Fighting for Dignity in Undignified Times

July 31, 2018
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He was bright and likeable—and chatty in the way high school students can be when they have disengaged. Some lose interest in school because they don’t see how it relates to the rest of their lives, perhaps because the jobs available to them don’t require much formal education. Others have too many things going on outside of the classroom and use the safe space within it to just be teenagers escaping from their problems, if only for a few hours a day. The options aren’t mutually exclusive of course. The two are often intertwined in complex ways. I wondered which of these was the student in the back of the class. When he turned in his math assignment, I decided to encourage and prod him a bit to consider his future. The conversation went something like this, although originally in Spanish.

Me: You are smart and can do good work. Why do you spend so much time talking to your friends in the back? Have you considered going to college? There are so many options open to you.

Him: There is no point in trying. I’m undocumented. I can’t go to college or receive financial aid. We have no money. When I graduate, I am going to work in the fields with my parents.

Me: Hmm, are you sure you don’t have other options? Aren’t there special programs or scholarships you can apply for?

Him: I don’t know. But college isn’t for me. I’m going to the fields, so there’s no point in trying.

I didn’t know what to say. I was a substitute teacher supporting myself through college. I wasn’t trained for moments like these. When this exchange happened over a decade ago, programs for undocumented students were few and my knowledge of any that did exist was nonexistent. The bell rang. The student left. We went about our lives.

But years later, the young man continues to haunt me.

He had resigned himself to fate. His legal status was an iron cage foreclosing the possibility of leading a flourishing life in this country. Why bother working hard in school when, regardless of his performance, the outcome would be the same? It’s hard to blame him.

His response was reasonable given his options and the political environment of that time. Immigrants’ rights activists weren’t as visible at the time, and somehow the attacks of 9/11 were spun into policies proposing increased security of our southern border and had spurred vigilante groups such as the infamous minutemen in Arizona. Lou Dobbs was promoting a border wall and expressing anti-immigrant views nightly on CNN, a decade before Donald Trump made such views the center of his presidential campaign. Respected professors such as Samuel Huntington at prestigious universities like Harvard were alerting us to the “Hispanic challenge,” and the dangers of Mexican immigration. We weren’t far removed from the passage of California’s Prop 187 and Bill Clinton’s disastrous Operation Gatekeeper. This about sums up the range of mainstream views along the political spectrum at the time. There was precious little room for claiming and asserting the dignity and rights of undocumented immigrants. Small wonder, then, that neither my student nor I had the capacity to imagine anything else.

The country has changed a lot since then. Public attitudes towards immigrants have improved among certain members of our nation. We have Dreamers and sanctuary cities and humane state laws, especially in California. More people are increasingly aware of the plight of undocumented immigrants sitting in detention centers without adequate legal representation. We should thank the many immigrants’ rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and scholars who work tirelessly for these developments. Progress isn’t inevitable. Change doesn’t happen magically. It takes courageous people fighting and organizing in the face of great adversity to secure even a modest measure of justice. And the fight is far from over.

As an American citizen born to Mexican immigrant parents, I watched in horror as then-candidate Trump kicked off his campaign with an attack on Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. He promised to make Mexico pay for a border wall. He accused judge Gonzalo Curiel of being incapable of impartiality in his case because Curiel was of Mexican descent, despite Curiel having been born and raised in the United States. Those who decry identity politics fail to see how such accusations and their underlying assumptions create the very need for stigmatized communities to organize politically around identity. When you categorize people, and characterize them so negatively, it’s only natural that they’ll work to forge a positive sense of group identity. Willful blindness to this dynamic reinforces the false notion that those who transform negative identity categories are to be blamed for making race an issue.

One of Trump’s first acts while in office was rescinding DACA, an executive order issued by then-President Obama to defer action on undocumented individuals who had arrived as children and remained in good standing. He has ordered ICE to crack down on undocumented immigrants by surveilling Latino communities. He has threatened to withhold federal funding from “sanctuary” states. Now come reports that detained immigrant families are being separated, children ripped from their parents’ arms. Given anti-immigrant hysteria and draconian policies, we shouldn’t find it shocking when tragedy strikes people fleeing ICE as occurred to Santos Hilario Garcia and Marcelina Garcia Perfecto in March of this year. The Mixtec-speaking couple from Mexico, attempting to evade ICE detention, died in a car crash outside Delano, California, my hometown and where I worked as teacher. More recent is the case of Jose Bello, a standout Bakersfield College student, who was detained by ICE after his brother was pulled over by Kern County law enforcement (Jose was a passenger). It is believed that local law enforcement reported Jose and his brother to federal authorities.

