By Jon D. Melegrito
It didn’t bother me much then, being called “an Eskimo.” It was the 60’s in America and the fashion then was to wear your hair long and sport bell bottom pants. And I looked very brown. Naturally tanned, actually. My straight black hair and dark eyes and wide face may have given me away.
Recently, a blind man overheard a conversation I was having and interrupted me. “There’s something about the way you speak,” he asked. Sensing he was referring to my accent, I offered my origins and the land of my birth. (Apparently, I haven’t completely Americanized my accent. My tongue still betrays my Ilocano heritage.)
I’m recalling these incidents because they add useful context to recent developments around the immigration reform debate. Let’s start with Arizona . A new state law permits police officers to stop anyone if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country illegally. The bill cites clothing, music and accents as reasons enough to warrant questioning by law enforcement authorities.
In other words, even if you’re already a legal resident or a U.S. citizen, you could be detained by the cops in Arizona because, let’s face it, you look like, yes, an Eskimo or a Mexican who may have sneaked across the border. As it stands now, Arizona authorities who stop you for, say, running a red light, can also require you to prove your citizenship status. Apparently, that’s not enough.
They’ve now added “reasonable suspicion,” which means that if your skin color is other than white, you better be prepared to prove that you’re here legally. If you don’t have an ID, you are “presumed to be an alien.” That’s true as well if you have a foreign accent.
In Arizona , people who are merely present in the country without proper paperwork would be charged as criminals. This is eerily reminiscent of Carlos Bulosan’s trepidations when he wrote about feeling like a criminal because he is Filipino. During his time more than 60 years ago, Filipinos were often the target of racial violence, hounded and harassed by groups of white men who resented Filipinos consorting with white women. California later passed racist laws making it illegal for Filipinos to marry white women. Cops routinely stopped and searched cars with Filipino men. “I came to know afterward that in many ways it was a crime to be a Filipino in California ,” Bulosan wrote in his autobiography. “I came to know that the public streets were not free to my people.”
Fast forward to 2010. Among the reasons Arizona State Rep. Russell Pearce cited for pushing this bill through are: his discomfort about the way society is changing (the “browning of America ,” hello!); his resentment of Mexicans’ and Central Americans’ “way of doing business.” Their culture, he says, “is different.” Let’s see. They love the kind of music that makes you dance and eat hot salsa, that drives you wild so you make love and make more babies. Sounds Filipino to me, so I guess we’re in danger too.
Filipinos may think that the problem of “illegals” is solely a Mexican problem. Wrong. Even among ourselves, we pit Filipinos against Filipinos on the basis of their legal status. We unwittingly forward vile and vicious e-mails (urban legends) that demean, dehumanize and demonize undocumented immigrants, not realizing that we are being used by bigots and xenophobes to bash all immigrants.
While it is true that Latinos are the largest group among the 10 million undocumented, this dangerous trend of racial profiling could only result in further civil rights abuses against all immigrants.
To those who frame this issue primarily in law enforcement terms, here’s something to ponder from the Immigration Policy Center : the federal government spends billions of taxpayer dollars on costly border and interior enforcement measures which ultimately hurt American families and communities and don’t deter unauthorized immigrants. Instead, IPC points out, implementing a legalization program through comprehensive immigration reform would generate billions of dollars in additional tax revenue as newly legalized immigrants’ wages and tax contributions increase over time. The independent Congressional Budget Office has estimated that $66 billion in new revenue over 10 years would have been generated if undocumented immigrants were legalized in 2006.
Arizona’s vicious attacks tell us that even though immigrants helped many of the workers’ rights we enjoy today, they continue to be scapegoats during bad economic times. This racist law is outrageous.
Immigrants are assets not liabilities and the sooner they are legalized the better for the country. We can’t stem the flow of migrants to the border until we stop trade and economic policies that stifle development in Mexico and in other countries that forces the migration of desperate people. But the issue of immigration reform is not only economic. It’s also about the character of this nation and the values it seeks to uphold.
Although Bulosan felt rejected by America for being Filipino, he continued to believe that indeed, America is in the heart. “ America is not a land of one race or one class of men,” he wrote. “We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and know oppression and defeat.”
We all made the same journey and came as strangers to this distant shore. In the era of globalization, the undocumented population comes from all over the world.
We are all Arizona. Todos somos Arizona.•