I've been puzzled, recently, by the reification and demonization of the "Illegal Alien" as Public Enemy No. 1. (The image at left is by Chris Granillo and comes from the Alto Arizona Art Campaign).
First there's the bare irony of the nomenclature. Here's the historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, in one of my favorite books about the West, The Legacy of Conquest:
"In the mestizo, Indian and Hispanic backgrounds met. Accordingly, as the historian George Sanchez has put it, the Mexican 'presence in the Southwest is a product of both sides of the conquest--conquistador and victim.' It is surely one of the greater paradoxes of our time that a large group of these people, so intimately tied to the history of North America, should be known to us under the label 'aliens.'"
Second and relatedly, there's the selective nature with which the epithet is applied. Funny how Canadian housewives without proper papers, Irish bartenders who overstayed their tourist visas, Australians who remained abroad when their study abroad was through all seem to escape the opprobrium.
Third, there's the curious fact that an inelegant piece of legalese would be lifted from the stacks of bureaucratic paperwork and transformed into a workaday phrase of American English. We don't generally go around calling people "legal permanent residents" or "priority workers" in everyday conversation, even though the government might call them that.
So why has the phrase "illegal alien" taken hold and how did Mexican immigrants get defined as the quintessential "illegal aliens"? In my earlier post I cited the immigration historian Mae Ngai, and her book Impossible Subjects provides the full answer to this question. But the nutshell answer is that U.S. policy bears much of the blame.
Until 1965, Mexican immigration had never been numerically restricted, although it was certainly regulated in other ways, and although Mexicans were not exactly welcomed with open arms. (Witness the forced "repatriation" of Mexicans--including American citizens!--during the Depression, and "Operation Wetback" in the 1950s.) The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 is remembered for abolishing quotas, but in fact, it placed a numerical ceiling on Western Hemisphere immigration to the U.S. for the first time. Compared to historic migration patterns, and particularly in light of American agricultural industry's dependence upon Mexican laborers, the ceilings established were, arguably, unrealistically low.
So, U.S. immigration policy can be blamed for creating a system in which Mexican immigrants became the largest and most identifiable class of "illegal aliens." Why, though, have the chattering classes picked up this phrase and run with it? Perhaps the answer lies in that seductive adjective "illegal," which offers a government-sanctioned way of portraying these people as lawbreakers. After all, you can't accurately label them all "criminals" (not that many don't do it anyway), since simply being in the U.S. undocumented is not, without more, a crime (except, maybe, in Arizona); deportation proceedings are civil. (Moreover, while there certainly exist undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, immigration-related, violent, and otherwise, sociologists suggest that immigrants are on average more law-abiding than the native-born population.)
Perhaps the noun "alien" is appealing, too, to those would taxonomize the Mexican as "the other." It's somewhat of a stretch to call Mexicans "foreign" considering that the blend of Spanish and Native influences that formed their culture is the very same that formed much of the American West, and considering how intertwined Mexican and American lives have been for both of our countries' history. But if even the government calls them "aliens"...
Most nefarious to me, though, is when the "alien" drops off altogether and the adjective "illegal" is transmuted into noun, as when politicos rail against the masses of "illegals" running rampant through the land. It's not as though undocumented immigrants have some special claim to disregard for federal regulations. At any given moment someone not far from you is probably doing one or more of the following: smoking marijuana, selling cocaine, exceeding the speed limit in a national park, downloading pirated videos, possessing an unregistered firearm, or committing any number of the vaguely defined federal crimes that populate the U.S. Code. This week law students throughout the land are taking the bar exam and I don't doubt for a minute that some of these presumably law-respecting folk studied for it under the influence of Adderall that they didn't get from a prescription bottle with their name on it. Don't take it from me; take it from Ninth Circuit chief judge Alex Kozinski (no liberal, he): "You're (probably) a federal criminal."
Now obviously, there are degrees of lawbreaking and lots of people believe that laws involving lines on the map matter more than any other (I seem to lack that chip), but I've never understood the assumption you sometimes hear from vernacular pundits that once you disregard one legal provision it's all just a slippery slope to rape and murder.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Most adults can’t remember much of what happened to them before age 3 or so. What happens to the memories formed in those earliest years?
My first memory is of the day my brother was born: November 14, 1991. I can remember my father driving my grandparents and me over to the hospital in Highland Park, Illinois, that night to see my newborn brother. I can remember being taken to my mother’s hospital room, and going to gaze upon my only sibling in his bedside cot. But mostly, I remember what was on the television. It was the final two minutes of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. I can even remember the precise story: “Percy Takes the Plunge,” which feels appropriate, given that I too was about to recklessly throw myself into the adventure of being a big brother.
In sentimental moments, I’m tempted to say my brother’s birth is my first memory because it was the first thing in my life worth remembering. There could be a sliver of truth to that: Research into the formation and retention of our earliest memories suggests that people’s memories often begin with significant personal events, and the birth of a sibling is a textbook example. But it was also good timing. Most people’s first memories date to when they were about 3.5 years old, and that was my age, almost to the day, when my brother was born.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Gentrification is pushing long-term residents out of urban neighborhoods. Can collective land ownership keep prices down permanently?
AUSTIN, Tex.—Not long ago, inner cities were riddled with crime and blight and affluent white residents high-tailed it to the suburbs, seeking better schools, safer streets, and, in some cases, fewer minority neighbors.
But today, as affluent white residents return to center cities, people who have lived there for years are finding they can’t afford to stay.
Take the case of the capital city of Texas, where parts of East Austin, right next to downtown, are in the process of becoming whiter, and hip restaurants, coffee shops, and even a barcatering to bicyclists are opening. Much of Austin’s minority population, meanwhile, is priced out, and so they’re moving to far-out suburbs such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, where rents are affordable and commutes are long.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
The unwillingness of the former secretary of state to take questions from the press contrasts sharply with Jeb Bush’s marked affinity for public disclosure.
Howard Kurtz reported on Sunday night that the Hillary Clinton campaign has decided to open itself to more press interviews. Kurtz quoted the campaign’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri: “By not doing national interviews until now, Palmieri concedes, ‘we’re sacrificing the coverage. We’re paying a price for it.’”
Meanwhile Jeb Bush chatted July 2 with the conservative website, the Daily Caller. The Daily Caller interview broke an unusually protracted no-interview period for Bush. It had been more than two weeks since he appeared on the Tonight show with Jimmy Fallon. Bush spoke that same day, June 17, to Sean Hannity’s radio show and ABC News. Five days earlier, he’d spoken to Germany’s Der Spiegel—altogether, five interviews in the month of June. That brought his total, since the beginning of February, to 39, according to the Bush campaign.*
Chicago has seen a double-digit increase in the percentage of kids graduating from high school. Skeptics say educators and kids are manipulating the numbers—but does that even matter?
Desiree Cintron’s name used to come up a lot during “kid talk,” a weekly meeting at Chicago’s North-Grand High School at which teachers mull over a short list of freshmen in trouble.
No shock there, says Desiree now, nearly three years later.
“I was gangbanging and fighting a lot,” she says, describing her first few months of high school. “I didn’t care about school. No one cared, so I didn’t care.”
Had Desiree continued to fail in her freshman year, she would have dropped out. She is sure of that. It was only because of a strong program of academic and social supports put together by her teachers that she stuck it out. Desiree pulled up a failing grade and several Ds. She gave up gangbanging and later started playing softball. She connected with a school determined to connect with her.