In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois compacted the experienced of being othered and excluded into the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” This was what he heard when posed equivalents of, “Some of my best friends are Latino/Black/undocumented,” or “aren’t you outraged at the policies in Arizona?” In the wake of President Obama’s announcement promising a leniency for some undocumented immigrant youth, DuBois’ voice echoed in my mind, but this time the question is, “What does it feel like to be a pawn?”
Although the President’s introduction to his announcement walked, talked, and sounded like a policy change, it was far from it. He proclaimed that “[undocumented youth] are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” and then proceeded to outline a change in deportation practices that would, if followed, provide these young people with, at very best, a temporary, imminently revocable and liminal status in the United States. At worse, this edict prompts undocumented youth to identify themselves with little to no assurance that their identities will not be used to pursue, detain, and deport them. It also toys with their emotions, gesturing to a sense of morality and investment in humanity but still keeping youth at bay of inclusion in American society. It comes from an administration that has shattered previous deportation records, dismally failed to come true on its promise of focusing on ‘criminal’ offenders, and shown little hesitation in upping the profits of private corrections corporations to indefinitely house detained immigrants. It comes from an administration trying to get re-elected and shed some its past.
To that end, President Obama drew on facile mainstream ideological levers in making his case for somewhat legitimating undocumented youth. He averred that they were brought here by their parents (they are innocent, but not their parents). They are culturally and linguistically American (they don’t pose a threat to White America’s cultural empiricism). And these young people should be rewarded instead of deported for having studied hard, worked hard, and played by the rules (America really is a meritocracy after all).
Here’s the issue with the President’s framing: not much of that is true. First, immigration is rarely a simplistic individual act of legality or criminality. Particularly in these times of globalized capitalism, it is no coincidence that the largest waves of immigration mirror the demand from highly developed nations/corporations for cheap human service labor. Immigration, particularly the low-income immigration from the global South, is intimately tied to the conditions of prosperity for some and not others. It is the pulse of global capitalism.
Second, the bare facts are that the demographics of the nation are changing, and that impacts what it means to be American. In the face of a potentially productive shift in diversity of cultures and languages, to state that undocumented youth are linguistically and culturally American is to reassure listeners that assimilation is alive and well, ticking along just as it should. While not as bold as the xenophobic anti-immigration policies in states like Georgia, Alabama and Arizona, it is a close cousin in its appeal to calm worries that the placeholder of American identity as White and English speaking is being protected. Third, the United States is far from a meritocracy. To have even a cursory understanding of the racial and class divides represented and produced in our schools, prisons, deportation centers, demands at least a questioning of this ideal.
I believe our psyches can handle a little more truth. If we are to engage in actual immigration reform, we must reckon with it as a global phenomenon that reflects our transnational political and economic interests. Each time mythologies about individualism and meritocracy are invoked, we are hiding from these realities. We also are complicit in proclaiming that those with simple luck to have been born in the United States should have dominion to deem who should be included and the terms of that inclusion.
When I hear celebrations that this is a step in the right direction, I question what exactly is that direction if it is built on fallacy. As I was gathering Friday evening with immigrant youth I’ve known for years and witnessed their celebration, I wondered, “What does it feel like to be a pawn?” Undocumented immigrant youth are the wagers in the President’s political gamble. I wonder where President Obama will be if, and in all likelihood when, this conditional rug is pulled back out from the feet of undocumented youth.