3.26.2006

Immigration, culture and New York

Lately, the issue of immigration has been in the news, especially prohibited immigration from Mexico. While our distance from the Mexican border has insulated York Staters from much of the effect of this social migration, we do border Canada and the debates have filtered into our area, often becoming intertwined in “Homeland Security” discussions. While this issue has many aspects, I would like to focus upon a single facet of the discussion: cultural survival. This is the argument in particular of the US’s most prominent far-right, anti-immigrant group, the Minutemen Project, which began to organize New York-based paramilitary border patrols last fall [1].

The far right has always been the self-proclaimed protector of “tradition” and “cultural values,” and the forces in this faction are particularly vehement in their desire to protect what they view as the American way of life from Mexican immigration. Since this website is one that seeks to preserve and celebrate Upstate history and traditions, I feel that it is necessary to differentiate my position from those of the xenophobes and fear-mongerers.

To begin, let me quote the website of the Minutemen Project:

“The Minuteman Project is not a call to arms, but a call to voices seeking a peaceful and respectable resolve to the chaotic neglect by members of our local, state and federal governments charged with applying U.S. immigration law.

It is a call to bring national awareness to the decades-long careless disregard of effective U.S. immigration law enforcement. It is a reminder to Americans that our nation was founded as a nation governed by the "rule of law," not by the whims of mobs of ILLEGAL aliens who endlessly stream across U.S. borders…

Future generations will inherit a tangle of rancorous, unassimilated, squabbling cultures with no common bond to hold them together, and a certain guarantee of the death of this nation as a harmonious ‘melting pot.’

The result: political, economic and social mayhem.

Historians will write about how a lax America let its unique and coveted form of government and society sink into a quagmire of mutual acrimony among the various sub-nations that will comprise the new self-destructing America.”

At the heart of their argument is the concept that somehow their traditions and their way of life is threatened by the presence of people that don’t practice the same traditions. In other words, Anglo culture will be destroyed by the mere proximity of non-Anglos, especially if they are outnumbered. But yet, by surveying history we can see that the survival of a cultural traditions has nothing to do with whether the possessors of that culture were a territorial majority, but instead on the cohesion between members and individual self-identification of those members. Didn’t the Jewish people survive thousands of year since the destruction of the last Temple without a state, a territorial majority or even any institutions larger than the local synagogue? In Eastern Europe, dozens of ethnic groups have weathered the rise and fall of many great empires without destruction. The Basques have kept their identity and traditions in Spain without a government or state since Roman times. These are not isolated examples, but a mere sampling of the world's history of diversity.

The reason that the Minutemen and their cohort cannot envision “American” (read: White Anglo) society surviving as a minority is because their ethnic identity is one founded upon the doctrine of white supremacy. To these people, white society is defined by control and dominance, especially over other peoples. White society is a separate entity which has created the “greatest nation in the world,” based upon European traditions and Protestantism. It is something that exists only in comparison and opposition to other traditions. If one accepts their view of America, it would truly cease to exist if whites could no longer dominate and oppress other peoples, if they were no longer the majority.

So how can we, here in Upstate New York, reclaim the banner of history and tradition from the white supremacists?

For one, I believe that we need to counter their “mythic”
[2] history of America as the great moral bastion of the white world by promoting counter history. We need to question racist and mythic interpretations of history, whether spoken to the media, taught to our children or written in stone memorials in our parks. We should explore how our local culture has been enriched by the infusion of outside influences. This is perhaps easiest seen in the area of food: without the German immigrants, would Buffalo have Beef on Weck? Without the Irish, would there be salt potatoes in Syracuse? What wonderful flavors, both literal and metaphoric, will the next generation of immigrants bring into our communities?

Secondly, I believe that we have to empower our own communities: when people live with strong bonds to their neighbors, fear-mongering by outside powers is not as effective. For example, if the white folk know the black folk down the road by name (and vice-versa) and see them at town meetings, picnics and other social events, they can no longer be scared by them and label them as outsiders. In healthy communities people are in general not as isolated and fearful, not as needing of national mythic histories to give meaning to their lives, as those who live in broken, estranged communities (like the bedroom towns ringing NYC).


