Category Archives: borders and crossers

Frederick Douglass on the Right to Immigrate

In 1869, amid calls to limit Chinese immigration, Frederick Douglass responded with one of his greatest speeches:

Men, like bees, want elbow room. When the hive is overcrowded, the bees will swarm, and will be likely to take up their abode where they find the best prospect for honey. In matters of this sort, men are very much like bees…. The same mighty forces which have swept to our shores the overflowing populations of Europe; which have reduced the people of Ireland three millions below its normal standard; will operate in a similar manner upon the hungry population of China and other parts of Asia. Home has its charms, and native land has its charms, but hunger, oppression, and destitution, will dissolve these charms and send men in search of new countries and new homes….

I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would….

But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense…? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry?

To all of this and more I have one among many answers, altogether satisfactory to me, though I cannot promise that it will be so to you.

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here…. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In any struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.

But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.

I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth….

So much for what is right; now let us see what is wise.

I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United states, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt….

The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization… does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons. Contact with these yellow children of The Celestial Empire would convince us that the points of human difference, great as they, upon first sight, seem, are as nothing compared with the points of human agreement. Such contact would remove mountains of prejudice….

If it could be shown that any particular race of men are literally incapable of improvement, we might hesitate to welcome them here. But no such men are anywhere to be found, and if there were, it is not likely that they would ever trouble us with their presence. The fact that the Chinese and other nations desire to come and do come, is a proof of their fitness to come….

I close these remarks as I began. If our action shall be in accordance with the principles of justice, liberty, and perfect human equality, no eloquence can adequately portray the greatness and grandeur of the future of the Republic.

We shall spread the network of our science and civilization over all who seek their shelter whether from Asia, Africa, or the Isles of the sea. We shall mold them all, each after his kind, into Americans; Indian and Celt; Negro and Saxon; Latin and Teuton; Mongolian and Caucasian; Jew and Gentile; all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same Government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.

Frederick Douglass, 1869.

Perspective on the Migrant Caravan

Over the last couple of years an average of two to three hundred migrants have left Honduras for the US every day. That means the caravan currently traveling north has no more people than normally make this trek every two or three weeks… the only difference is that normally they are prey for gangsters, robbers, and official thugs demanding bribes, while this time they are traveling in a large enough group to protect one another.

That was the original idea that drew people to travel as a caravan, and it remains the idea for the people involved. They set off this month because this is the best season to travel through Mexico, after the heat of summer and before the cold and rains of winter.

Whatever the political fallout in Honduras, Mexico, or the US, the people on the caravan are not marching to make a point. They are trying to get to a safer, better place, wherever it may be, and to avoid the dangers of making this journey alone — because all of them know how dangerous it normally is.

Anyone who thinks this is a conspiracy, whether of the right or of the left, is ignoring the basic reality that everything about this is normal, day-to-day news for anyone who is poor in Central America — all that is different this month is that some migrants are traveling in relative safety and other people are paying attention.

As far as I can tell, the people in the caravan are aware that for a change some powerful people are paying attention to them, and think that is a good thing. As far as I can tell, some people who are not on the caravan think it would be better if the migrants kept their usual low profile, despite the dangers.

I have no problem figuring out which side I’m on.

Report from Paris: The National Center for the History of Immigration

In a conscious display of historical irony, France has established its Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, an astonishing building constructed for the International Colonial Exhibition of 1931. The facade of this building, which first housed the Musée des Colonies, is a huge cement bas-relief of scenes from “greater France” — elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, temples, sailing ships, and toiling or warlike natives of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, set off with mentions of what each area has contributed to the mother country: rice, rubber, cotton, tea…

Within, huge frescoes continue the theme, but the timeline leading up the stairs tells a different story: how France itself has been a center of immigration for centuries, and how its laws and narratives have shifted over the years, sometimes embracing outsiders, sometimes trying to shut them out, and sometimes changing the notion of who is or isn’t an outsider.

This is particularly significant because France — la belle France, cradle of liberty and wonderful cheeses — is so often mentioned by xenophobes as an example of the nation-state ideal, a place with a homogeneous population that lived happily together until the recent onslaught of brown-skinned foreigners, who now threaten the brave traditions of secularism, feminism, enlightenment ideals, and cheese-making.

