Why Borders Should Not Be Barriers

In this blog entry, Jane Juffer, author of Intimacy Across Borders, considers immigration reform, and asks, “Is it necessary to link legalization to border security?”

I followed the recent Senate debates on immigration reform with a familiar sense of foreboding. Whatever cautious optimism I might have allowed myself early in the debates dissipated with each step of compromise and concession—the “path to citizenship” for 11 million undocumented people already in the U.S. coming with the very expensive price tag of $46 billion in border reinforcements.  The historical pattern continues: when Congress considers expanding opportunities for legalization, they must simultaneously show that they are “securing the borders” against too many brown people from the south.

Hence the border control amendment: 700 more miles of fencing and 20,000 more Border Patrol agents, double the current number. In addition: observation towers, fixed cameras, drones, helicopters and planes, mobile surveillance systems, seismic detectors and ground radar. Proponents claim this investment would lead to “100 percent situational awareness, or full monitoring along the 1,900-mile southern U.S. border, and 90 percent operational control, or a 90 percent apprehension rate of those seen crossing.” Such rhetoric seems intended to produce the kind of anxiety about national borders and security that followed 9/11, an especially opportunistic move since border crossings now are at an all-time low. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, for example, told ABC News in January that he would not support immigration reform without border reinforcement, based on his belief that the “porous” border could leave the U.S. “vulnerable to the sorts of attacks that we sustained on 9/11.” Even more egregiously, in the Washington Post, Iowa Rep. Steve King shamelessly used the Boston Marathon bombing to say that national security should be the focus now and that any talk about a path to legalization should be put on hold. “We need to be ever vigilant,” he said, echoing President Bush’s call for vigilance after 9/11 (which, in turn, became the motto of the Minutemen border vigilante group). Added King: “We need to go far deeper into our border crossings. . . .We need to take a look at the visa-waiver program and wonder what we’re doing. If we can’t background check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background check the 11 to 20 million people that are here from who knows where.”

King’s warning reveals that the border control amendment will affect the same people who will have the opportunity for legalization because it casts all immigrants under the same suspicious eye. The irony, even the hypocrisy, of the deal is that in order to recognize 11 million people who are already within the borders of the nation, it must cast aspersion on their home countries. In making immigration reform contingent on a further militarization of the border, the Senate reinforces the discourses and material effects of xenophobia derived from the categories of Us and Them—even as it proclaims the nation’s inclusion of those already here. These othering discourses affect people perceived to be Other whether are not they are legal; just ask Latinos in Arizona stopped by police under the auspices of the infamous SB 1070.

Intimacy Across Borders_smThis reliance on categorical ways of thinking is the very issue I challenge in Intimacy Across Borders, where I draw on the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to explore the idea that face-to-face encounters between peoples of different cultural backgrounds has considerable potential to break down identity categories. In the towns that serve as the focus of the book—small agricultural communities in northwest Iowa—Latino migration has transformed previously all-Anglo populations. While racism and xenophobia do of course exist, the everyday encounters that characterize life in a small town are more often characterized by mutual concerns and the desire to build community: has there been enough rain for this year’s corn crop to flourish? What are the prospects for this year’s high school football team? How will the local elementary school accommodate the growing number of children in each grade? When I return to visit my parents and take my young son to the park, he is just as likely to play with a child who speaks Spanish as one who speaks English, or, more likely, one who speaks both. The congressional obsession with border security seems so far removed from this life.

Yet of course legalization would make a big difference to the large number of undocumented Latinos in these small towns. People who fear being stopped by police and asked for their licenses would have some peace of mind. The meat-packing plant and the dairy farmers would need to worry less about their workers being deported. Children would need to worry less about their parents being deported.

Why, then, given the seeming congressional recognition of these concerns (as well as benefit to the U.S. economy), is it necessary to link legalization to border security? It seems ultimately that the latter will undermine the effects of the former, as anyone who at one point came from south of the border could still be linked to the threat of terrorism. When will the need to construct racialized and feared categories of Others no longer serve as the basis for U.S. immigration policy?

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