Two major global news events — apprehensions of child migrants on the Texas-Mexico border and the latest flare up of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — converged for me this week in a prescient piece by by journalist/activist Jose Antonio Vargas in Politico. Vargas is the undocumented reporter whom we’ve written about here (and who, full disclosure, blurbed Amor and Exile).
He wrote an essay about being “Trapped on the Border,” presaging his detention at the McAllen, Texas airport four days later. In the piece, Vargas quotes an immigration attorney friend who messaged him, asking, “I am so glad you are visiting the kids near the border. But how will you get through the checkpoint on your way back?”
Meanwhile, half a world away, Israel, another land of checkpoints, was preparing a ground invasion against the people of Gaza.
These two stories, and their portrayal in the media, share a number of critical themes. Vargas’ rude introduction to immigration checkpoints in the American South, reminded me of the long-standing Israeli use of checkpoints to control, humiliate and persecute Arabs. The checkpoint is a blatant symbol of Israeli occupation, just as it was of South African apartheid. And as it’s become along our southern border.
The checkpoint presupposes the ID card, which allows governments to place people into winner and loser categories: Israeli/Palestinian, black/Indian/coloured, documented/undocumented, immigrant/native.
The checkpoint puts law enforcement, or soldiers, or national guard into the position of suspecting everyone; their job, by definition, is to impede human progress, not to promote progress.
The checkpoint is a militaristic metaphor that has no place in a participatory democracy like Texas.
The checkpoint breeds fear, as Nicole dramatically describes in her passage in Amor and Exile on crossing into Mexico.
The checkpoint dissolves essential freedoms, like the freedom of movement, the right to presumed innocence, protections against search and seizure.
— Paola Mendoza (@paolamendoza) July 15, 2014
A line from the Jasiri X video below sums up the ethic of the checkpoint: “criminalized without a cause at the checkpoint.” (Note the apparent handcuffs on Vargas in the photo above.)
This gets close to the issue here, and the larger notion of our broken immigration system. We are so far from the ideals of the 1965 revisions to the Immigration and Nationality Act that we no longer have any moral bearings on the meaning of immigration in the United States.
Vargas continues to ask us to Define American. In lobbying for abolishing the discriminatory quota system that the 1952 INA had cemented into law, then-President John F. Kennedy told members of the Italian-American community in 1963 that immigration to the U.S. was both a family affair and a way of building a nation:
We hope the Congress of the United States will accept these recommendations and that before this year is over we will have what we have needed for a good many years, which is the recognition that all people can make equally good citizens, and that what this country needs and wants are those who wish to come here to build their families here and contribute to the life of our country. — via The American Presidency Project
Vargas visited with child migrants at the border, kids who had come to the U.S. alone, like he did, in search of family and better fortunes. “I don’t think you can look in the eyes of these children and not know the kind of hell they’ve been through,” Vargas told The Guardian. “I don’t think you can look at them in the eye and tell them they have to go back to where they came from.”
The volunteer in the short video below, posted by Vargas’ organization, Define American, defines American:
The Border Patrol held Vargas for most of the day on Tuesday and released him, as a low-priority detainee, according to the New York Times, with a notice to appear before an immigration judge.
Amor and Exile argues that at least, at least, the American public (and elected officials) should see the plight of U.S. citizens like Nicole, who are forced into exile because of the arbitrary immigration status of their spouses, as a starting point for reforming the system. But apparently, we can’t even see the plight of children — small children fleeing gang violence and poverty as a starting point for compassion. Instead, our model policy for these children, for leaders like Vargas, for our historically fluid international border is the command and control model of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, barriers and walls, militarization, suspicion and ethnocentrism and classism.
This is not the America (nor the Israel, for that matter) that I know. Our best hope is to take Vargas up on his call and really do the hard work of defining American, because I’m not sure I recognize her anymore.