The museum’s timeline starts in 1789, when the French revolutionaries declared the equality of all citizens — and simultaneously established the differentiation of French citizens from foreigners. Previously, such a differentiation had not mattered, since peasants were peasants, whatever their place of birth. Now, rather than lords and peasants, we had citizens and non-citizens… and the first foreigner highlighted on the timeline is Frédéric Chopin, arriving in 1831 “like numerous intellectual, military, political, and artistic Polish insurgents after the failed revolt against the power of the Czar.”

Before the 20th century there was no attempt to control entry to France, but through the 19th century there was increased interest in tabulating and identifying foreign residents. The first census to count foreigners, in 1851, found a third of a million, which by 1881 had grown to a million, making up 3% of the population. The country had to address a new question: when does a foreigner cease to be foreign? In 1889 France came up with one answer, establishing automatic citizenship for third-generation immigrants — people born in France to parents who were also born in France.

At that point most of the country’s foreign residents were European, but that didn’t mean they were easily assimilated. There were deadly clashes between French workers and Italian immigrants, sometimes mounting to chasses aux Italiens (Italian hunts) in which immigrants were beaten and killed. There was also the Dreyfus affair, in which an army captain from a French Jewish family was convicted of treason on the basis of forged evidence and sent to Devil’s Island, in French Guiana. This affair notably split French intellectuals and artists, with Degas (a particularly vicious anti-Semite), Renoir, and Cézanne expressing their distaste for the “foreigners” — so denominated though some Jewish families had been in France for many generations — while Monet and Mary Cassatt lined up on the other side, along with Pissarro, who was Jewish, born in the Danish West Indies, and sometimes bore the brunt of his colleagues’ prejudice.1 (The museum timeline doesn’t go into the Impressionists’ opinions, but does include later letters requesting French citizenship from Picasso and Apollinaire — I had not known that the latter was originally an Italian-born Pole named Wilhelm Kostrowicki.)

The timeline moves on through World War I, when France recruited hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from allied countries and its various colonies, and established the first national identity cards to keep track of them. By 1931 France had overtaken the United States as the country with the most foreign residents: 2.7 million, representing about 7% of the population. Then came the Depression, and with it a flood of new laws limiting the rights of non-native workers, as well as attempts to send them back to their countries of origin. In World War II foreigners came briefly back in fashion — 178,000 African-French subjects (not to be confused with citizens) were recruited to fight for the motherland — and 15,000 French citizens were stripped of their citizenship. (Many were Communists or people who had left the country, but 40% were Jews, including Marc Chagall, characterized as “a painter of no national interest,” and the young Serge Gainsbourg — and that doesn’t include the 110,000 French-Algerian Jews who likewise ceased to be officially French, among them Jacques Derrida.)

In the upstairs galleries, a poster known as l’affiche rouge gives a sense of how the Vichy government used the fantasy of a pure French heritage to discredit its opponents. The poster sneers at fighters remembered in hindsight as members the valiant French resistance, setting off the foreign names of recently executed fighters with the notations “Polish Jew,” “Italian Communist,” and “Spanish Red.” It warns:

If the French pillage, steal, commit sabotage, and kill… It is always foreigners who command them. It is always the unemployed and professional criminals who carry out the orders. It is always the Jews who inspire them…. This gangsterism is not an expression of wounded Patriotism, it is a foreign plot against the lives of the French and against the sovereignty of France.

One question the museum tackles less thoroughly is the overlap between colonization and immigration. It tends to characterize these as separate, though overlapping, issues, but throughout treats France as a European territory in which non-Europeans are by definition immigrants — which ignores the French citizens of Algeria, when it was part of France, and of the current French departments of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyane, La Réunion, and Mayotte. For example, when noting that in 1975 France had 3.4 million foreign residents, the largest groups being Portuguese and Algerians, it does not mention that some of the Algerian foreigners may have previously been French — though it does note that in 1993 the loi Mehaignerie modified the automatic assumption of French citizenship for French-born children of people born in France in cases where the parents were born in regions that were no longer part of France… presumably to deal with a potential surplus of  dark-skinned heirs to nos ancêtres les Gaulois.2

I’m not trying to recap the whole museum — a five-hour visit was not sufficient to explore its range and depth — but a couple more details are worth mentioning. One is the charming irony that the most familiar evocation of an indigenous French heritage, the comic book adventures of Asterix, Obelix, and their fellow Gauls holding out against the Roman Empire, was created by a pair of second-generation immigrants: Alberto Uderzo, whose parents immigrated from Italy shortly before his birth, and René Goscinny, the son of Polish Jews.

