A major sign of my political drift has been my inability to muster atypical indignation at the latest liberal outrages. Arizona’s new anti-immigration law, among many other provisions, allows police to profile based on the appearance of illegality (the fact that it’s hard to find the words to describe what people are being profiled based on is indicative of a whole bunch of shit) and requires cops to check immigration papers when they stop someone. The rest of the country is outraged at the Copper State’s willingness to embrace apartheid enforcement techniques. As SNL’s Seth Meyers noted, there’s not a World War II movie in which the Nazi’s don’t demand to see someone’s papers. Conservatives have done their best Cirque du Soleil impressions, artfully contorting themselves to describe how one could determine someone’s legal status on sight without the use of racial profiling – or less artfully in the case of California Congressman Brian Bilbray who suggested cops could tell by the illegals’ distinctive footwear. And yet, I’m not much angrier than normal. I’m not rushing out to join a boycott – a consumerist reduction of political activism if I’ve ever seen one. I see things basically as status quo.
I’m using the term “illegal” rather than the more acceptable “undocumented” not out of insensitivity, but to make a point. A provision of the new law makes it a state crime to be in Arizona without legal immigration papers. But we didn’t need a new law to tell us that being an illegal immigrant was against the law. The threat of deportation is constant because the life of the undocumented immigrant is illegal. To use another term is to disguise the State’s violence. The question I want to ask all the outraged liberals is if they really think the police in Arizona aren’t using racial profiling already. Also in the news this week was the revelation by Yale researchers that of the 376 traffic tickets issued by the East Haven, CT police, 210 were to Latino drivers, even though they only make up six percent of the population. I have a hard time believing that cops in Arizona are any different, and the first thing any officer does when they stop someone? Identification. The police don’t need the law to let them put these provisions into practice, the police are the law.
The new law is then a forced confrontation with the underlying logic of US immigration policy. Alain Badiou writes in an op-ed in Le Monde (translated for Nina Power’s Infinite Thought by Alberto Toscano) “The living proof that our societies are obviously in-human is today the foreign undocumented worker: he is the sign, immanent to our situation, that there is only one world.” Liberals don’t have a problem with borders or restricted immigration, they want a “humane” policy. Not a human policy, which is impossible, but the next best thing. “Humane,” the word we use to describe animal shelters. When confronted with the fundamental injustice of treating people differently under the law based on where they were born in relation to a set of arbitrary lines, the mask of the moral State slips and the naked pragmatic visage pokes through. The shrugged response that it would be impossible to just open the borders is a not-so-disguised rephrasing of “my opulence requires the existence of global underclass, and that’s a price I’m willing to pay.” No amount of “responsible” immigration reform will change this.
Immigrants aren’t the only ones made illegal in our society; we speak of the “criminalization of poverty” as the way in which the poor are forced to commit what the law calls crimes in order to survive. Sudhir Venkatesh’s less famous book Off the Books: Underground Economies of The Urban Poor is a great description of the ways in which being alive and poor at the same time becomes a crime in America. Medical marijuana patients are frequently treated “inhumanely” by the authorities for dealing with their illnesses. American Apparel’s “Legalize Gay” shirts are premised on the (I think false) idea that the identity is tied directly to the institution of marriage, but homosexual acts were criminalized in parts of America until 2003. In all of these cases we have the criminalization of life processes: acquiring enough money to eat and afford shelter, treating disease, and consensual sexual acts. The ultimate American example is the figure of the illegal immigrant whose breathing on this side of a line is criminal. (The example par excellence remains the “bare life” prisoners of Auschwitz). We cannot allow the compelling slogan “No one is illegal” to distract us from the fact that many people are illegal.
For radicals, I think it remains our job to provide whatever support we can to anyone whose life is made illegal in Arizona and anywhere else, as well as to fight the structures that create the police in the first place. But even more so, I think it’s our job to honestly face the consequences of our own moral conclusions and never to shrug at injustice due to its immensity. We will have illegal immigrants as long as we have a closed border. I’ll leave it up to you to draw the appropriate conclusions after that, but the dominoes certainly don’t end there.