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  Immigration: which way forward?
America at a crossroads

Alan Miller
posted 24 October 2007

Governor Eliot Spitzer's recent announcement that New York State will issue driver's licenses without regard to immigration status came at the same time as the federal government informed New York State health officials that chemotherapy for illegal immigrants no longer qualifies for coverage by the government emergency medical care programme.

Such mixed messages should come as no surprise. What seems to dominate every aspect of the immigration discussion is confusion and fear of some kind. Sptizer's argument centres around the issue of safety on the roads, rather than any concern for fair and equal treatment of immigrants. The New York Times editorial argues up the safety angle and then proceeds to tell us that 'New York State would have a better idea who many of these residents really are.' What a nice idea. While rightly rubbishing the absurd argument of some Republicans that state ID cards would be going to potential terrorists, they end up reinforcing the idea that we need to be concerned about who 'these people' are. These sentiments are echoed in a variety of places.

The removal of federal funding for chemotherapy highlights another side of the same coin. Here, the discussion surrounding immigrants is the hackneyed and predictably banal but effective one that they are a 'drain on our resources'. This argument has been familiar in varying degrees in the US from the 1870s onwards. While some have argued for a combination of mechanisms to smooth the immigrant passage to citizenship, all too often it seems to be on a pragmatic basis rather than around the principle of equality for all.

On 28 June, the Senate failed, for the second time this year, to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA), which would have offered the majority of the country's 11 to 12million illegal immigrants the opportunity to become citizens. Even this bill however, was dominated by a perspective that was fearful of immigration. In many ways, while everyone seems to recognise that the American Dream has been predicated largely on people arriving here to make a better life for themselves and contributing to the fabric of the country, the journey has been one that has also been dominated at times by racism and discrimination. While the anti-racist legislation that was passed in the post-war period ended the obvious aspects of this, a central issue today in the debate around immigrants and citizenship is one of resources.

If we buy the idea that resources are limited and finite - then it stands to reason that those entering the country are a 'drain' on them - and hence a problem in times of shortage. Interestingly however, some have argued that the notion that a large section of Americans are opposed to immigration is incorrect and rather it is a very vocal minority who hold this position. Far more common is the desire to accommodate, albeit with differing ideas as to how this is achieved. In the not too distant past, there was a sense in which the leaders of this nation and indeed the rest of the world, knew who they were and what they represented - and believed in themselves and the progressive elements of society. The Cold War froze an entire outlook that was rather convenient. There was an 'us' and a 'them', both abroad and domestically.

The end of that artificial division led to initial celebration, then very quickly a new form of anxiety. The question of who we are - or rather who are 'we' has been asked by many in different ways. The outlook of a hyphenated America, where identity is paramount but seemingly increasingly individuated and separate, does not seem to bode well for the projection of a universal idea of being American. Neither politicians nor pundits today seem to be capable of arguing consistently for a positive position based around what America 'is' or represents. Instead, we are presented with negatives of the dangers and risks inherent with immigration. Many in the US have pointed to Europe and the recent problems in France and Britain with immigrant communities to highlight how perhaps the American situation is not so bad. It does strike me however, that in both scenarios, legislation based on limiting immigration has promoted a pernicious view that some of our social problems occur due to an influx of people from the outside.

In the US, from the Chinese Exclusion Act onwards this has meant that in times of economic concern, the finger gets pointed at the newest group on the block. Whether they were Irish, Italians, Jews, Koreans, Ethiopians or more recently Latin Americans the question has often been posed as 'what do we do' with all these people. Perhaps it is time to replace the rhetoric with an honest and open debate about what immigration means today - and why residents do not get the same treatment all round as citizens and, shockingly, immigrants are presented as 'illegal' because they come to work where they are needed.

I have always rather liked the idea of free open borders internationally - if that was a starting point as a demand for equal rights for immigrants and citizens alike, perhaps then, the real issues of why there is a lack of resources and other social problems could be tackled head on. It is one thing to be allow driving licenses to be issued in a state, it is quite another to promote full equality for all people in the USA.

Alan Miller is director of the New York Salon.


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