The other detail requires a little background: In October 2010, a group of roughly 500 undocumented workers, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, occupied the museum demanding regularization of their residence in France, and remained through January 2011. I have not sorted out the details of that story, but noted a nice footnote in the section of the museum dedicated to donations. The idea of this section is that visitors should be inspired to donate material about their own immigrant families and history in France, among the donations is a baby-foot table (what Americans call foosball and other Anglophones table football) made by the Bonzini family, descendants of Italian immigrants who are one of the main French manufacturers. The Bonzinis originally donated the table for an exhibition called Allez la France! Football et immigration, histoires croisées (Go France! Soccer and immigration, intertwining histories), which was to be followed by an exhibit at Le Musée National du Sport called Allez la France! Les footballeurs africains sont là! (Go France! The African footballers have arrived!). Since the point of these exhibits was the French team’s African-born or African-descended stars, the Bronzinis took the high road and reacted to the occupation of the museum by donating another ten tables to help the occupiers occupy their time.

So… altogether an interesting visit, and much to think about.

Ethnic marionettes: Chinese, Arab, Jew

 

Celebrating Illegal Immigration

“Every time you see a cop on the beat, ask yourself what he is protecting, and from who.”
— Malcolm X1

Traveling in Israel, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Haifa’s tourist sites include a museum celebrating illegal immigration. It’s actually called the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum, but they aren’t fussy about the nomenclature: the book they sell in the gift shop, published by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, constantly uses the term “illegal immigration” and refers to the people who arrived that way as “illegals.” It describes how some paid sailors to land them surreptitiously, some snuck over the Lebanese border, some arranged fictitious marriages, some overstayed tourist visas… in sum, all the current methods by which people continue to make their way to new countries in defiance of various authorities.

In light of recent headlines I was particularly struck by the museum’s film of illegal immigrants throwing metal cans at British soldiers who were trying to keep them from landing in Palestine (from which I shot a photo sequence):

I’ve written about the similar exhibit and film at the Atlit Detention Center museum, and welcome the reminder that not long ago my relatives were not only sneaking across borders, but facing uniformed soldiers with nothing but what they could throw, and exulting in making at least that show of resistance. That reminder is particularly relevant today, when descendants of those brave “illegals” have elected a government that is increasingly notorious for building walls, policing borders, and violently repelling anguished refugees who want to come home to Palestine.

This sort of turnabout is often described as ironic… but the sad fact is it’s normal. When people get a taste of power or put on uniforms, they tend to behave like people with power and uniforms. When people have a nation-state, they tend to assume the right — and often the necessity — to guard its borders. And, by contrast, when people don’t and are desperate they throw whatever they can throw and damn the consequences.

So I’m not calling it ironic, but it is an obvious reminder that what seems heroic when you’re on one side can seem very different when you’re on the other, and vice-versa. And I’m glad all the museums  and historical sites use the word “illegal,” because although I understand why some people prefer euphemisms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized,” the reality is that governments make laws to protect some people from other people — and when you argue that the people you support are not criminals, you are arguing that other people can justifiably be labeled that way.

History and fiction are full of stories of brave outlaws and we all can think of actions, past and present, that have been both heroic and illegal – as well as arguably pointless, like throwing tin cans at a destroyer full of British soldiers or boxes of tea into Boston Harbor.  When it comes to border-crossers, the judgment of history and myth is identical and clear: there are no heroic narratives of repelling migrants – when anti-immigrant pundits  compare their country to a crowded lifeboat, the metaphor emphasizes at least a feigned  regret and no one pretends there is anything heroic about beating back drowning swimmers.

Myths of heroic outlawry often founder on close examination — the rebels and outlaws celebrated in song and story turn out to have killed, raped, abused, and behaved horrifically not only to oppressors but to innocent unfortunates who happened to cross their paths. But the same can be said of every army and most governments — no rebel band has ever racked up a toll of victims that matches the worst horrors of official troops and police –- and the fact that myths are idealizations does not make them meaningless.

The Israeli contrast –narratives of desperate Jewish refugees throwing cans at soldiers seventy years ago, told to rally support for Jewish soldiers shooting desperate refugees throwing stones today – is particularly striking because the time and space are so compressed. But the essential contrast is so familiar as to be almost universal: virtually all national narratives include brave struggles against oppressive governments, and few governments maintain their power for long with clean hands.

