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Don't Blame the Aliens

These border crossing lines can take hours to get through.

The neighborhoods we grow up in determine a lot about how we view the world. I grew up in a suburb primarily made up of whites and Asians. You would think having lived in California for most of my life I would know something about Mexico and the people who come from there. But the sad truth is, the only contact I had with Mexicans was through my TV set. Whenever political elections rolled around, I would see commercials showing border-hopping illegal Mexicans swarming into the US. You would think as the child of immigrants I would have sympathized with the experiences of Mexican Americans.

But no, I fell prey to the climate of fear those commercials aroused. I thought of Taiwanese immigrants as good, hardworking and law-abiding people. Mexicans were lower-class, uneducated, violent gang-bangers who had no business being in this country. But as Becky and I made our way back to California, I was deeply disturbed by what I learned about how ignorant views like my own can lead to really stupid and tragic laws.


Making A Difference…For Real

As a country made up almost entirely of immigrants (except for Native Americans), we seem to have such bizarre and contradictory attitudes about opening up our borders to outsiders. On the one hand, we celebrate our immigrant heritage and that fact that so many people found new lives here in America. On the other hand, anti-immigrant hatred, otherwise known as nativism, has also been a part of the national mindset, going back to the Know-Nothings. We depend on the cheap labor of immigrants to build our railroads, canals and factories. Then we feel threatened by their success or their "anti-American" ways.

Race, of course, has played a huge role in which immigrants we welcome into this country and which ones we don't. The first legislation ever to restrict immigration was entirely focused on the Chinese. Neda documents how the National Origins Act of 1924 further targeted Asians to keep them out of the US. But what's less well known is that certain people we would label as "white" today were also labeled as menaces to society in the past, whose presence needed to be restricted.

Colorful dresses can be found just across the border from San Diego.

In 1870, one of every four European immigrants was from Britain. By the 1880s, that number had dropped to one in eight. Where were the Europeans coming from if not Northern Europe? They were mostly Italians, Greeks, Russian Jews, Poles, Slavs and Hungarians. Their languages, customs and religions marked them as different from their Northern and Western European predecessors. Because many were Catholic or Jewish, it was thought that they could never assimilate into white Protestant America. Even Woodrow Wilson himself, before he was President, observed that, "Multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland" who had "neither skill nor energy nor an initiative of quick intelligence" were coming in such huge numbers "as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population." The Ku Klux Klan now added Southern and Eastern Europeans to their hit list, along with African Americans. These immigrants were also thought to be suspect for bringing with them to America radical ideas that were fomenting socialism, communism and anarchy in the US. See Neda's dispatch on Emma Goldman for one example!

After World War I, America was scared more than ever of foreign influence, particularly of Communist influence. In 1924, the National Origins Act put into place an official policy that virtually banned all immigrants from Asia and severely restricted the numbers of Eastern and Southern Europeans who could come to America. The Italian quota went from 42,000 to 4,000. The Polish decreased from an annual rate of 31,000 to 6,000 and the Greeks fell from 3,000 to 100. Not until the 1960s would these policies change.

When I read Wilson or the KKK's remarks concerning the "unAmericanness" of Irish Catholics or Russian Jews, I tend to congratulate myself on being way more open-minded and enlightened than they were. And yet, growing up, I had the same stereotypes about Mexicans! I thought they only wanted to speak Spanish and weren't capable of becoming real "Americans." I thought we had to police the Mexican border so that no more of their kind would infiltrate California. Well, when Becky and I traveled the border between San Diego and Tijuana (the busiest in the entire world), my first-hand glimpse of "life on the border" was a real wake-up call in making me realize that our current immigration policies are no more helpful and just as racist as the National Origins Act.

