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Immigration: The failure of our sympathetic imagination

A longer view on the spaces we leave and settle

The Empty Cinema of Fear 

Those who lived in New York City during the 70’s might remember the story—part somber joke and part true story—that circulated among the Hispanic community living in Queens. It was told more or less like this: “If you go to the cinema or to a theater, but you can’t find any empty seats, all you need to do is scream ‘Immigration! Immigration!’ and pretty soon the cinema will be half-empty since lots of the people in the seats will stampede toward the exits trying to avoid being detained. Then, when the coast is clear, you can calmly walk towards a now-vacant seat.” It didn’t matter to the storyteller that the person playing this trick was also likely to be undocumented.

In the context of this essay, what’s important about that story is the way it makes visible that the fears associated with the act of having immigrated are not bound up in the act of migration itself, which is part of an ancient human practice, but in the cultural and legal repercussions put in place by the state of New York and American Federal Law at the time. These included fines, jail terms, and deportation; the latter two often entailed leaving families behind. Everyone understood that these fears were palpable to the extent that they could be invoked in absentia.

A Panoptical Space

In one of his most famous stories, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges describes the Aleph as a spherical prism-like object in which “all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.” In other words, contemplating the Aleph would allow the viewer to see simultaneously, according to Borges, “without imposition and without transparency” the millions of delightful and horrible acts performed by humanity occupying one single point or space.

Very few contemporary socio-political figures represent the trajectory of human history as clearly as the figure of the migrant. Just as Borges’ Aleph encapsulates the acts of humanity in one single space, the migrant subject encapsulates the millions of episodes of the human journey in a single person. From the prehistoric origins of our evolutionary lineage to the establishment of our current condition as humans, we have been constantly moving around the planet. Indeed, using our relatively-recently acquired erect posture and bipedal locomotion, we’ve ventured from our original primary grounds in Africa to populate practically every corner of the world. We have been consciously emigrating and immigrating ever since we became humans.

Even after becoming sedentary as a consequence of discovering agriculture, and leaving behind spaces previously destined for hunting and gathering, we continued moving, we continued migrating. Historically, we behave like a migratory species—although our cycles for returning are much longer. We abandon familiar geographies and move onto new territories. By doing so, we managed to occupy the whole planet and produce ideologies to control and legitimize the multiple configurations of our political space. We advanced from tribal arrangements to feudal formations, from kingdoms to empires, from neighborhoods and municipalities to national states. Simultaneously, we erected legal and material obstacles to regulate and reinforce our ever-evolving concepts of private property, borders, and space, culminating with present day capitalism—a socio-economic system always needing to expand, migrate, and appropriate new economic and political spaces. Additionally, we perfected and modified our means of transportation and sources of energy. We have not only incorporated new ways to travel on land, such as high-speed locomotive trains and cars, but we also created new strategies for traveling through water and air with ships and aircraft, to say nothing of the exploration of interplanetary space. Concurrently, we have become more dependent on fossil and carbon energy for our migrations, relying less and less on our bipedal locomotion, while—for what it’s worth—keeping our erect posture. We’ve constructed a Janus-faced figure of humanity, one that is at the same time emigrant and immigrant. This duality seems to persist through the rough tracks of history, closely related to the no less rugged trails of human political economy.

The Perpetual Immigrant

In describing the migratory movements of human history in a few lines, it seems critical to suggest—at least as an approximation—that these migrations have been motivated by both internally and externally created, precarious socio-economic conditions, by catastrophic natural circumstances, by the depletion of natural resources in particular areas, by forced mobilization as in the case of slavery, as the consequence of acts of war, and, last but not least, just plain human curiosity for the space unknown. While acknowledging the understandable peculiarities that apply to each individual’s story of migration, it is no exaggeration to state that at one moment or another, in the curve of history and time, either directly or through some of our ancestors, we all have joined the continuous, itinerant army of immigrants around the planet. For a society obsessed with genealogy to the point of making it a growing cultural industry, this should be an easy fact to remember.

