Friday, April 30, 2010

The Illusion of Borders: Immigration Laws and Interconnectedness

Ah, immigration - sometimes I think it's the visual representation of nearly every major issue people face on this planet. I've tried to stay away from addressing the new law in Arizona that has lit up the United States over the past week. Why? I didn't want to go on and on about how miserable it is, how racist it is, how classist it is, etc. I can do so, but at this point, I don't know what such a display would do.

Maia over at Jizo Chronicles, has a good post about some of the ways in which this law goes against Buddhist teachings, and also a photo protest action being conducted by people on Facebook. I kind of like the photo protest idea, but wonder if it's worth targeting the Governor of Arizona. The issues are so much bigger than a single state, and I don't know if this particular governor is going to be persuaded by anything other than a firm shaking of the economy and by business leaders expressing their frustration. That's the sad state of things - human suffering will often only be addressed if it's tied to profits.

I did something this morning that I really dislike others doing to me - I interrupted a conversation two people were having at the coffee shop I am in. They were sitting right next to me, talking about the man's interest in moving to Arizona, when he broke out in a diatribe about how all the talk of racism in immigration policy is just a smokescreen for failing to address the "real" issue: corporate greed. That's a false dichotomy in my book. These two things are completely intertwined, and as the guy went on about how the level of immigration is unsustainable and whatnot, I found myself growing tense.

After twelve years working in immigrant communities here in the Twin Cities, I've heard it all when it comes to the politics and perceptions of immigrants and immigration. There is tons of ignorance, even amongst people who are sympathetic to newcomers. It's really difficult to remain patient in the middle of all the bullshit being spewed out there.

Anyway, I found myself saying to this guy "Will you ever, ever be asked for your papers in Arizona?" You can guess he was, like myself, a white male. He looked at me, rather pissed off, and said "I'm not getting into this with you!" And I shot right back "You're the one that brought up this hot button issue in a public place!" To which he replied, "I didn't ask you anything. I'm having a conversation with my friend!" A few more rounds were exchanged, but mostly, after he reminded me of my crossing over the line (it's always about crossing the line somehow, isn't it?), I backed off.

The kicker of it all is that a less than a minute after I disengaged he said to his friend "I know racism is part of this." And then a few minutes later, he spoke of his plan to attend the dharma talk at my zen center this Sunday (Reb Anderson Roshi is in town.) It seemed to point to just interconnected we all are, and how foolish it is to be erecting barriers, internally or externally, in an attempt to keep others out. I'm still not sure what a skillful response is to the Arizona law, or to the myriad of injustices in immigration policies all over the globe - (anyone following the British elections will know that immigration policy is a big issue, and the British Nationalist Party, while having virtually no chance of getting elected, has had little trouble getting it's racist, anti-immigrant agenda into the media.). However, I do know that all this fighting over land, borders, and "rightful" ownership speaks painfully to how little we are able to trust other, and how easy it is to hate those who are different from you.


David said...

You know it is easy to say that the new Arizona law is racist. Harder, I think, to back that up. What is racist about it? You are aware, of course, that the majority of the police officers responsible for enforcing this law and most of the Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police in Arizona are Hispanic, are you not?

Unfortunately, this is a issue that involves race. You can’t get around it. The problem is not that we have large groups of white Europeans flooding across our borders illegally. How else can you address this situation from a law enforcement standpoint without looking at a person’s race?

I am both a liberal and a Buddhist, and I have mixed feelings about this law. The feeling that seems to override all others is the sense that people are reacting to this emotionally and not rationally. How does this law go against Buddhist teaching? Tell me how.

Nagarjuna, in the Ratnavali, says: “Having examined and identified particularly hateful murderers, you should send them into exile without killing or harming them.”
What he is saying is that those who break the law should be dealt with, sans vengeance, and that compassion is not about turning one’s head and allowing people to break the law. What is compassionate about allowing people to engage in illegal activity? That is just as harmful.

Everyone is agreed that illegal immigration is a problem. Those who don’t like this law should come up with a better solution, instead of making things worse with emotional protests. I, for one, have always valued the right to protest. In this case, I just feel its distorting the issue.

Nagarjuna also said: “Those who speak beneficially are rare. Even more rare are those who listen. And more rare yet than these are those who quickly implement something beneficial.”

Just my two cents. Hope you don't mind.

hazel colditz said...

great post, as well is the link you supplied.
being an AZ resident it is really "in my face" the immigration issue. as a Buddhist practioner i can see how the many are up in arms of "racial profiling" and such..what it reinforces for me is a strong validation of samsara and it's true sufferings. we have no control over our birth(s), born into a poor and impoverished country or in USA, it is all karma and collective karma! the biggest problem is right here, right now we are collectively creating a cause for negative actions to arise. to place judgement in the hands of another human is to say the least a bit scary and daring anymore. there does need to be boundries or laws to protect/serve immigration, i don't know the answers but i do know this is not the answer. thanks for sharing...

spldbch said...

I agree -- the Arizona law serves to accentuate our differences. I don't think it's the right way to go about things, although I really couldn't tell you what is the "right" way.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

I've lived all over the world and during my time have been asked by police on the street to show my papers in Moscow, Istanbul and Bangkok. Are the Russians, Turks and Thais racist for asking a foreigner to show his papers?

Seriously, what do you think?


Nathan said...


If you spent even a single day in the U.S. talking to white Americans about immigration, you would understand that race plays a large role in this particular case. If the majority of undocumented people were white Canadians, the uproar wouldn't be nearly the same. This law targets a population, Latino/Latinas, which includes millions of people who were born in the U.S. and whose families have lived here for as long, if not longer than many of their white neighbors.


Anonymous said...

Yes, but what about my question?

Nathan said...

You know, Marcus, I honestly don't know.

In the case of Thailand, certainly, they saw someone who looked "different" than the majority and stopped him. I would say there was probably racial profiling going on there. Although, from what some of my students tell me, the Thai police are fond of stopping anyone who isn't Thai to get a little money in their pockets. So, motives are complicated, but race and ethnicity play a role in this example.

The thing is, there's this issue of who "is a foreigner" and who isn't. I know an Asian-American photographer here in Minnesota who still gets asked what part of China he is from and if he can teach people Chinese. This guy is over 50 years old, and was born in Minnesota. His family has lived here since the 1940s. We also have a Mexican-American community in my city that goes back over 100 years, yet third and fourth generation members of that community have gotten caught up in INS raids and were forced to prove their identities. Yet, no one ever questions the "American-ness" of white people here because we are the majority. In fact, even my students mostly default to American means white people, no matter how much I offer examples to the contrary.

I can also think of stories from Hmong students, for example, whose families had lived in Laos 100, 200 years, and yet were still considered to be unworthy of "native" status and the privileges that come with it. The same is definitely true of ethnic minorities in Burma.

So, something is really off about all this in my view. Some of it has to do with race, some of it with ethnicity, and some of it with something else.