AN ESSAY ABOUT UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS BY ROBERT LIVINGSTON
“You’re an agitator.”
“Not an alarmist?” I responded to my friend.
“And a rebel, a persistent, pugnacious protester.”
“All because of what I wrote about the plight of undocumented immigrants?”
“In a word, yes.”
I had written that apartheid was alive and well in America. Just ask the millions of undocumented, mainly Hispanic folks residing in the good old USA. Don’t think so, do you? We don’t have a system of segregation and discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity toward this group, you say. I beg to differ. With regard to “illegals,” Jim Crowism is still dancing to the odious melody of “separate but equal” in our political discourse. Don’t believe we treat “the new Negro” from below the Rio Grande as canon fodder in the immigration debate? Don’t believe we keep a visible, but powerless immigrant group subservient, our homebred “untouchables? Don’t believe this humanitarian crisis is a contemporary civil rights issue similar to what blacks went through in the 60’s?
You’re shaking your head. Denial is written on your face. Of course, being a fair person, you’re willing to listen to my reasons for these assertions. You are a fair person, aren’t you? Well, let’s see.
To get at the question of apartheid in the barrio, we just need to compare the state of the former slave in the aftermath of the Civil War with the present status of today’s undocumented immigrants. What did the South most fear during Reconstruction? You got it; suffrage for the freed black at the voting booth would alter political power in the old Confederacy. The Republican Party, supported by federal troops and the Fifteenth Amendment until 1876, protected the newly franchised black for a time. The Southern branch of the Democratic Party opposed this. That is, the white supremacists, better understood as segregationists, simply didn’t want to share political power.
Today, the tables are turned. How, you ask? The new solid-Republican South doesn’t want to provide a “road to citizenship” for the undocumented, and in time suffrage. That would be a political loss for the white voter, as many see it. Republican officeholders see this as an unmitigated disaster, quite possibly ending their reign. As for the Democrats, they now generally support a “path.” They can literally taste potentially new Hispanic voters.
The net result is twilight status for the undocumented. No citizenship path, no political rights on voting day, no real acceptance as a neighbor… In reality, only a “non-citizen resident,” very much like the slave before Fort Sumter, who was defined as property without legal rights, yet counted as 3/5th of a white voter for the purpose of determining Southern representation in the House. That was a neat political trick, one still used today. Permitted to work, to pay taxes, to raise families, the undocumented qualify as citizens in every way but one. They are not permitted to vote. They have not been anointed with full citizenship.
“That’s taxation without representation,” my friend declared.
“Would protracted indentured servitude sound better?”
“You are heated, aren’t you?” my friend asked.
Still, don’t think we practice apartheid? Okay, let’s talk economics. What happened to the slave after Appomattox? He couldn’t continue in bondage backed by the whip, howling dogs, and the stern taskmaster. What was left? Tenant farming, a new form of servitude on the old plantation binding blacks to hard physical labor on the land and elsewhere, menial tasks. Agricultural sweatshops one might say. The cheapest labor possible with little recourse for the uneducated sons of Africa.
Today, the equivalent economic bondage for the ill-educated, undocumented immigrant is still hard, physical work. Now, however, the cotton fields and tobacco roads have been replaced by migrant agricultural workers, the fast food industry, the Motel 6’s of the world, the slaughterhouses of the mid-west, and the custodial industry, all requiring cheap labor at or below the minimum wage.
And, guess what? Industry likes this. Cheap labor, high profits. The public likes it. Cheap burgers, more bang for your buck. Government likes it. Keeps inflation low on the back of sweat labor. And, in every case, what can the undocumented worker do? He is by definition, illegal. He’s a non-person. He is a new form of quasi-property. He exists, but not legally in the bright sunshine of equal opportunity and due process enjoyed by full citizenship. The whip is gone, but not the lash striking the backs of those who cannot challenge a system that benefits the status quo. Undocumented immigrants, forced into a shadowy economic enclave, find that the “underground railroad” has been replaced by the “underground economy.”
And we act surprised by all this.
What? “I exaggerate,” you say. Of course, you’re welcome to your opinion. For my part, I fear I’m too lenient, too tolerant of the abuses heaped upon the undocumented. In that vein, I ask another question. Almost akin to suffrage, what did the white man most fear during the high tide of slavery? Come on. Admit it. He feared a slave rebellion. A Nat Turner was always on the horizon, or a traitorous John Brown. People forced into inhuman bondage rebel; they seek freedom. It’s a truism as old as Moses and the Israelites. That fear is still with us.
We don’t want the undocumented to rebel. Witness the punitive nature of our immigration laws. Our harsh political debates about possible amnesty, so partisan, so angry, so “either or.” Arming our police. Against, terrorists, you argue. Not against our own people, you state strongly. We’re done, you argue, clearing the Bonus Marchers from Washington or permitting another Watts Riots to disturb our tranquil lifestyle in Los Angeles. But you didn’t mention the incarceration rate of men of color, if not Hispanics in particular. They broke the law, you contend. “Jail time.” And you’re right. But what social-economic circumstances led to the crime? What ill-designed drug-related crime exasperated by our misplaced “three-strike law,” crammed our prisons with “lifers?” When you add it all up, we hope that guns, laws, and prisons will keep the undocumented disorganized, docile, and compliant.