There are many possible morals here, and I’m not pretending the answers are easy or uncomplicated. But one cannot simultaneously stand up for the oppressed and defend the rule of law, because the oppressors are almost always lawmakers and all of us can come up with examples of unjust laws and people who have heroically resisted them.

There are also whole classes of laws that are inherently unjust, including the many laws that trap people in desperate situations because of accidents of birth or nationality. Regarding the Israel-Palestine situation, I have spoken with Israelis who think I am hopelessly naive, or accuse me of switching sides, or argue it is so complicated that the the sides are hard to define. I likewise know Americans and Europeans who feel they can’t choose sides, and don’t see a direct parallel to their own countries. But I keep coming back to those overlapping images from past and present, and thinking the people guarding borders against desperate immigrants are always on the same side, whoever and wherever they may be.

 

 

Ironies of Illegal Immigration

As I write, Israeli troops are massed on the no man’s land separating Israel from Gaza, shooting tear gas grenades and live ammunition at Palestinian refugees who are gathered on the other side, throwing rocks, burning tires, and seeking to breech the barriers and send thousands of men, women and children across.

The pictures and news reports are eerily reminiscent of films, photographs, and personal testimonies displayed and celebrated in Israeli museums and on historical markers like the one on the hill above Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, which honors the 85,000 “illegal immigrants” who “attempted to enter the country, breaking through the maritime and land blockade,” making “a vital contribution to the growth of the Jewish Yishuv, and to its struggle for an independent state.”

In Tel Aviv, the museum of the Hagganah, the Jewish army that faced British and Arab forces in the late 1940s, has a display honoring “Ha’apala – Clandestine (Illegal) Immigration, 1934-1944,” and two museums of the Etzel, the more radical Jewish underground, likewise celebrate the brave men and women who smuggled Jewish refugees into Palestine, defying the British army and even the Haggana, which in some periods helped the British, much as the Palestinian Authority’s police now work with Israeli forces to control illegal migration from the West Bank.

The most striking celebrations of illegal Jewish immigration are further north: the Atlit Detention Camp south of Haifa has been turned into an outdoor museum where tourists can learn about the Ha’apala or Aliya BetAliya being the Hebrew word for Jewish immigration to Palestine, and Bet the first letter of bilti-legalit, “illegal” – and Haifa has a Museum of Clandestine Immigration run by the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

The guidebook sold in the museum shop describes the various ways Jewish immigrants made their way into Palestine in the 1920s and ’30s — some paying sailors to land them surreptitiously, some sneaking over the Lebanese border, some arranging fictitious marriages, some overstaying tourist visas. The central exhibit space is a ship that was used to bring more than 400 Jewish refugees from Europe in 1947. A documentary film, screened in the bowels of the ship, tells how it almost made it to Palestine without being detected, but eventually was spotted by a British plane, then overtaken by a destroyer.

Itzak Belfer, one of the passengers, describes how the British troops were massed on the deck of the destroyer, and someone brought up boxes of tin cans to throw at the soldiers. One of the men commanding the ship for the Palyam, the Jewish rebel navy, recalls: “We told them to give the British a hard time — to resist, to throw things, not let them board the ship, and maybe we could make it to the shore.”

The British soldiers began to board, and Belfer, his voice thrilling at the memory, recalls throwing the cans of food at them: “That kind of can, when someone throws it, it can do a lot of damage.” Then the Palyam man on the ship’s bridge angrily turned the wheel and rammed their boat into the destroyer. “We were all knocked down,” Belfer says, but “We all felt like… ‘We did it! We showed them!’”

At the Atlit refugee camp, in a similar ship, a more theatrical film shows actors recreating a nighttime shipboard battle, throwing cans and fighting hand-to-hand as a brave young woman climbs the mast to wave the flag of the potential Israeli state:

Leaving the ship, I had a brief conversation with the young Israeli woman who was serving as a guide in lieu of her regular military service. I was curious if she made the same connection I did, and prompted her with a leading comment:

“I have to say those films of the Jews throwing things at soldiers remind me of what I’m seeing in the newspapers now.”

“Yes,” she replied, smiling. “It’s amusing that history does repeat itself.”

“Amusing?”

“I find the irony amusing, that we keep doing the same.”

“I’d like to think we could do better.”

“Yes, me too. But apparently we can’t.”