The recent wave of massive marches by immigrant workers in US cities has the potential to redefine the way the immigration debate proceeds in the US, if for no other reason than it can no longer occur without input from immigrants. No longer can the dialogue occur without an honest recognition of the contribution immigrant workers make in this society. The use of the word illegal’ to describe immigrant workers who work some of the lowest paying and least organized jobs will no longer suffice to scare this group into passivity.
The word illegal’ to describe aliens’ is designed to differentiate illegals’ and citizens. Thus pundits such as Mona Charen reacted to the recent spate of huge demonstrations in support of immigrant workers,
“Most galling to many Americans (both native-born and naturalized) is the attitude of entitlement displayed by the illegals who thronged the streets in recent weeks. To stage a demonstration demanding anything when you are not in the country legally is an act of supreme chutzpah.”
And, just to show not only nativist conservatives like Charen are up in arms, Hillary Clinton has recently chimed in, “I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants.” It is taken for granted that American citizens have the right to be offended at those who benefit from illegal acts in order to gain work. Should that be taken for granted however? Are not many of the most angry anti-immigrant rights activists beneficiaries of past violations of US law, especially the constitution? Or put in a slightly different manner, aren’t they also descendants of immigrants who benefitted from illegally constructed laws that conferred illegal entitlements in labor markets through to the 1960’s?
Consider the case of the arc nativist media celebrity Lou Dobbs, who rails against illegals’ every evening on his CNN show. Dobbs hails from a family of European immigrants and his working class parents raised him in a small town in Idaho. An illegal’ immigrant today who is stealing’ jobs could and should ask if Dobbs’ parents and grandparents didn’t benefit from the Chinese Exclusion Acts. This massively and systemically illegal violation of the US constitution enabled countless millions of Americans from Europe to gain access to jobs, real estate, and citizenship rights.
Talk about entitlements! If one adds onto that the privileged access that Dobbs’ parents or grandparents had to land and political representation out west and in the north that countless millions of African Americans and other non-whites [e.g. Mexicans, Asians, etc.] were illegally denied, the extent of entitlement’ enjoyed by today’s immigrant “illegal” workers” crossing the Rio Grande looks pretty lame. In fact, today’s illegal’ workers might wish they could benefit from violations of the US constitution that facilitated the social mobility enjoyed by descendants of legal’ immigrants.
And they shouldn’t be shy about reminding today’s anti-immigrant media celebrities and politicians alike that they too are the products of past violations of US laws that provided illegal entitlements to their immigrant ancestors. Then at least honest discussion of illegal’ immigration can begin to take place in the US today.
STEPHEN PHILION is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Cloud State University in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, teaching social theory, sociology of race, and China and Globalization. His writings can be found at his website. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org