Finally, we need to take steps to oppose and undermine the works of their organizations. If the Minutemen come here to “protect” us from the dangerous Canadians, we need to challenge them and proclaim solidarity with our neighbors. We should step forward to discuss our long and peaceful history of collaboration and cross-border creativity with the Canadians. The North Country would not be the same place without the Quebecois just to the north; western New York has long shared ideas and traditions with Ontario. York Staters probably have more in common culturally with the Rust Belt cities of Ontario than with the sprawling metropolis of BosWash, not to mention more distant regions of the USA. We need to announce that the racists and xenophobes are not welcome in Upstate New York, that we will not betray our true local history of tolerance and social justice for their manufactured mythic history of racial purity and intolerance.


-Posted by Jesse

[1] In reading that article from NYC and this one from Watertown, I notice a few things. First off, they seem to have expressed no desire in relating to Yorkstaters, recruiting from among us or developing any base here. Instead they travel to Babylon, a relatively well-to do, overwhelmingly white (92%) bedroom community of NYC. Their argument in the news for border control hinges upon fear of gangs and terrorist attacks. They even rave about terrorists possibly using Chinese restaurants as a base for attacks.

[2] By “mythic,” I am referring those who manipulate historical events to create a story arc where a heroic race of people lead by great leaders (inevitably men) battle against forces of outside oppression to create some form of societal ideal that has become threatened and corrupted in the modern age. The arguments of fascists must be recognized in the modern era and decried wherever possible. A Nazi in a red, white and blue bald eagle t-shirt is still a Nazi.

16 comments:

Strikeslip said...

It's a shame that name calling ("Nazi"), marginalization ("far-right"), and hyperbole ("anti-immigrant") has to get in the way of what should be a rational discussion of the important topic of immigration policy.

There is nothing Nazi, far-right, or anti-immigrant about respect for and enforcement of the law. As a second-generation American, I resent being called a racist because I insist on enforcement of the law and, ultimately, assimilation of those immigrants who choose to stay.

I wouldn't be here were it not for my grandparents who spent a month on a ship, came with practically nothing, and worked in sweatshops and the fields to eke out a living and make a better life here in America. THEY CAME HERE LEGALLY. . . . AND THEY INSISTED ON SPEAKING ENGLISH AND BEING "AMERICAN." They were discriminated against, as were my parents, but ultimately we were all Assimilated, changing not only ourselves, but the culture we assimilated into. I appreciate my Italian heritage, maintain family traditions, maintain ties with the old country, but am an American first.

You wax poetic about the different traditions and foods brought to New York by our immigrants -- you can thank these LEGAL immigrants who became PART OF OUR culture. Had they not assimilated, you wouldn't dare enter German Town, or Wopville and would never have had the chance to sample beef on weck or tomato pie [unassimilated immigrants would have kept these to themselves.]

Non-assimilation = racism. That is what you see now going on in France, and there is rioting in the streets. The French threw open their doors to members of a culture who (1) either had no intention of becoming French [RACISM ON THEIR PART] or (2) were themselves victims of racism on the part of the French (ie., the French invited them in, but had no intention of allowing them to assimilate).

You talk about the Basques -- They have been a pariah to both France and Spain because they refuse to assimilate. Perhaps they should have their own country.

We ARE threatened when we are overwhelmed by groups who have no intention of becoming "American."

Strikeslip said...

It's a shame that name calling ("Nazi"), marginalization ("far-right"), and hyperbole ("anti-immigrant") has to get in the way of what should be a rational discussion of the important topic of immigration policy.

There is nothing Nazi, far-right, or anti-immigrant about respect for and enforcement of the law. As a second-generation American, I resent being called a racist because I insist on enforcement of the law and, ultimately, assimilation of those immigrants who choose to stay.

