Op-ed by Jackie Smith-- to South Bend Tribune
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
July 29 March for Human Rights: Let's Promote Smarter Public Debate in Immigration
Following the July 29 March in South Bend, which was led by area youth and students, we're hoping to stimulate more discussion in our community about the policies affecting international migration. Most of the media discourse is very limited and encourages divisive and racist attitudes in the general public. Here's an op-ed piece I submitted to the South Bend Tribune following our march. It is scheduled to appear in the paper on August 14.
Il/legality: Some History
One of our aims for the July 29 immigrant rights marches here and around the country was to encourage more enlightened and intelligent discussion of what comprehensive immigration reform should look like. For starters, we need some historical perspective on the term “illegal.”
No human being is illegal. They might happen to have moved from where they were born, but humans have been doing that since we first walked upright. Why should we think that “modern” society is so different? Today’s migrants are just doing what humans have always done.
Despite the fact that they’re engaging in an age-old survival strategy, today’s migrants face obstacles that only entered the scene in the 20th century: legally restricted national borders. Before then—i.e., when many European-Americans’ ancestors entered this country—there were no such limits to entry. In fact, people were encouraged to come. Yet they moved for the very same reasons that most international migrants come here today. In a country built on the influx of migrants, it is highly ironic that we’re now closing the door to the opportunities this country provided for our own ancestors’ survival.
If we’re going to insist on the primacy of laws, let’s consider how this nation’s current border laws came to be. Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas, and to secure them for his European sponsors engaged in actions that would now be called “genocide.” Genocide is now, thankfully, illegal in contemporary international law, but it came too late to save indigenous communities.
Whereas today’s international migrants are criticized for “stealing our jobs,” Columbus and his successors stole all the gold and silver they could find, in addition to the labor needed to extract these precious ores from the ground. They also stole people for the emerging slave trade. Because these “explorers” were operating in the name of their God, their Church, and/or their king, their activities are portrayed in our history books as noble and justified. But those wanting to call themselves “native-born” in the U.S. today would certainly rather welcome today’s international migrants than those European migrants of earlier centuries.
If we go back just a little more than 150 years, we see that the United States government actually stole a huge chunk of Mexico in the Mexican-American war of 1846-48. Ironically, Arizona used to be Mexico. And the strategies used to take it from Mexico would clearly be deemed illegal under modern conventions of war and under the United Nations Charter. So who should be considered “illegal” in Arizona?
International migration—like the migration of people within our country—is not something most people take lightly. Most don’t want to be uprooted from their families, culture, and traditions. But the fact that their local or national economy is not providing jobs means that their very survival requires movement. U.S. trade policies have further restricted economic opportunities in Mexico and elsewhere, forcing millions to lose their farms, their jobs, and the possibilities of survival in their home countries.
In the United States, we’re lucky to have such a large economy with many opportunities for domestic migrants to pursue without crossing an international border. But citizens in most countries are not so lucky.
Let’s move beyond the dehumanizing name-calling that has characterized the national “debate” on immigration and engage in more thoughtful, historically informed, and reasoned discussions about how best to address international migration.