Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Show Your Papers, Tennessee

Gov. Bredesen capitulated to whatever insane forces have taken root in this state and signed Tennessee’s version of an Arizona-style immigration law. Now those who look foreign better keep their papers handy. Yes, I said “look foreign” because we all know that’s who this law applies to. Not everyone, just certain ones. Foreign-looking and foreign-sounding ones. People with accents. Others. Not, of course, “us.” It applies to “them.”

And no I don’t buy that whole “this only applies to people sent to jail” nonsense. I imagine that’s what they said about the fugitive slave laws 160 years ago, too. Tell that to Juana Villegas. Anyone can find themselves booked or arrested on some ridiculous charge any old Boss Hogg or Barney Fife wants to trump up.

When stuff like the Arizona immigration bill comes up I always think of one very close friend of mine: blonde-haired and blue eyed and a perfect English speaker who, as it happens, is a native of Canada and lived and worked in this country illegally for over 15 years. She was, in fact, an illegal immigrant, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her, talk to her or even to examine her shoes. And you know damn well if she was ever pulled over by a Metro cop no one would think twice about asking her for proof of citizenship because she looks and sounds like anyone else trying to make it in Nashville, even down to the guitar in the back seat of her car.

Not so her husband, who is from South Asia and has very dark skin and whose English is excellent but nonetheless heavily accented. He does happen to be in the country legally (my friend is too, now; in fact she’s become a U.S. citizen) but getting his visa was a prolonged, expensive ordeal involving lawyers and long waits and lots of paperwork. My point is this: if you put them side by side, which one is going to have their citizenship questioned at a traffic stop? The blonde, blue-eyed, English speaker or the dark skinned, obvious foreigner who speaks with an accent?

I just think it’s hilarious that the only illegal immigrant I personally have ever known to be illegal is a white person.

The reality is, if you’re going to be in favor of laws like Arizona’s then you have to acknowledge that all sorts of people can be illegal immigrants, not just brown people, not just Mexican and Central American and other so-called “undesirables.” White people can and are here illegally too. If you are okay with white people being here illegally but not brown and yellow people, then you are a racist.

Alternately, you have to recognize that any “show us your papers” law designed to identify illegals and send them back across whatever border they came from has got to apply to everyone, regardless of what they look and sound like. Otherwise it’s not fair, or objective or impartial. Because if nothing else, we are told the law is impartial.

So that means we all need to carry proof of citizenship with us, every one of us, and we have to be okay with showing that paperwork to law enforcement when they ask. I thought we weren’t in favor of things like National ID cards and Soviet-style “show us your papers” laws here but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I misread the mood of the country.

Alternately we can go at this issue another way. We can address the root of the problem, which is that this country was founded on cheap labor and remains addicted to cheap labor.

Part of this, I think, is related to our energy crisis: because at its root, what is cheap labor but a form of cheap energy? Perhaps our next abundant cheap energy source to replace fossil fuels will bring about technological innovation and replace the human sweat and muscle picking our tomatoes.

Part of it is that we’ve become accustomed to not paying what things actually cost. We might think a Big Mac only costs $3.50 but that’s because we’ve socialized all sorts of costs associated with food production. When companies pay poverty wages for fast food workers or hire illegal immigrants to pick lettuce and tomatoes and work in the meat packing plant, then there are going to be social costs attached to that.

And then part of it is the grinding poverty and lack of opportunity in some parts of the world that has people seeking a better life here. One of the selling points of “free trade” agreements like NAFTA was that they were supposed to spur economic development in other parts of the world. But I’m wondering if that’s really happened? We have GM, Ford and Chrysler opening auto plants in Mexico, Maytag shuttering historic U.S. plants and moving production to Mexico, GE, Honeywell and other U.S. companies all opening factories in Mexico and Central America, heck the entire U.S. garment manufacturing industry is practically wiped out for textile factories in Honduras and Guatemala. So it’s a veritable beehive of manufacturing activity south of the border and I wonder why the hell hasn’t that “trickled down” to the communities down there? Why aren’t people staying in Mexico since that appears to be where all the jobs are?

So there are a whole lot of policy issues associated with immigration and not a damn one of them is addressed by any “show us your papers” laws. In fact, all these laws do is basically make a bunch of people feel good about being bigots and puts a target on the backs of those who are least able to fight back.

It’s stupid policy and it solves nothing.