« Gimmicks and Games | Main | The 300 Millionth American Chooses Not to Pursue Citizenship »

The Borders Between Us: On Building and Bridging the Divide

By Louis Mendoza, associate professor and chair of the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota. IHRC Affiliated Faculty.

This week’s immigration news was dominated by proclamations either celebrating or condemning President Bush’s signing into law a new homeland security bill that includes a 1.2 billion dollar appropriation for building 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem unauthorized immigration.

In statements made upon signing the bill, the president continues a rhetorical strategy that walks a tightrope between liberal and conservative views on immigration reform by claiming a middle ground that links border security and terrorism and ignores the underlying social and economic issues that undergird the ongoing national debates on immigration reform: "It's what the people in this country want," Bush said. "They want to know that we are modernizing the border so we can better secure the border." (Bush signs homeland security bill). What he also fails to acknowledge is the international disdain for the U.S. precipitated by this extreme measure that threatens to strain not only U.S.-Mexico relations (U.S. Border Fence Plan Upsets Mexicans), but the U.S.’s reputation throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. Though the total number of deaths of immigrants crossing the border extra-legally was down from 446 to 426 this past year, numerous news reports noted the potential of the law’s passage to have deathly consequences for immigrants who, as a result of the new wall, are likely to be forced to try evermore dangerous routes through the desert to cross into the U.S. (Migrant deaths down along border).

Perhaps due to the inability of national leaders to provide leadership by finding a middle ground in the debate and passing legislation representing the broad range of perspectives, new strategies have emerged at the local level to try and address the controversial issue. Like the debates in Congress, local enforcement initiatives in Carpentersville, Illinois and Escondido, California, expose a seemingly irreconcilable social divide that raises more questions than they answer—questions that are not easily addressed if looked at only through the lens of enforcement. This is especially true, when legislation like those in these initiatives seem to be driven by a desire to return to an era preceding this last great wave of immigration. Both communities passed legislation this past week making it a crime for landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants. The Carpentersville initiative takes enforcement to a new level by including provisions that punish businesses and landlords who employ, do business with or rent to undocumented immigrants. Needless to say, local commercial interests are not supportive of the ordinance, and believe that it will hurt the village’s financial standing in a variety of ways (Concerns Grow Over Village's Immigration Ordinance). In both cities, the ordinances sparked great controversy about the “inhumanity? of such restrictions. In Escondido, a city of 142,000 where 42% of the population is Latino, “residents, businesses and city officials can file written complaints with the city if they suspect a landlord is renting to illegal immigrants. Complaints based ‘solely or primarily on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, or race shall be deemed invalid,’ the ordinance says.? In contrast, the mayor of nearby National City declared the city an immigrant sanctuary last week. (Escondido council OKs immigration ordinance).

Rapid demographic change has obliged many regions of the country that were once primarily bi-racial or racially homogenous to reflect on the social and cultural changes occurring around them. In some parts of Georgia, where the racial divide has traditionally been black and white, the enormous influx of Latino immigrants, has resulted in tension between these two communities as they compete for jobs and confront media stereotypes and ignorance about each other despite a shared history of racial discrimination from mainstream society (A Racial Rift That Isn’t Black and White). Whether it is in Baptist churches in Georgia or in the Church of Latter Day Saints in Utah, in religious leaders across the country are discovering that they have an important role to play in facilitating respectful and cohesive relationships within congregations that are becoming increasingly diverse. For congregations like the LDS, the changing population is to be embraced, not shunned. "Latinos will represent more than 50 percent in the LDS Church by the year 2020" (After a 'culture of continuity). Unlike many places in the country where intense xenophobia has emerged due to rapid change, an otherwise conservative Utah has, until now, mostly welcomed new arrivals with open arms. However, some of the socially progressive policies they have adopted like driving privilege cards and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants are under attack by the local Minutemen chapter (Immigrants turn Utah into mini-melting pot).

It’s fairly clear that we can’t create the world we want to live in by legislative decree alone. Though policy is the purview of politicians, we must be mindful that they should be taking the lead from those they represent and not get mired down by myopic media sound bites and the next election on the horizon. Bridges connect, walls divide. The legal and material questions at stake in the immigration debate are worth our most serious consideration; so, too, are the kind of culture and society we create as we redefine ourselves in relation to others through this process.

Louis Mendoza
Associate Professor
Department of Chicano Studies Chair
University of Minnesota
19 Scott Hall
72 Pleasant Street, Minneapolis 55455
Office: 612-624-8031
Email: lmendoza@umn.edu

Visit us on the Web: http://www.ihrc.umn.edu
To receive email notices about events at the IHRC: http://www.ihrc.umn.edu/about/e-notice.htm