What We Talk About When We Talk About Immigration (Part II)

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by Sara Mayeux
Thumbnail image for ChrisGranillo.jpg

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.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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