22 December 2012

Did you cross border or did border cross you?

I have often been disturbed by the expansionist posturing of some people in the USA. It’s all there in the language and it is so ‘goes without saying’ that I am convinced it ‘came without saying’ too. Their baseball final match up is called ‘The World Series’.

They have a thing called ‘American League’ and the ‘National League’, implying that these are not just two categories but are not coterminous. In other words, ‘America’ does not mean ‘Nation’ or vice versa, as far as those who conjured up these terms and categories and those who use them uncritically are concerned.

It all hit me in Cambridge, Massachusettes in the winter of 1990/91 when I saw some people protesting a visit by the then President of El Salvador, Alfredo Christiani whose brutal response to an assault on the State by the FMLN included attacks on poor neighbourhoods and the execution-style murder of six prominent critics of the regime.

There were no calls for ‘truth and reconciliation’ then (or now) and certainly no investigation on crimes against humanity, perhaps because Christiani belonged to a party that was founded by a man who was trained in the infamous ‘School of the Americas’ (whose graduates went on to become some of the worst violators of human rights that hemisphere has ever known). What hit me was this sign held by a woman: ‘50 percent Mexican, 50 percent Salvadorian, 100 percent American’.

Barack Obama is not the President of ‘America’; he’s President of the United States of America. ‘America’ refers to all of North America, Central America and Latin America. That ‘America’ did not belong to white people, it was in fact stolen by white people from the 500 nations that peopled the landmass and built largely by the labour of men and women forcibly brought from Africa as slaves.

Today it is peopled mostly by immigrants, those who fled plague and persecution, poverty and depression. The USA is a nation of immigrants, for the most part. This is why US immigration laws fascinate me, especially when proposed and enacted legislation impacts people who are ‘originally’ from Mexico.

Whenever I meet a Mexican, I say ‘I lived in Mexico for a year’. This would elicit a response of the following kind: ‘Really? Where?’ I smile and say ‘Los Angeles’. Some look at me quizzically, some remain quizzical and some break into a smile while others laugh out loud. I have to clarify at times, I admit: ‘Los Angeles, part of Occupied Mexico’. California, like Texas and large sections of the today’s Southwest of the USA used to belong to Mexico 150 years ago.

In 1994 for example, in an initiative titled ‘Save Our State’ (Proposition 187) was put to the vote, it was sought to prohibit ‘illegal immigrants’ from using health care, public education and other social services.

What was sick about this initiative was the fact that Californians would have had to pay ten times what they paid for vegetables if not for the labour of illegal immigrants. California voted in favour but it was later found to be unconstitutional.

However, just a few weeks ago, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed a tough bill on illegal immigration aimed at identifying, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants.

The law which, clearly the broadest and strictest immigration measure in decades, would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the Police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Opponents have called it an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status.

What if the natives of that continent had enacted such laws when a man called Christopher Columbus mis-navigated his ship and landed in the Bahamas in 1492? Would he have crossed the border or would he have been run over by it?

President Barack Obama doesn’t like it. Naturally. Today, he’s calling for a federal overhaul of immigration laws, once again affirming that despite the ‘federal’ appearance, the USA is a centralizing state, one that is in reality unitary more than anything else.

Countries have borders. Citizens and their political representatives have the right to design policies pertaining to inclusion and exclusion, regardless of the moral rights to do so or the absence of such rights. But what kind of personal and/or national and/or legal criteria do we cite when we slam the door on someone or else choose to embrace him/her?

In the case of the Mexicans, they are basically returning to the land that was robbed from their ancestors. Sure, the ancestors of many Mexicans robbed this land from the true native-sons and native-daughters, but if this is the case other land-robbers can’t really complain, can they? I was told that half the population in New York City was made of illegal immigrants and that if they were all deported the city would grind to a halt because they did all the necessary but lousy and ill-paid jobs.

There’s a border that we can choose to cross or have it cross us. It is called prejudice. No, it is not about the law, about having borders and protecting them, but about the thinking that precedes law-proposal, canvassing support and enacting rules and regulations. There is a difference between migration and invasion.

A difference between setting out in a boat to conquer a nation and setting out in a boat to escape poverty, war, famine, disease and persecution. Those who have known war, known poverty, famine and persecution cannot morally justify the closing of a door. And even those who have not, cannot look the other way because that amounts to drawing a line, building a wall or creating a border.

Someone is hitting a Mexican with a border and a border sign, as I write. And as I write, a million other borders are being drawn and redrawn, smudged and erased. Someone is getting hit with a border this very moment.

Someone is hitting him/herself with a border. It is about language and language politics of course. But it is larger than that, this ‘border’ problem, is it not? Perhaps I am talking about myself. Or about you.


[First published in the Daily News in May 2010]


sajic said...

Very true. Isn't it strange that in this era of what is called the 'global village' people cling more and more to their own territories, culture and religions-and even fight for them. Is it a fear of losing identity? What is identity after all, except what has been a brainwashing through centuries.
Hopefully,with the increase of international,inter-faith and inter-class marriages, which are becoming more common- future generations-will realise the foolishness of borders and restrictions.

Ananda Ariyarathne said...

Borders are a natural development, a step advanced by the most developed animal brainwise and bodywise.The other animals mark their territories by leaving their scent for the rest to know.As a very strong communal animal,man resorted to living in groups of the same kind for protection and marked their territories and later similar groups evolved to become tribes and tribes ended up as races.In the struggle for survival it was necessary to grab and protect what they had and some became victors while others became vanquished.So, nations have ended up getting mixed and several kinds of people living in areas marked and defended by them.With the population growing, resources get scarce and that ancient instinct makes the man to encroach other promising areas.The reason is the 'Limited' resources to meat the ' Unlimited Needs'. I think the time has come for all the World Leaders to take leadership to create a New World Order to respect the Borders which are there now so that Peace shall prevail and take measures to exploit Global Resources in a planned and in a disciplined manner so that the sense of security can be established and the Borders will end up only as a Global necessity to maintain peace.

sajic said...

A.A You are right about the origin of marked territories and borders. But some countries have borders which have been arbitrarily imposed on them by colonisers; these are not rational and no govt can hope to maintain peace within their country without a process of 'give and take'.