants have faced systematic and virulent discrimination under U.S. immigration law. In an interdependent world, these issues have to be a part of the broader civil rights struggle.

To succeed, today's movement must harken back to a time when those engaged in the struggle were deeply concerned not just about what happened within the U.S. borders, but also with oppression in colonial states on a global scale. In the modern world, with its multinational corporations and global markets for goods and services, the new civil rights movement must be a global human rights movement if it hopes to advance the goals of all of those who have been left out of the dream. And those who march for immigration reform here must also think globally -- about the plight of citizens who have, for too long, been denied justice.

And UC Davis' Kevin Johnson has this comment:

But a multiracial civil rights movement will not happen on its own. Consider the lessons of an event seemingly unrelated to immigration — Hurricane Katrina. While all levels of government appeared paralyzed by ineptitude or indifference, African-Americans suffered in misery for what seemed like an eternity. Many immigrants, including Latinos and Vietnamese in the region, suffered as well. But the various groups did not work together. The African-American leadership took umbrage at the media’s characterization of Blacks who fled the Gulf region as “refugees,” and distanced themselves from “foreigners.” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin later expressed fears that the city would be “taken over by Mexican workers” coming to the Gulf region for jobs in the rebuilding effort.

Any future civil rights movement will require much hard work between and among communities of color. First, racism between minority communities must be addressed. A healthy and frank dialogue on this subject is long overdue.Second, a truly multiracial civil rights movement will need to identify common ground. All minorities want wage and labor protections in the work place, safe and affordable housing, equal access to education and fair treatment by the government. The congruence of interests among African-Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos on these general issues is clear. All minorities seek full membership in American society.

I haven't blogged about the Immigration marches or "Day Without Immigrants" walkout--mainly because Immigration Law Prof is the BEST source for news and legal analysis: the Anti-Defamation League on hate groups against immigration, a pretty comprehensive bibliography of law review articles on immigration law, and a disturbing story about a hate crime motivated by animus against immigrants.

Also, I don't think I should blog about everything, particularly if it's not within my field of study. That I am the daughter of immigrants (and aren't we all?) to me wasn't enough to make me feel like there was anything I needed to say about the subject--much less whether I should say anything at all. Isn't one of the goals of immigration to become a member of the society you join, such that you can stop thinking of yourself as an immigrant and start identifying as a member of the society? In truth, I am the daughter of immigrants, but am not one myself. I was born here, birth certificate and social security number and all. My siblings have horror stories of boat crossings to Malaysia and charming stories about their first plane trip to Texas. But I don't have that. So even within one generation, and a single family, we have two divergent stories. We have common experiences in America, but we have different histories. I don't forget my ancestry or origins--but it feels disingenuous to say that I, myself, am an immigrant. I may have the immigrant's perspective in feeling foreign an alien, and being forever looked upon that way (people still comment on how well I speak English)--but I cannot call myself one, and lay claim to that real history of coming to one country from another in search of a new home and life. That is what my parents did, and I am grateful. And for that reason, I am always sympathetic to immigrants and their claims to dignity, respect, and rights.

But I say this to demonstrate that there is a common slippage, or conflation between different terms and conditions. Being a child of immigrants is not the same as actually being an immigrant. You may lay claim to a certain perspective, but not an exact history. One may be a citizen and an immigrant too. But one must also take into account the differences people perceive in being a natural-born citizen and a naturalized citizen. Being a legal immigrant is not the same as being an illegal immigrant, and therein lies much of the conflict within communities of "immigrants" writ large--there is no homogeneity within a single racial or ethnic group, much less the extremely hetergeneous category of "immigrant." Civil rights, the political rights accorded to all citizens by virtue of their citizenship, are different from immigrants' rights--rights not specified in the Constitution, but may be specified by statute and enforced by various agencies (DHS, ICE) in accordance with Constitutional norms and international conventions on human rights. And of course, many people believe that illegal immigrants have no rights at all. These differences are emphasized or deemphasized according to rhetorical or political necessity--but they should not be ignored in the quest for "we are the world" commonality. Yet the similarities should not be ignored, or exploited for the sake of pitting racial groups against each other in the purported fight for the contested resources of employment, health care, and education. When ther is a three-way fight over the same slices of the pie, perhaps the question to ask is why the pie is too small to share in the first place.

I am sympathetic, and consider myself in solidarity with the immigrants fighting for greater recognition of their contributions to the American economy and demanding that they not be treated as felons in a foreign land. But in this too, is a difference. My family doesn't feel this way, and they are the actual immigrants. They are legal immigrants, and to them that makes all the difference. Just as they were looked down upon by the 3rd or 4th generation, fully assimilated Chinese and Japanese "immigrant" populations, so too does my family distinguish itself from other, newer immigrant groups. I suppose it may be part of the process of becoming "American." My sympathy with illegal immigrants results more from my political liberalism than it does my identification with being of an immigrant class. And I suppose my family's disunity with their cause is the belief that it is no cause of their own. They are citizens now, in a much higher tax bracket, and do not have the poltiical inclination to adopt the cause as their own.

And this is the difficulty of trying to do interracial, inter-group coalition building. Trying to make disparate people adopt disparate causes as if they were their own. Trying to make different people believe that it is in their self-interest to support another's interest--that there is a common interest and goal to be fought for together. The differences--between citizen and immigrant, between legal and illegal, between Black, Asian, and Latino are real--but they are not insurmountable. If the current struggle for immigrants' rights is to be considered another fight in the long-struggling Civil Rights Movement, then the commonalities--the real ones--must be emphasized, and the tempation to hide behind the differences (so casually exploited by the hate-mongering groups) must be resisted. There are only so many slices of the pie--and why are we fighting over it? And who should we really be fighting? Each other? Or the idea that the pie should be so small and we should all fight like debased humans over it?


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