08 August 2011

Immigration, Xenophobia and the American Psyche

For a few weeks now, I have been following the events around Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, who, on June 22, 2011, revealed, through an article in the New York Times, that he is an undocumented immigrant. Ever since then, the debate regarding the DREAM Act has been quite relevant, and by revealing himself as an undocumented immigrant, it gave a face to the plenty of people who, as children, were brought to the United States as undocumented immigrants by their parents, and ended up knowing the USA as their sole country of origin.

Personally, I should say that I find Jose Antonio Vargas quite courageous in revealing the fact that he doesn't have the correct paperwork. I have heard later on that reactions to his revelation were quite mixed, especially from the community of immigrants, both documented and undocumented. Some Filipinos lamented that he puts the Filipinos at an embarrassing spot. Others praised his courage and were glad that this resulted in the DREAM Act being discussed in the US government again. If you want to know more about his story, you can watch the video, embedded here, or go to the website whose links I provided above.

But perhaps the more disconcerting thing, at least, given my perspective, are the reactions of the Americans themselves when they see Jose's story. You look at newspapers reporting about his case, and you see the comments that people leave. I was reading them the other day, and couldn't help but think that this country is so xenophobic, that I really have second thoughts as to whether I want to be here and establish my career later on, after I graduate.

Recently, Jose's driver's license got revoked by Washington State. This was reported in several newspapers. And several comments revealed perhaps the prevailing American psyche that wants Jose out of the country. Several readers have commented that the US government should "ship him out", that Jose should "swim west", that "the US government should go door to door and hunt down the illegal immigrants" and so forth.

It made me think, that it seems that a lot of Americans are hypocrites.

Have they forgotten their own history? Have they forgotten that Christopher Columbus was perhaps the first illegal immigrant in the Americas? Have they forgotten about the Indian Removal Act of 1830? Have they forgotten about the Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was destined to expand across North America?

I find it bizarre and mentally jarring that these Americans are so hasty in dismissing people like Jose Antonio Vargas, voicing their opinions that he should be "crated and shipped back to the Philippines" because he is an undocumented immigrant. Was it his fault that he found himself sent to the United States when he was 12, because his parents put him on a plane to California? He only found out that he was an undocumented immigrant when he was 16, when he went to the DMV and attempted to get a driver's license.

I find it so disturbing that this country, whose population is significantly made up of immigrants, would have people acting like they were originally here in the North American continent, when in fact, aside from the Native Americans, no one can say that they are here as indigenous populations. There is a high chance that plenty of ancestors of today's American population was foreign-born. Pay a visit to Ellis Island, you'll see how many people came to this continent from Europe and eventually settled here. I don't see how this gives people the right to simply "ship back" undocumented immigrants back to their home countries, especially when it is not their own fault that they ended up here, and more especially when this is the more or less the only country they have come to know.

See, if I have seen this xenophobic reaction in countries that do not have a history of immigration, then I would not be surprised. Just take for example Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian far-right extremist who bombed a government building and shot several people in a political summer camp in Oslo. He saw immigration as a threat, and he feared that Norway was being overtaken by Islam. To some degree, I can see where he is coming from.

But the United States is not Norway. The history of the United States cannot be told without acknowledging the fact that it has been a country that was formed by immigration. Plenty of people have come here from the Old World, plenty of people have boarded ships and planes and went here with the hope that they will have a better life, as they escaped poverty, famine, religious persecution, wars, and other obstacles. Given that, I think that the reactions I have witnessed with respect to the case of Jose Antonio Vargas is rather hypocritical and absurd.

I am not an undocumented immigrant. In fact, I am not an immigrant at all. I am just a student, that is legally here in the United States on a temporary basis. And yet I do feel the effects of American xenophobia. Every time I board the bus to New York City, there will be border patrol officers that board the bus and ask people to declare their citizenship (and if it is not the USA, produce their passport) in Rochester, NY. Mind you, Rochester is about 80 miles or 1.5 hours away from the nearest international border. There are laws such as Arizona SB 1070 which may look good on paper, but in essence it results in a majority of non-Caucasian people being stopped by officials so that they can prove that they are not undocumented, in essence, a form of profiling. The fact that things like these are creeping up and increasing in number is quite disturbing, to tell you the truth.

So yes, is the United States the destination of dreams? Probably not. As much as their educational system is superb (which is why I am studying here), I am not convinced that this is the country for me. After I graduate, we'll see where I end up. The stakes are stacked against the United States right now, to tell you the truth.

(Stone Wells, from my Machu Picchu Series)


  1. I didn't know the story at all and I'm setting to read the NY Times article.

    I just wanted to say I was often disgusted when reading readers' comments below newspaper articles. For some reason, people sound racist, xenophobic, dumb, aggressive etc. I noticed that trend in Canada too. Articles on immigration (even those with a balanced view) often bring awful comments. Canadians are nice people. Who are those hater? Is it because people feel the need to be blunt behind a computer screen?

    I rarely read comments now. They are scary.

    I believe immigrants should try to go the legal way whenever possible. For instance, I don't have too much respect for people who cheat the immigration system in Canada. Like those who apply for citizenship before they are eligible and then complain about it.

    On the other side, I perfectly understand why some people become undocumented immigrants. Life is hard is some countries and you can't blame people for wanting to have a better life.

  2. Their loss ;)

    It's really sad what you're telling. What do you think are the reasons for american's xenofoby? If they have one of the best educational systems I would guess they are sufficiently educated to know better... u.u

    I was really shocked to hear about people asking non-caucasians to identify themselves... that seems so incredibly discriminatory. What if they are, I don't know, illegal immigrants from Canada or Europe? do they get treated the same way?

    Well, here in Chile we have our share of issues, too. I was confident that it was an educational issue. u.u

    Or maybe it is educational, not "technical" but "ethical"... what do you think?

  3. Zhu,

    I agree. Perhaps the Internet provides some sort of anonymity that allows people to just remove all measures of politeness and just be brusque and rude. I agree that people should definitely try and immigrate using legal means, but sometimes, there are people who just find out later that they are an undocumented immigrant not because of their own fault, but because of their parents' actions.

  4. Kami,

    The United States might have the best educational system, but that doesn't mean that the citizens are educated per se.

    Just as an example, in my department, there are plenty of people who are not citizens of the USA. Foreigners go to the USA to study, because the locals don't. If the locals had high GRE scores, they would be the ones accepted in the programs and given funding. But no, some of them have scores lower than the foreigners, and based on the quality of students that I get whenever I teach an undergrad course, I am not surprised.

  5. No, I totally agree with you. I read his story (beautifully written) and it's an amazing one. He is an amazing person too. Clearly, he didn't have a say in being illegal, his mother made the choice. Probably a good one. A painful one, for sure, for all the parties involved.

    I just have no patience with "first-world people" who think they can just do whatever they want, overstay, lie etc. They are choosing the easy way instead of taking the legal way which is often available to them.

  6. Zhu,

    Ah yes, the "first-world" people. I have seen those types. Not only in immigration, but in just regular travels too. They go to countries those in South America and Asia, and they act like they own the place. Sometimes it is simply annoying.