I wouldn't be here were it not for my grandparents who spent a month on a ship, came with practically nothing, and worked in sweatshops and the fields to eke out a living and make a better life here in America. THEY CAME HERE LEGALLY. . . . AND THEY INSISTED ON SPEAKING ENGLISH AND BEING "AMERICAN." They were discriminated against, as were my parents, but ultimately we were all Assimilated, changing not only ourselves, but the culture we assimilated into. I appreciate my Italian heritage, maintain family traditions, maintain ties with the old country, but am an American first.

You wax poetic about the different traditions and foods brought to New York by our immigrants -- you can thank these LEGAL immigrants who became PART OF OUR culture. Had they not assimilated, you wouldn't dare enter German Town, or Wopville and would never have had the chance to sample beef on weck or tomato pie [unassimilated immigrants would have kept these to themselves.]

Non-assimilation = racism. That is what you see now going on in France, and there is rioting in the streets. The French threw open their doors to members of a culture who (1) either had no intention of becoming French [RACISM ON THEIR PART] or (2) were themselves victims of racism on the part of the French (ie., the French invited them in, but had no intention of allowing them to assimilate).

You talk about the Basques -- They have been a pariah to both France and Spain because they refuse to assimilate. Perhaps they should have their own country.

We ARE threatened when we are overwhelmed by groups who have no intention of becoming "American."

Natalie said...

I commented to Jesse that I think this post does an excellent job of exploring a lot of the suppositions that the minutemen and like minded people have about the impact of immigration on our communities.

The part I think it could stress more is making it clear that these gun-toting citizens (many from Long Island) actually want to set up shop on the Upstate NY border with Canada. That the political, economic, and cultural issues surrounding immigration affect all Americans (and have since the day colonists set foot on this continent) is no secret. But that this armed response to the state of immigration law and enforcement as they stand today is on the proverbial upstate doorstep is a cause for concern - and reflection.

As Strikeslip rightly noted, not all advocates of immigration law enforcement are as militant as the minutemen, and it would be a gross oversight of many people's opinions and many viable solutions to polarize this debate into the camps of, to quote South Park, 'pissed-off redneck' and 'aging hippy liberal douche'. But as the immigration issue comes front and center with the Senate debate, it is worth looking at the extreme positions to examine what, if anything, they reflect about our own points of view on this contentious and multi-layered issue.

Further chatter regarding this post is happening over at NYCO's.

Jesse said...

To respond to Strikeslip, I will not back down from calling a fascist a fascist. Please note that acusing one of having a far-right uber-nationalist dogma does not mean that they a) hate Jews (there are Jewish fasicsts in Israel for example), or b) want to run death camps. We unfortunately have a constricted view of "fascism" in America that allows it to flourish without be named for the beast it is.

Now that that is out of the way, I will respond to your comments.

Firstly, I don't really care what your parents, grandparents, or uncles and aunts did. I assume that I might be a bit younger than you, but my ancestors also came over legally during the second great wave of immigration and worked hard to make a life for themselves. Also, like most immigrants, they learned just enough English to get by, dwelt in closed ethnic communities and lived a life that was different from, and feared by, Anglo America. My grandparents and their generation came to America legally because the nation had mostly open borders at the time (provided you weren't Chinese), so of course they were legal. You ride some high horse because your ancestors were legal which makes you better than those who come here against those laws, but migration laws have changed greatly since the days when the Germans all moved into Buffalo and the Slovaks made shoes in Binghamton.

Even if your parents came in the last few decades when immigration has been tighter, it is far easier for a family to come from Western Europe and immigrate to the United States than it is for one from a Third World country. Another example of white privilege. But, frankly, this doesn't really factor into our discussion here.

What I want to emphasize here is that where I fundamentally disagree with you is in the idea of an "American" culture that is some thing that exists and has a life of its own. All cultures are a mixture of ideas and ways of viewing the world that are informed by their members. "American" culture would simply be the commonly held ideas of the American people. To believe that there is some glorious civilization that will be overrun by the dark-skinned, strange-tongued hordes from the south is a fundamentally racist position to take. There is nothing that these people can do that will ever take away your traditions, your ideas and your mindset just as there is nothing that you can do to change them in that way.

