The summer’s gone and the cold keeps creeping down my spine. But when I hear of the steel and wire some would build across 700 miles of the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, something in me freezes. A “steel and wire” fence: This is an image akin to East Germany and the Berlin Wall. One cannot but think of people entangled in a web of barbs, rusty metal digging in deeper with each frantic tug. It is a chilling thought.
When Mexican President Vicente Fox made such reference to the Berlin Wall, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza threatened that “Comparisons … to the Berlin Wall are not only disingenuous and intellectually dishonest, they are personally offensive to me.” One hopes that Mr. Garza’s ruffled feathers have since been smoothed after such a scarring experience. But my banter aside, why do we never dwell on how personally offensive it is for class of people, perhaps 10 million Mexicans and Latin Americans branded illegal aliens, to walk the streets with their eyes nailed to the pavement? These are the indentured servants of today. They are made slaves by their poverty and by the paradox of a society that wants their hard-working hands but will look right through their faces and smirk at their language.
Many panic upon catching a glimpse of America’s true face. Like Tony Garza, they take offense easily. The sight of people with which they cannot identify bothers them. Everything from their poverty, to their children and language becomes a personal offense. The actual tragedy is not migration; it is precisely this failure to empathize, one that suggests that Martin Luther King’s legacy has fallen under attack despite ritualized holidays. These people immediately clutch at everything that they can understand and label the rest an “invasion.” They insist that America is not only theirs, but no one else’s. They dream about building fences — keep them all out, stuff them into ghettos.
A prominent example of this reaction is the work of Samuel Huntington, a Harvard University political scientist. In his Foreign Policy article “The Hispanic Challenge,” Huntington says, “In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American natives.”
Lately, it would seem that a fair number of people turn to this. It was in this vein that the House of Representatives voted this December to approve a bill that would mandate the building of fence across more than one third of the U.S.-Mexico border. In addition to the building of physical boundaries, the bill would also turn some 10 million migrants as well as international students that drop one too many courses in violation of their student visas into “aggravated felons.” The bill would permit their “indefinite detention.” Now it is up to the Senate to vote on what Congressman Pete Stark rightly calls “red meat to throw to the xenophobic fringe.”
These anxious attempts at establishing a strict boundary between what is to be considered American and what is to be excised as “alien” are retrograde and fundamentally opposed to the open community we should aim to create, which now extends beyond artificial political or racial demarcations. Yet we often overlook this very real phenomenon even in our daily lives. Once we have pulled our gaze from the beautiful architecture of our campus (which is so sweetly enthralled with the tradition of Cambridge); once we have reined in our thoughts down to the people that walk the streets, that tend the counters, that sweep the floors, and do so with not a swagger but rather the yearning to vanish — then we begin to make out the real face of America. Different skin tones, different tongues, foods and dreams: a wide diversity that remains unacknowledged and has even become targeted as of late. When something like Katrina happens it exposes all the fantasy beneath which the abject survive. It does so in drowning flushes. They die. They are not martyrs, for they have not been killed by Arabs — rather, they paid the price for their country’s denial and receive the medal of oblivion.
Perhaps it would be wiser to say that what Huntington calls the “threat to the country’s cultural and political integrity” comes not from the Mexicans exploited in underpaid jobs to subsidize American consumers, or internationals like myself who might struggle with classes, but rather from xenophobes like Samuel Huntington who feel threatened and encroached upon at the sound of a foreign language, the smell of spicy food and poverty in general. Bush and Huntington are perhaps right in telling Americans that they should be scared. However, they confuse the threat. Americans should feel the terror of their own civil liberties slipping away as revelations of illegal wire-taps on American citizens surface, and as conservatives and the paranoid seize upon an exaggerated fear of terrorism in order to force the agenda of a minority onto people whose voice has been forgotten. The move to criminalize Mexican migrants and the evil class-dropping international students is part of this destructive force. Don’t let this wall be built.
Jordan Trevino is a junior in Trumbull College.