Sure we try to soothe over the ugliness of this situation. A modicum of health services in the emergency room… Food stamps if falsified papers permit eligibility… A higher legal minimum wage for all, illegal workers among others. But not too high… A limited chance for education in our poorest schools… In short, the barest possible survival needs are met. Exploited labor requires at least superficially healthy workers.
What’s that you say? “They broke the law.” Your old refrain. They came here illegally. They didn’t wait their turn? They didn’t line up like everyone else. They didn’t play by the rules. Amnesty in any form would reward criminal behavior. “We’re a nation of laws,” you bellow at me. To some degree all these charges have a grain of truth, but not the whole truth.
By force, the former slave was brought to this country, kicking and screaming. Those who made “the passage” on New England ships were chattel sold at the auction block in Charleston. Even after 1808, when the importation of slaves was supposed to stop, it continued, thereby benefitting those needing such labor. Slave traders broke the law with the quiet compliance of federal frigates and state officials.
While not quite the same, millions of undocumented immigrants have trekked northward from Mexico and Central America not only for a better life, but because of civil wars partially encouraged by our foreign policy in Central America, or from drug wars not unrelated to America’s appetite for cocaine, heroin, and cannabis. Though we didn’t purchase Salvadorians and Guatemalans from Arab slave traders, our hands are not completely clean. Political refugees were encouraged to migrate. Add to this the desire of business to hire the undocumented and the government’s failure to stop this so-called illegal practice, and the notion of right and wrong gets even more muddled.
But they broke the law, you again assert. In response, I cry “culpability.” We all share responsibility for this situation.. We are not immune in the traffic of the undocumented.
When I added my new roof, I knew many of the workers were undocumented, especially when I innocently quizzed them about their backgrounds. Did I care? Not really. I wanted a good price for the roof work. The workers needed a job, even if there pay undercut union labor. The company desired an edge in a competitive business in order to reap a healthy profit. All of us benefitted by looking the other way…
In the supermarket, I never question of the immigration status of the “pickers” as I filled my cart with fruit and vegetables. Just get the “vegies” to me, fresh and cheap. That’s all I wanted. Sort of like the northern textile manufacturer who purchased cotton picked by slaves on Mississippi plantations, or a box of good cigars made from tobacco grown in the Deep South by “colored labor.” Who cares about the people who toiled in the field?
Certainly, it was economic exploitation. That’s good old Darwinian business model and philosophy. You know. Survival. Low wages, high profits… And looking the other way by most of us was always appealing, as American as apple pie. Of course, we’re not about to admit this. So much easier to say, “You are illegal,” but never, “You crossed the border without a permit in order to work in our sweatshops making inexpensive clothing to be sold in expensive shops in the Northridge Mall.” That, of course, was after we had the car vacuumed, washed, polished, and dried at the local car wash. Cheap labor is so nice, isn’t it?
You’re being unfair, you say. Biasing the evidence… Circumventing other facts… Loading the dice… Fixing the race… And a hundred additional clichés… Once more, you’re almost right. I am biased. But so is the historical record. For example, a visitor to George Washington’s home acknowledged the General treated his slaves most humanely, far better than most of his fellow Virginia citizens. Most of those gentlemen, the visitor said, only gave their slaves “bread, water, and blows.”
In a way, isn’t that what we’re doing today with our undocumented? Bread was replaced with schooling by law, K through 12, but college was either denied or made exceptionally difficult to enter (the whip). Water was replaced by jobs, but don’t aspire for more than menial work (the whip). Yes, you’re guaranteed rights by our Constitution (bread and water), but if you challenge the system, you may be deported, even if your kids were born in America (the whip). Blended families were not a guarantee. Anyone can be forced to go home. You are not safe. The Immigration Service is omnipresent (the whip).
“Much too harsh,” my friend countered. “Sounds like a police state.”
“For the undocumented, the comparison is apt. The undocumented are our dirty baggage — non-people, treated as such, today’s pariahs. They are our current version of the former slave — intimidated, threatened, devalued — and sorely needed in so many avenues of our national economy. We, if we are honest about it, cannot do without them, yet we don’t know how to live with them.”
“You reach too far.”
“Easy way to find out.”
“Become one for one month. Be an undocumented immigrant for thirty days. Step into their shoes. After that, you can cut me to the bone if I’m too harsh.”
“Confident, are you?”
“Tragically, yes. Look, the contradictions overwhelm us. Jeffersonian equality is thrown to the wind. Constitutional protections are discarded for political expediency and votes at the next election. Our national sense of fairness is kicked in the backside. And ultimately, as James Madison stated, ‘Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.’ Is that not our situation with regards to the undocumented?”
“Okay. You’ve made compelling arguments. Undocumented immigrants are treated roughly.”
“In a discriminatory fashion. They aren’t assimilated; they aren’t accepted as full citizens. No path to amnesty is provided. Apartheid continues, Uncle Sam style.”
“You’re catching on.”
“It is a civil rights issue. Satisfied.”
“Only if I could make things better. Any ideas?”
“Emulate King… Non-violence … Demonstrate… March on Washington… Mobilize the entire minority community, Hispanic, black, Asian… Shame the nation’s conscience.”
“Now, who’s the agitator?”