May 1, 2010

Arizona, Citizenship, and Rights

All of the recent events in Arizona have me thinking about citizenship and rights. Where do our laws begin and end? Do US ideals about inalienable rights stop at our borders? What kinds of rights should be afforded to all people in all places? In his 2008 book The Latino Threat, Leo Chavez writes,

For many, especially anti-immigration groups such as the Minutemen project, citizenship is also about rights, privileges, and responsibilities. What distinguishes citizens from aliens are precisely the rights and privileges reserved for citizens. However, immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, also have rights in many nations, including the United States, where the Constitution speaks of "persons," not citizens, when describing inalienable rights. Consequently, immigrants have enjoyed rights to juridical due process, fair labor standards and practices, education, emergency medical care, and more. Complicating this issue further are claims to basic human rights or rights based on universal or extranational agreements, such as the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2008: 12).

Human Rights Watch recently issued a press release, stating that the law in Arizona is a violation of an international treaty that the US signed. Again, this issue brings up the conflict between individual notions of rights based upon citizenship, and a more universal conception of human rights that cuts across national boundaries. From the press release:

(San Francisco) - Arizona's new immigration law violates an international anti-racism treaty that is binding on all government officials in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today.

Key provisions of the "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act," enacted by Arizona on April 23, 2010, conflict with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the United States ratified in 1994, Human Rights Watch said. "LWL - living while Latino - has become hazardous in Arizona," said Alison Parker, US director at Human Rights Watch. "Arizona's governor and law enforcement officials should know that with this law, they are violating an international treaty."

Under the new law, police officers will be empowered to stop and interrogate any person whom they "reasonably suspect" might be in the United States illegally. The law includes provisions allowing Arizona residents who believe the local police are not enforcing the law vigorously enough to sue a city or town. As a result, police officers will be under pressure to make an arrest, even when in doubt, rather than risk a lawsuit, resulting in wrongful arrests and unfair enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.

This clash between national boundaries and human rights gets really complex and fraught with tension. The public debate about immigration in the United States is certainly polarizing. Often, many issues get conflated into one overheated subject. But it's important to separate out all of the details and attempt to gain understanding of the wider picture. There is the drug trade issue, and then there is the issue with migrants who come to the US in search of work. In much public debate, these two factors are all too often treated as if they stem from the same root causes, but they don't. The drug trade is fueled in large part by the massive demand in the US. There is a reason why cartels are so heavily armed; because they are in a lucrative business. As for the people who migrate in search of work, it might be important to consider not only the demand in the US, but also some of the larger structural issues (like NAFTA, or the relationship between the Mexican State and many of its poor citizens) when trying to gain a deeper understanding of why so many people are willing to take such huge risks in order to find work.

There is definitely a need to address the immigration issue. It is most definitely not a good thing to have this many people crossing the border in dangerous conditions where they are at risk of assault, extortion, and abuse. So there is a need to change the ways in which the immigration system work, absolutely. But this does not mean that the US should go down the road that Arizona is heading, which basically upholds the "Latino Threat Narrative" (blaming Latinos as the principal cause of the issue) that Chavez talks about:
The Latino Threat Narrative is a social imaginary in which Latinos are "virtual characters." They exist as "illegal aliens," "illegitimate recipients of organ donations," "highly fertile invaders," and "unassimilable separatists bent on a reconquest of the Southwestern United States" (Chavez 2008: 42).
The narrative about Latinos (whether Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, or otherwise) has a long history in the United States, and has gone through various stages. One of the most persistent themes characterizes Latinos as outsiders on the inside who never truly become American citizens (despite substantial ties to the US and years of living in the country). The narrative that Chavez talks about casts Latinos as a subgroup that for some reason or another never quite fits in (and this is a common trend in anti-immigrant rhetoric). This is the kind of logic that is being used to justify the recent legislation in Arizona.

However, there is no need to start profiling people based upon physical and cultural characteristics. In a search for a solution to the immigration issues that the US faces, there is also a need to maintain basic notions about human rights, dignity, and due process. The Arizona law, which opens the door for highly subjective law enforcement, is only going to lead to more conflicts. As Chavez writes,
It is time to put the Latino Threat Narrative to rest. It is counterproductive and divisive and creates self-fulfilling prophesies. It is an inaccurate depiction of the everyday lives of Latino immigrants and Latinos in general. Citizenship in all its manifestations is hard enough to construct, and it deserves honest, productive, clear-eyed representations of all members of society, as well as public policies that reduce obstacles to integration and social and economic mobility (2008: 186).
I agree that this narrative needs to be challenged and dispelled. Stereotypical notions about massive groups of people--in this case Latinos--only serves to uphold unjust practices, whether at the individual or state level. In the search for answers to complex problems like immigration, it's all the more important to retain notions of rights that extend beyond national boundaries. This makes sense, in the end, because humanity clearly extends far beyond political borders.

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