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April 11, 2006

Immigration Irritation

(Hey all. I posted this over on Other Magazine's staff blog in Mid-February. It's becoming more and more relevant so I wanted to repost it over here. With an addendum.)


Bookslut's Blog pointed me toward a WBUR (NPR Boston affiliate) segment from yesterday where, in response to Bush's State of the Union call for stronger immigration enforcement, they talked with lit critic Steve Almond about "Literary Border Crossings". Almond, it seems, produced a list of books that "illuminate the immigrant experience". So far so good; that's an immediate mouse click for me.

But when I listened to the nine minute segment, I found that the books Almond discussed were:

1. an admittedly romanticized novel about Italian American immigrants in the 1950s;
2. a novel about early twentieth century Italian immigration by an Italian novelist (not Italian American);
3. Henry Roth's Call It Sleep; and
4. a fifteen-year-old book of essays by journalist Debbie Nathan about living on the US/Mexico border.

Added to this list by the host, but not mentioned or discussed by Almond in the main segment was the classic novel Chicano by Richard Vasquez.

Okay now, I'm really, really not looking for any sort of affirmative action on this list ... really I'm not. But if you're responding to Bush's new policies controlling immigration by trying to illuminate the immigrant experience, shouldn't you be seeking out narratives that illuminate the immigrant experience today? Our contemporary understanding of The Immigrant Experience was largely formed by the late nineteenth, early twentieth century models of central and southern European immigrant groups (especially Ashkenazi Jews and Italians.) But the political, economic and social circumstances that formed that immigrant experience no longer obtain.

Then, most European immigration was legal. Today, the largest immigrant groups are heavily undocumented. Then, immigration was primarily from Europe. Today, "immigrant" means Chicano/Latino first, then Asian and Eastern European and Middle Eastern -- and then everyone else. That is to say, today's immigrant comes from different cultural spheres and traditions than yesterday's immigrant. The traditional "immigrant" was ethnic European, a lower-class -- or alternate ethnicity -- form of Indo-European language-speaking descendents of the Graeco-Roman ideosphere. Today's immigrant is ... not.

So what do we choose to illuminate a United States so choked by labor "equity" that it has to rely on undocumented labor to provide the profit margins that keep American companies from outsourcing? How do we represent the rabid control of middle-class non-white immigrants through restricted visas and Patriot Act provisions? And how do we portray racism in the technological age? Do we choose books by immigrants who have experienced this? Nope. Instead we have two books about a romantic Italian American past, one from and about a romantic Jewish American past, and one rapidly aging nonfiction about the US/Mexican border by a white woman -- an American insider, not an immigrant across that border. Mm hmm. And what have we illuminated? Well, simply, that America still isn't ready to let go of its romantic, three generation, hard-work-plus-assimilation-equals-a-rich-and-hearty-America vision and look hard at the enclosed containment loop that is undocumented, controlled, non-European immigration today. And when we are willing to let go and look, we want to be led by one of us, an insider, not hear the point of view of one of these ... aliens.

So, to remedy, I'm starting a new list: books (and I've added performance groups as well) by actual immigrants and second generation children of immigrants that illuminate the contemporary immigrant experience in a way that might actually illuminate, rather than reify, something. I'll start things off with a few suggestions. Please add to the list in the comments section. In no particular order:

• Junot Diaz Drown
• Bharati Mukherjee Darkness
• Guillermo Gomez-Peña The New World Border : Prophecies, Poems, and Loqueras for the End of the Century

• Carlos Bulosan America Is In The Heart
• Ruth Ozeki My Year of Meats
• Paul Flores Along the Border Lies

• Lalo Alcaraz Migra Mouse: Political Cartoons on Immigration
• Jaime Hernandez Locas
• Gilbert Hernandez Palomar
• Jaime Cortez Sexile

• Elmaz Abinader In the Country of My Dreams
• Truong Tran Dust and Conscience
• Myung-Mi Kim Under Flag

• Shailja Patel "Migritude"
• Pretty much anything by La Pocha Nostra


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The whole issue of immigration is one that is complex and involves many issues.

The simplistic solutions from the extreme right and left will never work; there are enough laws on the books right now to enable effective control of the problem the real issue is the will to enforce the laws already in place.

As I have stated in other forums one real way to effectively control the problem is to cut off the supply of illegal jobs, this would encourage people to get in line and immigrate legally.

The scumbags that want a cheap maid or gardener or picker of crops are the ones that perpetuate this inequitable system. They in turn need to be the ones to pay the price. Prosecute those low lifers and most of the problem will go away.

The heat and fire generated by this issue is, I believe hiding the true tragedy of this issue that is the human toll that the whole thing is generating, from the people who loose their lives crossing the borders, to those that are persecuted once they get here to those that are suffering in sub standard conditions of work. Additionally at the other end the costs to the whole community in providing health care, education and law enforcement, these are cost borne by us all.

Prosecute the employers first, stop people from risking their lives crossing and make available a workable immigration system that is the way to end this whole mess.

In My Humble Opinion


great post, seelight, and i've personally been quite psyched to see the response in the streets that this ludicrous house bill has inspired.

but i have a question: are you sure that los bros hernandez are 2d generation immigrants? (i'm pretty sure they're not first.) are you sure that they don't trace their roots in the socal area from before when socal was a part of the u.s. of a.? (don't forget that the city of los angeles was founded in 1776, but california never joined the union until 1845.)

keep blogging the good fight . . .


pee ess: to add to your list, be sure to re/view the work of li young lee, agha shahid ali, and jessica abel.

From a humanitarian perspective, our fellow human beings, who migrate to support their families, continue to suffer at the hands of immigration policies that separate them from family members and drive them into remote parts of the American desert, sometimes to their deaths. This suffering should not continue.

Now is the time to address this pressing humanitarian issue which affects so many lives and undermines basic human dignity. Our society should no longer tolerate a status quo that perpetuates a permanent underclass of persons and benefits from their labor without offering them legal protections.

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