“Illegal is not a race, it is a crime,” Senator Russell Pearce has been repeating lately. He’s defending himself against the frequent accusation of racism.
Illegal, meaning illegal immigrant, or illegal alien (it never means illegal driver under the influence or illegal shoplifter, so pardon us for seeing it as derogatory), and here in Arizona usually means Mexican, since we’re so close to Mexico and since the rates of migration across the border with Mexico is so high (due to NAFTA). But Mexican is not a race either, yet it makes sense to use the term racism (would he prefer white supremacy?)—even if he hates only a portion whom are so desperate to risk their lives to get a job in the U.S. This especially makes sense since we’re talking about the guy who “accidentally” forwarded out an email from a white supremacist group and uses statistics about the crimes of “illegals” he sourced from an organization (FAIR) that has connections to eugenicists. But that’s sort of beside the point.
I know there’s at least a handful of racists who know they’re racist but they know they should deny it. Most of the anti-immigrant folks, however, feel absolved from accusations of racism because maybe they have a few Black friends or a Hispanic wife or something. Please note: you don’t have to hate all people of color to be racist, and you don’t even have to hate a single one of them to be racist. If you feel entitled to privileges because you have white skin, if you participate in racist discrimination or are complacent with the violence brought against people of color by believing and maybe repeating false information about them, that’s racism too.
But let’s look at this again. “Illegal is not a race, it is a crime.” They could’ve said the same thing in the days when the police—oops, I mean the slave patrols—were checking for the “free papers” of every dark-skinned person they came upon who wasn’t enslaved. “It’s not racist to check to make sure the slave hadn’t illegally escaped her slavery,” they might’ve insisted, except that was long before racism was deemed dishonorable.
You see, what Russell Pearce doesn’t get (if he does I’ve under-estimated his intelligence and malevolence) is that race is so tied up with crime, his argument is circular. Race has so much to do with crime and illegality. You see, race was invented through criminalizing Africans. We weren’t taught in school (it wouldn’t be patriotic) that in the seventeenth century the rich European elites of Virginia were compelled, out of fear of rebellions of European indentured servants who joined with African slaves, to create new laws that made crimes of certain activities of Africans (owning property, testifying in court, defending themselves in physical confrontations, and much more). This created, and solidified, the divisions between people based on perceived physical differences so that they could create a clear hierarchy and an alliance between poor whites and rich whites against Africans. Race is not a biological or genetic reality. It is only based on certain physical cues that now have much more social and political significance than they had many centuries ago. In creating these divisions, alliances between races are undermined and poor whites would willingly maintain the hierarchy (even when that meant they’d stay poor) if they were allotted a few privileges and legal liberties. The rich whites won because they prevented the rebellions of the poor and continue to this day to make money off of most people's labor. Extra exploitation of people of color is justified by their alleged criminality.
Even after slavery was abolished, many Black people were charged with such things as vagrancy so they could be imprisoned and made to work for free. But it wasn’t racism since they had committed a crime, right Mr. Pearce? But they say we’ve progressed since then (we just have a much higher rate of people of color in prison than white people and many other examples of institutional racism to point to).
The point is that people are “illegal” because they’ve been made illegal. Clearly since race is not physically real, it exists mainly in the way people are treated. If people are criminalized and treated as criminals because of who they are (as in where they’re from, what they look like), that can clearly be called racism. This is the case, especially when anyone with brown skin can feel the effects of the targeting of immigrants. But let’s consider why Pearce might want to clarify that illegal is not a race. He is denying racism because most people understand racism to be about discriminating against people for no other reason but because of who they are, not what they’ve done. So even if we don’t use the term race, most people would agree that this attitude is wrong. The reason his bill includes criminalizing day laborers is because day laborers are mostly undocumented. The activities of day laborers are targeted because this is a way to catch people because of who they are, not because day laborer activity is harmful to the community. Pearce is contributing to social division between people by also criminalizing the people who transport or harbor undocumented migrants (will renting to them be illegal?).
The criminalization of poor people from south of the border—said to be unwilling to assimilate (why should they?)—is partly justified because of some idea of protecting “our culture”. What culture is this that the anti-immigrant folks claim they are destroying? Our hallowed culture of watching hours of TV and playing facebook games, meaningless jobs and prescription drugs, calling the police on loud neighbors instead of asking them to turn it down? What are they actually trying to protect? Could it be that white people feel entitled to a land that was stolen and built on the backs of slaves? They’re certainly not trying to protect native sovereignty (look at the check points on the Tohono O’odham Reservation).
But let’s look a little bit closer. The media and the politicians have been spending a lot of time and energy on shoving fear down the throats of U.S. citizens. They repeat the horror stories over and over again, and they make a lot of it up. Pearce likes to read off the names of police officers killed by immigrants—how about we read off the names of all the people the police have killed and those who have died in Joe’s jail (too bad so many of their names aren’t even reported)? Pearce likes to talk about “illegals” like they are all the same—even though studies show that a smaller percentage of migrants commit serious crimes compared to citizens, any of them could be a murderer, so we need to get rid of them all (and this makes as much sense as putting all men in jail because most violent crimes are committed by men)! Yes, it takes a lot to convince the average American to hate someone for stepping over an arbitrarily-drawn line in the dirt, and it should.
So why all the effort? There’s a lot to be gained financially from maintaining a class of people who can be treated in such a way—with little legal recourse to obtain unpaid wages, to get at least minimum wage and overtime pay to begin with, to have safe and reasonable working conditions. Some folks are also making a lot of money off of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of migrants in detention centers, building security equipment, the border wall, etc. There are some people, and perhaps Pearce is one of them, who are not motivated by greed, just hate or vengeance—I mean, he and his son, as police officers, have been shot by Latino youth and a Mexican undocumented immigrant, respectively. Pearce claims that to stop the crimes that are committed by those who commit them, all undocumented immigrants must be targeted. Using a war term, he pushes “attrition by enforcement”.
Criminalizing people justifies their exploitation, imprisonment, separation from family or their removal. What makes people “illegal” immigrants is the legal and economic significance of the border. Rich people and goods can cross the border freely. The U.S. doesn’t want to take any responsibility for the economic impact of the neo-liberal projects like NAFTA which prevent people from being able to subsist in the country they were born in. The border wall isn’t even a band-aid approach to the issue—it’s like putting superglue in the wound. Pearce is not interested in real solutions. He is not only interested in the federal immigration law being enforced, but he wants people put in jail because of who they are.