Immigration reform without a politics of pity

no one is illegalA few quick thoughts on demanding immigration reform, without a politics of pity:

Reading a lot of Op Eds this week calling for Executive Action on Immigration Reform. Some are written by people directly affected by deportations, others are by organization leaders/ advocates, but featuring example stories of those similarly impacted. While it’s extremely important that those voices are heard, I’m frustrated by the increasing common framing of the issue around a politics of pity, rather than of justice. Immigration reform advocates are relying far, far too heavily on emphasizing individuals’ suffering and making impassioned, heart-string tugging pleas for compassionate action. While there’s space for testimony in the movement, it seems to be coming at the expense of a more forceful critique, which I believe is much-needed right now.

These pieces are, first of all, convincing only the converted. Regardless of what Obama says in his address tonight, a glance over the comments section – whether its The LA Times, The Guardian or any major news outlet – shows that a “I’m sorry about your circumstances, but the law is the law, and you broke it” position is a dominant response to personal stories of suffering. Attitudes aren’t changing. I believe they could, if efforts were made to join dots between systems of oppression that impact undocumented people, those with temporary papers, and citizens alike.

Second of all, these articles frequently emphasize a moral framework for judging who should stay around the lines of being a ‘good’ parent and hard worker. This is problematic in many ways, but mostly because it automatically constructs an image of those who should therefore – morally – not be allowed to remain in the US. Framing the issue around any implication that life ‘over there’ is tough and the US offers a ‘better’ life is not only disingenuous, but also obscures pertinent historical contexts. The US has had a large hand in creating fragile economies and propping up despotic/ corrupt regimes ‘over there.’ Many undocumented people in the US would not be here otherwise – why play that down?

Overall, calls for compassion alone fall on deaf ears, cement prevalent moralist ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ citizens, let US foreign, military and economic policy off the hook, and encourage a politics of pity over justice. That is not progressive. It is insulting. In attempting to address the so-called ‘concerns’ of right-wing anti-immigrant commentators and politicians, these articles agree to debate immigration reform on their terms: At the level of xenophobic rhetoric that no logic – and certainly no emotive plea – will shake. At least, not without reinforcing other conservative ideals.

There is an opportunity now to be explicit about the causes of immigration and the experience of being undocumented – and criminalized – and meanwhile to indict: US forays/ military action overseas and imbalanced trade agreements as push factors to migration; demand for cheap labor that relies on ‘illegal’ – and therefore exploitable – bodies; the for-profit immigrant detention system. That’s three points, just for starters.

Revealing the fallacy of the US as a meritocracy – the ‘anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ position – is a core aim of feminist, civil rights, anti-colonialist, anti-war and anti-capitalist movements across the country, as well as for immigrant rights campaigns historically. It must continue to be so. Strengthening links between those movements – and not family values conservatives – is integral to reaching such lofty objectives.

Immigration reform is, undoubtedly, an important, immediate and attainable goal. Yet striving for it must not come at the cost of watered down politics, or suspension of long-term, broad-minded and truly progressive ideals.

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