If America is truly the land of freedom that it is claimed to be, the arrival of new peoples will add a rich layer upon our fabric and give a new perspective that will only add wisdom to our national discourse. I have no problem with watching out for suicide bombers and keeping out heroin, but to criminalize a people, a culture, to claim that they are felons and criminals is inhumane and a treason upon the very ideal of freedom that the nation claims to represent.

JS said...

So what happens then, Jesse, when the culture is Assimilation, and those immigrating whether legally or not refuse to accept even the most basic of laws applying to citizens? Who becomes the lower level in that case? Those citizens and legal immigrants following a nation's laws, or those demanding the laws not apply to them by virtue of their illegal status?

So, strikeslip's point could easily be characterized as America, the melting pot...meaning American culture could be based on assimilation. Really that glorious tradition being overrun here is the incredible diversity, strength and success of those flowing through Ellis Island.

I'm good with saying, "these illegal immigrants are exactly that, doing something illegal". Whether it's criminal or not is no moment...it's illegal.

Phil said...

Natalie:

As an aging liberal hippie douchebag, I too refuse to back down from my more strident posts on NYCO's blog and salute Jesse for his posts here.

Read the websites and listen to the rhetoric--the Minutemen are racist, nativist, right-wing idiots. They have nothing to do with the current debate on immigration or homeland security/terrorism. They're afraid dark foreign folks are coming to America to impregnate their daughters.

Where we should be careful is not to confuse people with legitimate concerns on security and immigration (and may disagree with us) with the Minutemen. I doubt anyone writing detailed posts like JS and Strikeslip could be confused with Minutemen (it's not you guys!).

But the Minutemen suck.

Strikeslip said...

"Firstly, I don't really care what your parents, grandparents, or uncles and aunts did. ...."

Jesse, I only referred to my lineage to let you know my perspective. I'm disappointed that you don't care what my perspective is, because it means that you don't care to listen to what I have to say.

"but to criminalize a people, a culture, to claim that they are felons and criminals is inhumane and a treason upon the very ideal of freedom that the nation claims to represent ..."

Jesse, people are criminalized IF THEY BREAK THE LAW. If someone comes here illegally, we have GOOD REASON to expect that they will break other laws as well. Perhaps you are confusing enforcement of the law with what the law says. If you don't like the current immigration laws, then work to change them to something more to your liking, but don't advocate ignoring them -- that only leads to chaos.


"where I fundamentally disagree with you is in the idea of an "American" culture that is some thing that exists and has a life of its own."

Jesse, do you deny that there is such a thing as an "American" culture? Why? Europeans seem to have no problem recognizing the artifacts of "American culture."

"To believe that there is some glorious civilization that will be overrun by the dark-skinned, strange-tongued hordes from the south is a fundamentally racist position to take."

(1) Yes, Jesse, I plead guilty to believing that our civilization is "glorious" -- I know it is far from perfect, but there is no place else that I'd rather be. . . . and apparently so would a lot of other people coming in from outside our shores. Listening to your tone one gets the impression that you hate this country. I'm sure that such would be wrong to assume, but some people might reach that conclusion. Is there someplace else you'd rather be?

(2) Jesse, how DARE you insinuate that I am racist! You know practically nothing about me. You're the one prattling about skin color. I didn't even mention it.

Jesse, it's clear from your posts you already have decided that people who disagree with you and want the nation's immigration laws enforced are racist.. "Discussion" has disintegrated into your calling people on the other side names. There really is no point in discussing this any further with you because you are unwilling to even consider that there may be another valid point of view.

That is too bad ... Closed minds perpetuate ignorance.

Jesse said...

