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Mobilizing Against an Epidemic of Fear

February 08, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Current Events, Guest Author, Politics

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The Moral Obligations of Civil Disobedience and Universal Rights

by Jenny Passero, Meredith Holladay, and Sara Turcios

In order to set the tone for overcoming fear and promoting just alternatives, we open with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “When injustice becomes the law, then civil disobedience is a moral obligation.” This quote is equally fitting as a response to the current political manipulation that is occurring in the Arizona State Legislature, with several Republican anti-immigrant proposals including: House Bill 2561 and Senate Bill 1309, as well as House Bill 2562 and Senate Bill 1308, which contest birthright citizenship.

This legislation is being used as a political tactic intended “to attract a legal challenge that could eventually lead to the U.S. Supreme Court reconsidering whether the 14th Amendment truly grants citizenship to such children.” This form of blatant political manipulation seems effective due to the current situation associated with the “ecology of fear” as demonstrated by Devon G. Peña in previous posts on the Environmental & Food Justice blog. In this entry we seek to examine the political responses to HB 2561 and SB 1309 and contrast this to previous anti-immigrant legislation that contested birthright citizenship. The current legislation being presented by Arizona politicians is highly strategic (in the ideological sense), and opposition to such legislation must be thoughtful, deliberate, and enduring.

As explained by the Arizona Republic, Republicans are proposing the following: (1) House Bill 2561 and Senate Bill 1309, which would define children as citizens of Arizona and the U.S. if at least one of their parents was either a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent U.S. resident and therefore subject to the jurisdiction of the United States; and (2) House Bill 2562 and Senate Bill 1308, which would seek permission from Congress to set up a system so states can create separate birth certificates for children who meet the new definition of a citizen and those who do not.

The focus of our analysis is the recent proposition of a set of House and Senate bills that would redefine citizenship. This type of legislation is not new but rather has been revived from previous decades. So, what is remarkably different about today’s current political and social environment that has brought such legislation to the surface once again? Bills such as these have wide-reaching ramifications on the communities that they explicitly target as well as on the U.S. as a whole. Since the passing of Arizona’s SB 1070 we have witnessed what could only be called a slippery slope of anti-immigrant, bigoted legislation that must be met with fierce resistance in order to halt this agenda. Mass mobilization must match the ferocity of legal challenges and the greatest intensity of involvement in 2012 electoral politics and discourse.

The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted on July 9, 1868, and was originally added to the Constitution as a means to overrule the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), which maintained the status quo that Blacks were not eligible for citizenship. Although this amendment signified a historical moment for blacks, we note that it was not until 1924 that Native Americans were finally granted United States citizenship.

Representative Albert Hale (D-Window Rock), an Arizona state legislator and a Navajo, raises an interesting point stating that according to this legislation, he would be defined as an ‘anchor baby.’  He comments, “My mother, born in 1919, was not a citizen.” He posed the question, “Am I to be deported? And if I am, where are you going to deport me to?” This raises an incredibly interesting commentary on the dangerous place that we are going back to with such fear-driven, anti-immigrant legislation that constantly fabricates exceptions to the rule of law.While both pieces of legislation proposed are presumably designed to “protect” United States citizens, they operate on a very narrow definition of who deserves to be granted the right of citizenship.

This also draws too sharp a divide between the rights of citizens and non-citizens. Rather than addressing the root of the flawed system, this type of legislation places emphasis on the individual instead of a highly institutionalized problem. This type of legislation further criminalizes immigrants despite the numerous institutional barriers that work to prevent or inhibit the process of legalization. This legislation represents a significant misplaced hostility that justifies heightened social and political conflict against immigrants and their host communities and not only along the US-Mexican border. These draconian legislative proposals are now emerging as close to home as our own State of Washington with SB 5006 and other measures.

There are significant discrepancies in the way that conflicting ideologies construct and format legislation surrounding ideas of citizenship. One ideology makes a connection between reified notions of American identity and citizenship (deriving from traditions of ‘white privilege’), while a separate alternative ideology seeks to examine the ways in which people come to identify as American despite a lack of legal status. These ideologies are disclosed in what anthropologist Adelaida R. del Castillo terms “postnational citizenship” or citizenship that extends beyond the nation-state identity. As immigrant individuals migrate across borders, forming communities within the host countries, they are reshaping “established cultural norms, resources and institutions [and] also informal networks of social service and resources.” Del Castillo addresses the problem of liberal political theory in that it “does not invite conceptualizations of citizenship without a nation-state framework.”

