Immigration and Social Movements: What’s at Stake?

Truth be told, I’m rooting for the migrant caravan that is making its way to the U.S. border in defiance of our country’s administration and border policies. I feel like I’m cheering on the underdog team in the World Cup or the Resistance in Star Wars. There is something critical about these seemingly small battles that ultimately weaken the empire. I am enjoying the challenge it presents because it offers another opportunity for a moment of reckoning for our country. The caravan builds upon the momentum of #MarchforOurLives while we also continue to strengthen our alliances across social movements. We are beginning to see exactly what the caravan has in common with the Black Lives Matter movement and what we all have in common with the #WontBeErased and #MeToo campaigns. In other words, we can see what’s really at stake.

Namely, we are being asked to explore deep questions about who we are as a country and the promises we make about opportunities. These are questions that always have been beneath the surface of our dialogue, but we are now in a time where we are raising these truths and demanding a more honest conversation.  

The caravan and all of these movements ask us to look at our history. In reading one article, I couldn’t help but scoff at the headline, which asserted that the caravan is a “Challenge to the Integrity of U.S. Borders.” The word “integrity” was an oxymoron in light of the U.S.’s history of stealing the land from Mexico.  Where was the integrity when Congress passed a substitute protocol to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that required Mexicans to prove in U.S. courts that they had ‘legitimate’ title to their own lands? Any authentic discussion of our border security must acknowledge our history of theft and imperialism in the Americas. Otherwise, we continue to perpetuate the same dynamic of violence and oppression.

We also know that to look at the history would also bring to light another painful question – how does our history live on in our political systems? For example, if we acknowledge the history of genocide, or slavery, or the use of racist ideologies to set our immigration policy, we might also have to acknowledge the thread of continuing damage and take responsibility for it. In the case of immigration, the system itself was used to construct and maintain wealth and privilege based on whether one would be classified as white. One of the first major pieces of immigration legislation, The Johnson Reed Immigration Act of 1924, set restrictive quotas on immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Yet, in the immigration debate, we often hear the phrase “rule of law.” Anti-immigration advocates assert that immigrants aren’t following or respecting the law. What they do not acknowledge is that the laws themselves are rooted in racist ideologies. In the time of Jim Crow, many moderates also wanted black Americans to respect the “rule of law.” Now, the Central American immigrants are reminding us to question the laws and the systems themselves. This is exactly the message of all of our movements.  Earlier this year, the detention of children weakened our trust in the immigration system. The deaths of Eric Garner and Sandra Bland weakened our trust in the justice system. The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh—despite Dr. Ford’s testimony of sexual assault—has weakened our trust in our social values. While many U.S. citizens want to hold tightly to their fantasies of fairness, these movements are creating a chorus of voices that are becoming harder and harder to drown out. They are demanding that we change our systems.

Moreover, in a time of globalism, I find it very exciting that the newest challenge is coming from non-U.S. residents.  Just as our own neighborhoods in the U.S. are marked by tremendous amounts of segregation and economic disparity, our relationship with Mexico reflects the same issues on a larger scale. They are our neighbors too, and until we truly begin to see the ways we are interconnected, we will all suffer from the consequences of violence and disparity. We have created the conditions for poverty and violence in Central America through our imperialism, investment in war, and trade policies, and as a result, we see the proliferation of gun violence and drug epidemics in our own communities. Until we recognize that we are all in this together, we will continue to harm ourselves. We will continue to see the impact of our own narrow-mindedness, fear, and greed.

With each step towards the United States, these marchers are challenging the United States. But contrary to some claims, they are not challenging our “integrity,” but our lack thereof.  They are challenging us to face the gap between who we purport to be and who we actually are. With so many movements gaining traction, we truly are in a defining moment for us as a nation.  We will have to decide whether we will continue to attempt to deny and bury the country’s wretched history with even greater force and oppression. Or will we face it, as these movements are asking us to, in the hopes that facing the violence will begin the process of reconciliation and healing.  Either way, one thing is clear. Everyone is watching; because what we choose is going to impact not just Mexico and Central America, but the entire world.


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