Strikeslip,
Obviously I cannot see into your mind and I do not know if you are a racist. I do think that you're jumping the gun here; when I look at my comments and the comments on NYCOs about this issue, in both cases the racists they were referring to were gun-crazies who hunt people in the desert. When I say "I'll call a fascist a fascist" I was referring to them; I don't know you well enough to make that claim about you. I certainly have not openly called you a racist or said that I think that people who want the nation's immigration laws enforced are racist, that has never been the debate here and you are recasting it to make me look like a fanatic. You seem to be taking every comment personally and come back shouting (IN CAPITAL LETTERS!!!) and throwing accusations.

With that said, I made the assumption that you are white because you said your ancestors, like mine, were Italian; perhaps they were, for example, North African immigrants who moved then to the USA, but you also said you were proud of your Italian heritage.

Being white myself and knowing a good number of white and non-white folks, I believe that you would be hard pressed to find a white American who does not harbor racist ideas, including myself. Now, you may be a paragon of tolerance and I may be blustering without cause, but I know that most white Americans see race. We see a black person and think "oh, there's a black person," and then a set of recieved ideas comes into our heads. We think in terms of race, even subtely. This is one of my great shames, something that I admit to myself and am working hard to overcome. Do I think I will ever be able to? Perhaps not, but I hope to minimize its effect on me and hopefully raise the next generation to be less racist.

To move on to my next point. You make this a ssumption that because illegal immigrants broke the law to come here, they are a dangerous criminal class. This is a highly reactionary idea, the "once a criminal, always a criminal" concept. It is the same fundamental concept that led the British in the 1700s to put shoplifters to death... they believed they couldn't be reformed and were little better than dangerous animals.

I think we have to separate crimes of greed, passion and hate from crimes of desperation. I have lived in Mexican peasant villages and I have seen poverty so awful that I have cried myself to sleep. I know that poverty also exists in America and is as painful here, but I also know that it has none of the sweeping strength that it does down there. What is causing people to suddenly push to the border? Neo-liberal globalist policies since the Clinton Administration have caused the price of corn to crash in peasant villages since America exports incredible amounts of GMO, subsidized, chemical fed corn; the farmers cannot compete and are forced to do the desperate: cross a country, hike through a desert where police officers, gangsters and vigilantes all consider them to be varying degrees of scum, work in a foreign land under intense racist pressure and build a life for themselves.

This doesn't mean that Mexicans don't have problems of their own creation, but that this current wave of immigration is of our own making and perhaps we should look at who profits from all of this: the big agribusinesses that export the cheap corn, destroy small competitors and turn them into a cheap, easily abused source of labor.

I did not "attack your lineage," I only said that it makes no difference in this debate. If you were to come down here and we shared a beer and were talking about families, I would love nothing more than to hear the story of yours. I am an anthropologist and I enjoy hearing about traditions and the stories of people's lives; folklore and history are my bread and butter as this site shows.

However, in this case you are trying to use your lineage as a weapon against these poor people coming up from Mexico. You say that because your ancestors came here legally, that puts them on a different plane and makes them better than these "criminals." I don't know when your family came over, but when mine did, there was no other option than legal immigration because the country let immigrants come in freely. My ancestors, and it appears yours, worked hard and overcame great hardship to build a life here; why can't you sympathize with people coming from just as desperate a life as that of our ancestor and into an even more difficult immigration situation since they are illegal? Just because the big bosses at the turn of the century wanted cheap legal immigrants, so immigration was legal, and today they want cheap illegal immigrants, doesn't mean that we should be cold and heartless in regards to these people, that we should hate them and think they are coming to destroy our way of life. They are coming so that they can eat. The struggle of my ancestors has only given me compassion for what these people are going through today.

Alia said...

Za-zing.

JS said...

A different perspective...more based in fact.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12113021/

Alia said...

JS, I read the MSN article on the link you put up. I find this part extremely disturbing and worthy of greater discussion:

"He (the Republican canidate for AZ governor) promised that if elected, he would put illegal immigrants in a tent city on the border and use their labor to build the wall."