However, undocumented immigrants have been establishing social citizenship within the U.S. They are doing so without the U.S. or state governments granting undocumented persons consensual political agency. Social and cultural citizenship remains a strategy used by immigrants to get around the barrier to the full realization of political citizenship that comes with voting rights, jury duty rights, etc. and will continue to do so despite juridical and political opposition. One repercussion of anti-immigrant legislation and sentiment that is worth examining is the effect of these repressive laws and policies on communities. Some questions: Is the current political environment creating or increasing solidarity and unification in resistance to the ‘ecology of fear’? Or, in contrast, is it causing people to become increasingly fearful and to experience an amplified effect of internalized colonization that further divides people within the Mexican community along the lines of illegal or legal status?

One concern that has been expressed about the proposed plan for separate birth certificates is that it will create a hierarchy among immigrant groups. Arizona State Senator Steve Gallardo (D-Phoenix) compared the idea of two birth certificates to the days of ‘separate but equal’, as reported by The Arizona Republic. At the basis of our concerns lies the notion of a telluric participant mentality, which lays the framework of a national epidemic of fear. Fear of a destabilized economy, over time, is fed and sustained by political emphasis and legislation based on the “othering” of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants, thereby internally reinforcing a spirit of disunity throughout the “United” States.

This ideology, emphasized by legislative power figures, segregates the welfare of undocumented immigrants from those who presumably have the “best interests” of the U.S. at hand, further demonizing immigrant communities. This passive aggressive distinction between the U.S. “authorized” citizen and the “unauthorized” immigrant does not account for the immigrant who self-identifies as a U.S. citizen based on time spent living and becoming part of communities in the United States. HB 2561 and SB 1309 were born of anti-immigrant sentiments built up over the past decade or so and ripened by the vulnerabilities unleashed by the continuing recession.

These proposals present threats to U.S. citizens because they target individuals and whole communities of people who identify as American citizens from a social citizenship standpoint. This is in danger of being denied by the law. This anti-citizenship sentiment has been loudly pronounced before at the federal level with the Citizenship Reform Act of 1995. The failed HR 1363 bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Bilbray, allegedly sought “to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to deny citizenship at birth to children born in the United States of parents who are not citizens or permanent resident aliens.”

In opposition to the proposed legislation, legendary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan stated that “to deny birthright citizenship is to derail the engine of American liberty.” We’ve been here before. The truth of Jordan’s eloquent statement has never been more apparent or more relevant than today as migrant workers struggle to protect their families and remain a part of the communities they have established here in the United States. Is the “moral” security of the U.S. inherently tied to the future of social rights and the human justice needs of undocumented immigrants? Oppositional social movements have taken action nationally against legislation that features anti-immigrant sentiment by mobilizing their communities in diverse ways. SEIU Executive Vice President, Eliseo Medina, announced SEIU’s boycott of Arizona until “the Arizona state legislature, the courts or the Federal Government invalidates this dangerous and discriminatory law,” as quoted by The Hill.

Medina speaks specifically in this quote of SB 1070, but the labor movement continues to extend opposition to all related anti-immigrant legislation at the state and federal levels alike. Due to the fact that Arizona relies heavily on money obtained through tourism, organizations like SEIU and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), as well as other civil rights organizations, even joined together in their boycott of the state. Another tactic that organizations like the SEIU have utilized is social media such as blogging and YouTube, including the posting of videos that serve to evoke an emotional reaction to current events in order to inspire action.

Other responses to anti-immigrant legislation have extended beyond Arizona into states such as Texas, which is included in one of the dozen states expected to support Arizona’s two birth certificate system. La Unión del Pueblo Entero (or LUPE) based in the Rio Grande Valley has taken action by gathering “resolutions against the anti-immigrant legislation that will further criminalize immigrant communities and distract our legislature from fixing the economy and creating jobs.” They are taking to the streets, and talking to churches, organizations, and local businesses looking for support.

What would it mean to alter the definition of U.S. citizenship within the Fourteenth Amendment? Will denying birthright citizenship to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants effectively shift the U.S. economic crisis by denying immigrants access to political rights? Del Castillo suggests adopting a new discourse that perceives undocumented immigrants as “individual rights holders” of universal rights as opposed to the “illegal aliens” headliner imposed by Republican voices.

However powerful discourse may be, under the severe circumstances of the current political and moral dilemma, will it be enough to counter the injustices of U.S. law and transform the habitus of “civil disobedience,” which has become a “moral obligation”? Time will tell.

The authors are all students in Devon G. Peña’s winter quarter course at the University of Washington, “Comparative Social Movements: Mexico and the United States.” This essay originally appeared on the mexmigration blog, and is reprinted here by permission.

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