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Cover Story: What does an “illegal alien” look like? - The African World By Bill Fletcher, Jr., Editorial Board


I have become concerned that I am missing something.  In light of the anti-immigrant Arizona SB 1070 legislation I find myself asking again and again “…what does an illegal alien look like?”

I posed just this question in a recent letter to the editor I wrote to a mainstream publication.  We will see whether they publish it.

Can you describe an “illegal alien”?  If you factor out visitors from other planetary systems, what are we talking about?  Do these “illegal aliens” look like the undocumented Irish who flooded major cities of the USA in the 1980s when people were the major export from Ireland?  Do they look like the undocumented Eastern Europeans who I increasingly see in restaurants and construction?  Hey, how about white Canadians, a group that occasionally seems to forget which side of the border they happen to be on? 

Do “illegal aliens” look like any of them?  Is that who the Arizona legislators were thinking about when they passed this law?  Are these the images that the governor who could not take it, Sarah Palin, has in mind when she expresses solidarity with her colleagues in Arizona?

In the mainstream coverage of the racist Arizona act, I have heard no attention devoted to how one identifies an “illegal alien.”  I have not heard police discuss how they intend to choose who to interrogate.  Given that Arizona was part of Mexico until 1848, and has a large Chicano and Native American population, no one seems to have answered what distinguishing marks “illegal aliens” have such that they can be chosen for interviews.

By the way, who is empowered to stop and check the identities of “illegal aliens”?  I don’t mean that in terms of which branch of the government; rather, which segment of our society?  Let’s play this out for a minute.  Since no one seems to want to identify or clarify what is meant by an “illegal alien,” are African American police authorized to pull over someone in New York that they believe to be driving while illegally Russian?  Could a Puerto Rican police officer in Boston stop and check someone walking through South Boston who they believed to have been illegally Irish?

When I saw the opinion polls indicating that more than 50% of those interviewed supported the Arizona legislation, I wondered to what extent those surveyed are prepared to go with this insanity.   Since it has been documented that illegal immigration to the USA is down, and since, in either case, undocumented immigrants cannot be held responsible for plant closings, the financial collapse, or any recession on record, one must be clear that the Arizona legislation is not about “illegal aliens.”  It is about both suppressing the Latino and indigenous populations in the Southwest and, in the rest of the country, tapping into racist, nativist sentiment that longs to identify a scapegoat for the collapsing lives of white Americans.

It is not enough to denounce the Arizona legislation, and the subsequent anti-Chicano ethnic history prohibition for schools (also covering Arizona), but this must be held in the face of those who are leading this parade into the Dark Ages.  At every opportunity, we must pose this question regarding so-called “illegal aliens,” and most importantly, ask these right-wing populists, why the post-1965 immigration has been happening and what the policies that they have often supported have to do with this.

By the way:  don’t hold your breath waiting for an “illegal” Irish, East European, or white Canadian to be stopped by any officer of the law, most especially by an officer of color.  Was that to happen I am sure that the same people who are demanding the de facto lynching of immigrants, Chicanos and Native Americans would be among the first to cry out about “big government” and its abuses.

Basta! Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice   (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.


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May 20, 2010
Issue 376

is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
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Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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