I spent last year working with the AmeriCorps in Phoenix, which gave me perspective on the sentiments of locals. I don't think people from UpState NY are aware of the severity of anti-Hispanic racism that exits in the SouthWest, or of the inhumanity of the tent city work camps. Pioneered by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a Phoenix official notorious for human rights abuses and corruption within the police force, "tent cities" essentially work people to death in the desert. Arizonan tent cities are synonomous with starvation (bologna sandwiches twice a day), psychological humiliation (prisoners are forced to wear pink underwear) and deaths due to dehydration in the Sonoran Desert.

Strikeslip said...

Alan Keyes has an interesting perspective on this issue: Immigration, yes! Colonization, no! He explains the difference, which is worth pondering in considering our future as a nation.

Strikeslip said...

As a Post Script to my post #11 above, I think reading this link from CLNet (courtesy of the Regents of the University of California) would go a long way toward fostering an understanding of the so-called "racism" of those southwesterners wanting to put an end to illegal immigration.

EL PLAN DE AZTLAN

" . . . A nation autonomous and free - culturally, socially, economically, and politically- will make its own decisions on the usage of our lands, the taxation of our goods, the utilization of our bodies for war, the determination of justice (reward and punishment), and the profit of our sweat.

El Plan de Aztlan is the plan of liberation!"

Jesse said...

I do not disagree with you that the Aztlan movement is a racially charged and ocassionally violent movement. However, racism in one direction does not validate it in return. Besides, El Plan de Aztlan was developed not as the first blow but as a response to white racism against Chicanos; we cannot forget that the Indians and Chicanos were in the region that is today the Southwest long (centuries) before the Anglos and that it has been the Anglos who 1) stole the land from Mexico, 2) systematically forced those of Mexican descent out of power in those regions and 3) kept those of Mexican descent down. Todays debate is not a new one.

However, in a much more specific case, this is a blog dealing with Upstate New York. While this post diverged somewhat from the main topic, the inspiration for the post came from the Minutemen announcing their New York patrols, which have nothing to do with El Plan de Aztlan and everything to do with xenophobia, the culture of terror being cultivated in America today and a fear of, to put it in the Minutmen's own words, "rancorous, unassimilated, squabbling cultures."

The Minutmen and their ilk proclaim to be protecting their own cultural traditions while in fact they are demanding a policy of forced enculturation: if non-Whites and non-Anglos are to live in America, they must talk like Anglos, dress like Anglos, behave like Anglos and be deferential to Anglos in every area. While announcing that they desire to "protect" their own culture they are in fact attempting to nullify and ultimately destroy the traditions of incoming people. That is fundamentally racist and far more disturbing to me than the Plan de Aztlan (which I am familiar with) that calls for a preservation of identity.

Natalie said...

I agree with Jesse that this discussion has deviated from its purpose - to discuss the impact on Upstate. And I also agree with John Stewart that Alan Keyes is 'batshit insane' (though nonetheless a perspective worth considering in the greater immigration debate)

I was listening to the radio this morning, and a commentator on Marketplace, Michael Scherer, was saying that the immigration debate really comes down to dollars, not the culture clash and social issue the media is making it. (I'm sure many others have said this as well). If I remember his comments correctly (it was before 9am) he contested that the wealthy supported amnesty and such because they needed people willing to work for next to nothing to build their big houses and watch their kids, while the working class on down have been taking a hit because jobs are going to the people who are willing to work for next to nothing. I don't know if it's quite that cut and dried, but the economic impact seems like a largely unexplored angle, and if there's anything we know in Upstate New York, it's job losses. Any thoughts on the impact this might be having on us?

You can listen to the broadcast here.

JS said...

You wrote:

"I do not disagree with you that the Aztlan movement is a racially charged and ocassionally violent movement. However, racism in one direction does not validate it in return. Besides, El Plan de Aztlan was developed not as the first blow but as a response to white racism against Chicanos"

My thought...you cite the rule, racism doesn't reply racism in response. I agree. But then you completely eviscerate your point..."Besides, El Plan de Aztlan was developed...as a response to [racism].".

That just rings hollow to me.