On the immigrant question: a love letter

For all my friends in the university community and elsewhere who are more vulnerable under the new order—and for all those who are not their friends:

Whatever your feelings about the increasingly anti-immigrant efforts of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it’s worth considering another period of our history when our democratic future hung in the balance: Reconstruction, after the Civil War.

How at that point, as W. E. B. Du Bois explains, there was an opportunity for an unfairly exploited labor pool (in that case, enslaved people) to gain democratic citizen’s rights that they had not been able to enjoy, despite their backbreaking work building this country and building wealth for others.

How 150 years ago, commodity prices were artificially cheap because the workers that produced them were paid zero or (after emancipation) very little. How that and the fact of competition from unpaid labor kept downward pressure on wages for all workers (so more profits went to the bosses).

How similar conditions exist now.

How today, immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, do valuable hard work in many industries, work that benefits all of us and builds wealth. Work doing scientific research, picking pesticide-laden fruit at risk of birth defects, making art, writing journalism. doing care work, teaching, feeding people.

How while immigrants’ work has obvious value, profits are higher when wages are low. How racism, because it creates a vulnerable, despised class of workers, is the secret ally of of the bosses, of capital, of the rich.

How if exploited white and even-more-exploited black labor had managed to join forces back during Reconstruction, their joint power would have increased their wages and living standards and political clout.

How if exploited white and even-more-exploited brown and black labor join forces now, especially if they link arms across borders, they (I mean we) will have power against corporate control of our government and will be able to demand increases in wages, living standards, climate justice, and political agency right now. How we could work together toward a sustainable future for all of us.

How big-money interests back during Reconstruction, seeing that their power was at risk, exploited racial identity categories that had been invented for their use. How even if Trump had lost the election, he would still, in a sense, have won the election for big business, because he successfully increased divisions between racial and ethnic and religious identities. How his tactics are swerving people away from working together for their own benefit.

How big-money interests, aided by friends in government, used law and violence to enforce divisions between identity categories. How the Trump administration is doing the same today.

How the pool of “freed” labor was terrorized and effectively re-enslaved—imprisoned, hired out as cheap labor. How undocumented workers face a similar fate right now (a fate black people have faced for over 150 years). How by singling out a mostly-brown group for “extreme” treatment, the government encourages mistreatment (sometimes violent) of brown people by their fellow humans on the street.

How democracy could have been democracy for all of us. How it still isn’t.

How the detention system that served private interests during and after Reconstruction has gotten bigger, and privatized, and metastasized.

How the prison system is about to metastasize far beyond its Arizona dreams, as Homeland Security diverts taxpayer dollars toward private companies such as GEO for the construction and management of more and more immigrant detention centers.

How the production of fear is an industry that serves private interests. How it has done so for a long time. How not very long ago, irrational fears of miscegenation produced brutal violence in the form of lynching. How such fears were exploited to recruit white people for the policing and terrorizing of black people. How terrorized people are less likely to make demands for political and economic justice. How hate serves the interests of the rich—even when neither the haters nor the rich realize it.

How those of us who are not likely to be targeted need to use our power strongly in support of those who are. How we need to tell stories that are not being told, stories of ecological destruction (abroad and at home) at the hands of private interests, how it breeds social unrest and famine and sparks immigration. Stories about underreported US aggression abroad, how it disrupts societies and families and spawns hate that is then viewed in the US as irrational. Stories that draw on the wisdom of those who have understood all this for centuries because they and their families have lived it. Stories about people who have the strength to be loving and strong, stories about connections across difference.

How we need to be producing a lot of documentation right now, and not the kind that Homeland Security is demanding.


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