Excerpt from Border Hysteria and the War against Difference

by Guillermo Gómez-Peña

The Western Frontier reappears…

Immigration hysteria has always resurfaced in times of crisis. It’s an integral part of America’s racist history. But this time it’s different. What characterizes this immigration debate is an absolute lack of compassion when referring to migrants without documents. The “aliens”—that is, the brownskinned ones—are “criminals” by the mere fact that they are here “illegally.” But the criminality that is a consequence of their location—being on the wrong side of the US-Mexican border—is now taken to be symptomatic of their broader “criminal” identity. They are treated with suspicion for being connected to or supportive of global crime cartels and terrorist cells.

The loaded terms such as “illegal alien,” “alien,” or the even more damming term, “illegal,” are now synonymous with smuggler, border bandit, drug pusher, and gang member. The distinctions between “illegal” and “legal” easily disappear in the eyes of the racist. The brown face of evil morphs into the face of every “other” when the button of fear is pushed.

The incommensurable human suffering of migrants who move from their “proper place” without documents is a direct consequence of a failed global project, but their suffering appears inconsequential. The fact that men, women, and children risk their lives by crossing the desert to escape violence and to make a few dollars to send back home remains insignificant. The fact that most of their earnings are sent across the border infuriates the nativists even more. For them, humanity stops at the border, “this” side of the border. Paradoxically, these self-styled “nativists” are of European origin, whereas their “alien” enemies are indigenous Americans whose ancestors walked this American land for thousands of years, long before the first border checkpoint was installed with the 1882 Exclusion Act.

Since the US-Mexico border is now perceived as the most vulnerable national security barrier and as the probable entryway of terrorists, to defend “illegal aliens” is to participate in anti-American behavior. If you dare to help them in any way—feed them or offer them a ride (not to mention a job or a place to live)—you may be breaking the law. For this reason, we can legitimately proclaim that human empathy and human solidarity are now illegal in the USA. Remember the outrageous treatment of the “No More Deaths” volunteers in Arizona (2006) who were prosecuted merely for giving aid to migrants in the desert whose lives were in danger?

When a caller told Bill O’Reilly, “I will never employ an alien or rent to an alien because I’m an American patriot and my job is to defend America,” the right-wing shock jock answered: “Good for you, Sir!” The absolute lack of empathy for those who are culturally different from “us” (the fictive white majority) permeates the mainstream media and its version of political discourse. When one US citizen is killed or kidnapped abroad the whole country becomes outraged. However, the monthly deaths of migrants crossing the border are rarely reported, and the daily deaths of Iraqi civilians remain impersonal numbers. They are “collateral damage” in the multiple fronts of the war against terror. The demonized brown body in the age of terror has no name or personal identity.

Pay attention to the tone and language of the immigration debate and one cannot help but ask: Has America lost its compassion (or rather the mythology of American compassion) for the underdog and its tolerance for cultural otherness? At what point did white people stop calling themselves immigrants? And weren’t they initially illegal too?

(Full text at http://www2.ucsc.edu/raza/pipeline/border.pdf)