As shown in these events, the threats of detention and constant surveillance on Latinos, our families, and communities exacts social and psychological tolls and sends a message that we are second-class citizens. This isn’t a new message. As someone who researches and writes about Latinos in the United States, I can say that this is a recurring theme throughout American history, particularly with respect to Mexican Americans. The term “Mexican American” is often conflated with “immigrant” which is conflated with “undocumented immigrant” which is further conflated with “criminality.” Consider the case of Ana Suda and Mimi Hernandez, both Mexican Americans. They were confronted and questioned by a Border Patrol agent for the mere fact of speaking Spanish in public. According to the agent, this was enough to raise his suspicions that these two women were in the country illegally. It should go without saying, but sadly cannot, that language is a poor proxy for legal status, especially in a country without an official language, and that harassing Spanish speakers further contributes to the rising hostility aimed at Latinos in this country. What makes the incident all the more confounding is that the name of the state in which it occurred, Montana, is of Spanish origin. It’s a minor point, to be sure, but it hints at the deep Mexican roots of much of what is now considered the American west. Despite this history, however, it has nearly always been politically advantageous to espouse anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant views, as demonstrated by President Trump.

Recent research suggests that “white backlash” against immigrants and Latinos is a result of how immigration affects white Americans’ political identities. Other research argues that Latinos occupy the bottom rung of the American racial hierarchy. Taken together, they paint a picture of immigrants and Latinos in the U.S. as convenient scapegoats for those wishing to whip up political support through a mix of racial resentment and racialized economic anxiety. Nowhere is this dynamic more clearly seen than in the agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley, one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world. Many growers identified as Trump supporters and cheered his anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant message. This message often played off of stereotypes of Mexican immigrants as lazy, leeching criminals taking jobs from honest, hardworking Americans. Once Trump took office and began instituting his punitive immigration policies, California growers began to experience severe labor shortages. Trump’s policies ensured that fewer Mexicans and immigrants were willing to risk the legal consequences in order to work for unlivable wages. It also turned out that those “lazy” Mexicans had actually been extremely hardworking field laborers working for wages and under conditions that no citizen would tolerate. As has long been known, California agriculture is profitable because workers are exploited. Its business model is only sustainable when there is a surplus army of labor willing to work for poverty-level wages.1

The labor shortages now have some growers rethinking their support of the president and his policies. It’s hard to sympathize with them. Growers had accepted the negative stereotypes of Mexican immigrants while having witnessed firsthand their work ethic. Now that Trump has delivered on his promises, and it is affecting growers’ bottom line, they have reservations. But you can’t trade on stereotypes of Mexican immigrants as lazy and at the same time expect sympathy when they no longer provide you with cheap labor because of a president and policies you supported. They are either hardworking laborers or lazy leeches. One or the other, not both. This region, instrumental to both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and their brands of virulently anti-union, anti-labor politics, may be an outlier in California politics, but it corresponds with other parts of the country where populist dog whistle appeals play well to crowds—the parts that continue to provide overwhelming support to the president despite his many ongoing scandals and failures. If news reports and social media are to be believed, the rising tide of hate is a national phenomenon.

Sometimes I think about that student from years ago. I wonder what became of him, of what he made of his life. Is he working in the fields for low pay under unsafe conditions? Does he fear a run in with ICE leading to his detainment and deportation? Has the movement for immigrants’ rights that has arisen in the intervening decade affected him? Given him courage? Allowed him to live a semblance of a good life? I don’t have answers. I wish I did. But I do know that the struggle must continue. Latinos, immigrants, and those who stand in solidarity must pushback against the demagoguery that would pit us against each other and pick on the most vulnerable among us. My democratic hope is that no immigrant in this country should feel that his or her efforts are futile and future predetermined because of legal status.

About the Author
  • Gustavo Maya is a PhD candidate at Princeton University in the program in Religion, Ethics and Politics. Prior to Princeton, he received a B.A. from Fresno Pacific University, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley. His dissertation examines exploitation and resistance among the farmworkers led by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong.

  1. For this reason, I’m wary of economic arguments in favor of immigration. That we stand to benefit from the exploitation of their labor seems to me a corrosive justification eating away at our values and ideals.  

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  1. Gustavo Maya, I really approve of what you are saying. Christians should be looking out for and helping the most vulnerable people in our country.