On our own terms

Cole Aronson’s article “Political Nausea” was published in the YDN the same week that an executive order was signed to build a wall, to ban Syrian refugees and to withhold funding from sanctuary cities. I write this to bear testament to our moment, to pause and think about borders, and people, and how “we the people” came to have this land in the first place, around which we now have two seas, chain-link, cinder block and “emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” I write this knowing that the president hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson—the signatory of the Indian Removal Act—in the White House. I write this having learned that Yale was built on land wrested from the Quinnipiac peoples, and that some survived but many did not. I write this because that wasn’t inevitable, and neither was slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, indigenous land dispossession—and neither is our moment, where those in power are busy deciding who belongs, and how much. In this article, I hope to respond to the too-present derision for immigrants, refugees and sanctuary cities, and Aronson’s assertion that people who come to the United States against national law should be punished.

“Like everyone who breaks the law of a just society,” Aronson writes, “they ought to be punished for it.” I think about Aronson’s part about the “just society.” The “just society” Aronson references surely doesn’t mean one in which Flint still does not have clean water, pipelines can be laid through tribal land, and young black men can be incarcerated for minor drug offenses while the elected president can [insert whatever feels salient to you here.] I think about Rex Tillerson and the fossil fuel industry. I think about the coup in Honduras and a bloody genocide in Guatemala. Aronson constructs the immigrant as “illegal,” conflating legality with justice, instead of interrogating the legal boundaries of the very state which has created so many stateless peoples.

The constructions and representations of immigrants from other Central American countries as unassimilable and thus expungeable are rooted in a long history. Deportation policies and restrictions on immigration based on race or nationality are not new. The United States has implemented programs to recruit an inexpensive workforce during labor shortages (the Bracero Program of 1942-1964, for instance) and has  executed illegal mass deportation programs during times characterized politically by a heightened ideology of national identity (for example, the large-scale deportations of even American-born Mexican-Americans in Operation Wetback, 1954). As Evelyn Nakano Glenn writes:

Undesirable exogenous others (typically racialized immigrants) were considered morally degraded, sometimes irredeemably so. Settler colonialism’s response to undesirable exogenous others has often swung (and still does) between the poles of “elimination” and coercive “exploitation.”

The ways in which the United States has historically sought to control space, land, resources and people through elimination and exploitation since before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo demonstrates that the settler colonial formula can be understood as a continuing, living structure perpetuated by nativist rhetoric and laws. Aronson claims to eschew nativist rhetoric, but makes use of it himself when he expects his readers to identify with the “sensibilities and culture of their own countrymen.” Which sensibilities? Which culture, precisely, because there are many. Which nation, even?

The irony of advocating punishment for undocumented immigrants is that a long history of settler colonialism, Manifest Destiny, and racialized exploitation should be read as a far more devastating injustice. People from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Puerto Rico emigrate for many reasons. But principal among these reasons are the devastations that Washington’s ‘foreign policy’ apparatus—in its military, commercial, and diplomatic guises—and U.S. based multinational corporations have helped to ingrain. These inflicted injustices by the hands of institutions like the United Fruit Company or the Eisenhower administrations have, over a long history, helped foment the violent and untenable living conditions which compel so many to seek basic well-being elsewhere.

Aronson’s rhetoric on “illegal immigration”—compelling for many citizens who voted for Trump —thus has life and death implications. Joseph Nevins writes:

“Historical injustices coupled with the rapacious consumption and dispossession associated with colonizing and imperialist powers is why so many in Honduras and elsewhere across the world today do not enjoy a right to stay—in places of origin rendered inviable. Remedying this requires, among other things, a right to move (i.e. migrate), but more expansively, it necessitates what we might consider “a right to the world.”

I  would add to Nevins’ summation that remedying the injustices rooted in a history structured by settler colonialism requires a harsh interrogation of how articles like Cole Aronson’s, while appealing to ideas of patriotism, serve to mask the fact that this nation obstructs and always has obstructed democratic processes by restricting citizenship. It requires that we use this critical analysis to question what boundaries should mean, and how much of our idea of U.S. nationalism roots itself in the construction of difference between the United States and “America’s Backyard,” between whiteness and Latinidad, or whiteness and whichever racialized other. A politic to heal these injustices requires a reimagining of national boundaries and citizenship, one which scrutinizes our historical notion of nationhood itself.

Where Aronson is right is that processes of declaring our country a home for immigrants and refugees is “not simple.” We are so often taught to believe in the myth of scarcity; that the earth cannot possibly sustain us all, that the lack of fresh water for so many is an inevitability, that our jobs are being stolen, that there is never enough, that there is never enough, that there is never enough. That we must take care of “our own” and no one else. That our fates and our ecologies are not linked. This myth of scarcity, again, is a failure of imagination. And to achieve a truly just society, one hospitable to those that the United States have directly or indirectly rendered stateless, is not simple. It requires us to take care of each other, to make room, and to be generous. Yes, it requires that we all do work to resist normalizing and internalizing the extraordinary violence of a new administration accelerating old and concerted logics of expulsion. When faced with these rationalized injustices, we must instead collectively develop a framework that articulates the extraordinary value not of law, but of life. As Dominique Christina once said, “We do not mean to tip the awkward balance of who should have and who should get and who should be. We mean only to exist. On our own terms, in our own handwriting.”

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