43,000 people go back and forth across the border from San Diego to Tijuana every day
In the United States, there are around 5 million undocumented immigrants. Of those, around 2 million are thought to be Mexican. That's important to keep in mind since the term "illegal alien" inevitably seems to be associated with Mexicans when there are plenty of other people of illegal nationalities who are here. And most illegal immigrants are here not because they jumped the border, but because they've overstayed their visits. However, 90 percent of the Immigration and Natural Service (INS) budget goes to patrolling the US-Mexico border. The INS actually receives more funding ($4 billion!) than the FBI or the CIA. Some Mexicans joke that they are the only ethnic group with their own police force. Why all the heavy policing? The Mexican border has long been a violent place in US history, with many battles being fought over it.

One person dies a day trying to cross the border. River drownings are among the most common causes of death.
In 1994, the INS began a project called Operation Gatekeeper, which beefed up the border patrol to 5,000, supposedly to stop both illegal immigration and drugs. At the border outside Tijuana, the INS has 10 helicopters with infrared cameras, stadium lights that go on for 6 miles and 1200 sensors to detect human bodies. All this technology is there for the sole purpose of keeping out a desperate group of people fleeing the poverty of their own country. Despite the hurdles, thousands still attempt to cross the border every year. Since Operation Gatekeeper, many undocumented immigrants have had to hike through dangerous mountains and deserts and over 600 people in California alone are thought to have died of starvation or to have drowned in the river.

The Quakers continue their long tradition of fighting for all of God's children by assisting Mexican immigrants.

One group that is fighting for the human rights of Mexican immigrants and for a more humane policy is the American Friends Service Committee. Yup, that's right, those Quakers are at it again. Their US/Mexico Border Program is run by Roberto Martinez, an activist of 20 years. The Service Committee has put out human rights reports detailing all the violations of civil rights that have occurred because of Operation Gatekeeper. Besides increasing risks to crossing the border, people of Latino descent routinely are stopped for no reason and asked for identification or citizenship papers. In the worst cases, they are shot to death by Border Patrol. When Becky and I went through checkpoints, we were never stopped for more than a minute, despite the fact that Turkey (our car) was loaded to the top. We could have hidden three people under all our stuff and they wouldn't have known. Something tells me if our skin color had been a bit darker, we would have gotten a more severe grilling.

The dirty fact about our attitudes towards illegal immigrants is that certain businesses want and need them. They perform jobs at stunningly low wages that most Americans will not do. That's why whenever Congress tries to pass legislation requiring employers to make sure their employees are legal residents, it always fails because of lobbying from businesses. But we continue to beef up enforcement and make the border a war zone to show we're being tough on the illegal aliens, even though it's a hopeless battle. I find it highly appropriate that the Border Patrol was formed as an answer to illegal bootleggers during Prohibition. Just as you can't stop the flow of alcohol, so you can't stop immigrants or drugs from somehow getting into the country.

Legal immigrants have been under fire too. In 1996 President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Supposedly designed to combat terrorism, it allowed for the deportation of any legal resident who had a felony (burglary, car theft, assault) going back up to 20-30 years! IIRAIRA has destroyed many families and lives and was something I had never heard of until Roberto told me about the campaign to try and rectify some of the Act's disastrous aspects. One thing the campaing is pushing for is to allow a judicial review before someone is deported. Right now, a legal resident could be put on a plane back to Hungary without having a judge decide the merits of his/her case. Not since the National Origins Act have our immigration policies been so vicious and anti-human rights. To learn more about the personal stories of people affected by the act and what you can do to help, check out these anti- Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act sites:

New Immigration Laws are Destroying People's Lives!

Micasa - Sucasa

Writing your Congressperson could make a huge difference! While you're at it, let them know what you think about Operation Gatekeeper. And please also remember that our country is built on the backs of immigrants seeking their American Dream. Let's do what we can to help them achieve it.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Building a better human - in the 1920's?!
Jennifer - Evolution's gonna make a monkey's uncle out of you!
Stephanie - The KKK: breaking the cycle of hate
Jennifer - The talking walls of Angel Island
MAD - TV: A giant slushie for your brain