This massive migratory journey did not begin and end when some human groups migrated from Africa and inhabited—sometimes in circular movements—the five continents. It continued through the centuries in many forms, e.g. the ancestors of today’s Native Americans and their slow migration through ancient Beringia; the exodus of the Romani people, leaving Northern India and spreading across Persia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain, Finland, Russia, Egypt and Morocco; the Hmong people who populated the mountains of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand—with many of them currently living in the United States as result of the war in Vietnam and Laos; the several hundred thousand Jewish people who left Nazi Germany; and over a million and a half Palestinians forced out of their land by the Israeli state. Similar migratory conditions describe the cases of millions of southern European workers who, during the 50’s and 60’s, looked for jobs in Germany and Switzerland. The history of human migration has affected us all. To this panoramic view we could add millions of individual migratory events such as the recently known case of President Trump’s grandfather who, in 1905, begged the Prince Regent of Bavaria not deport him because “it will be very, very hard for his family,” and describing the family condition as one of “being paralyzed with fright” (Harpers Magazine, March 6, 2017).

Ironically, the current administration, which is being presided over by that migrant’s grandson, and is similar to many past administrations, seems to have lost any sense of historical perspective regarding the causality of the current migratory movements which originated in the global south and other areas. The Trump administration is similar to the Obama administration; Obama, who was also the son of an immigrant, had his own questionable deportation record. He deported over 2.4 million people, more than any other president in American history. The official migratory and travel ban regulations infer nefarious and ill-conceived characteristics upon immigrants from Mexico and six other countries where Muslin religious practices dominate. By promulgating these policies, the current administration flagrantly demonstrates its inability to grasp one very important trait of our identity as a species which is our condition as perpetual migrants acting upon the material and social conditions of our existence.

The Compulsory Immigrants of Capital

Despite the growing regulations and sanctions as well as the punitive vindictiveness aimed at immigrants in the US and parts of Europe, migratory movements remain constant. In an article written for the World Economic Forum in January of 2016, Ian Goldin, Director of the Martin School based at Oxford University, argued that the rate of the world’s migrant population has remained the same (three percent) for the last hundred years. At the same time, due to growth in the world’s population in the last decades, the absolute number of migrants officially recognized as refugees world-wide has grown to a grand total of twenty million people.

On a planet where pretty much all spaces have been explored, and all territories have been mapped and claimed as private property, how is this large number explained? How can this much movement happen on a planet where national states have been established and their borders militarily protected, and where electronic surveillance, visas, travel-bans, and other types of regulations have been placed making the current moment the most difficult in the history of the species for transnational movement? Why does immigration, particularly to highly industrialized, capitalist societies, continue to be a constant fact? The best, short—yet accurate—answer was provided by London-based Sri Lankan novelist and political writer A. Sivanandan, who in the early 80’s coined the phrase, “We are here because you were there.” The phrase, in condensed fashion, unveils the close links and consequences existing between the political and economic actions—wars and interventions included—committed by the industrialized western nations which have resulted in the current wave of refugees. No distinction need be made between economic and political refugees since both are, in a broad, structural sense, the consequence of neo-liberal politics implemented overseas.

Back to the Cinema

The current backlash against immigrants shows the failure of our sympathetic political imagination. It makes clear that we as society have lost whatever ability we had to recognize our own humanity in the adverse conditions of others. We have forgotten the ephemeral condition of our behavior as ‘owners’ of a given territorial space in the planet, and have opted instead for tactics that propagate fear and insecurity among the population in the name of national security and national greatness (again). Yet, there have been some positive signs against the narrow-mindedness of racism, intolerance, and national chauvinism; these are manifested in the multiple outpourings of solidarity for immigrants throughout the nation and the growing numbers of sanctuary cities (close to four hundred at the moment of this writing). It will be this kind solidarity and not the use of fear that will get us a seat and a more positive role to play in the theatre of the human comedy.

Enrique Quintero was a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, then taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.



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