Mary Ellen Hannibal, an interviewer for The Readers Review, asked me an intriguing question.
MEH: I have heard you draw parallels between the language around immigration issues today and those of eras we consider far more recidivist. What would be a healthy immigration policy, in your view?
MH: I’m a poet, not a policy wonk, and as Audre Lorde said, “Poetry is not only dream and vision… It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears.” When the Arizona bill passed in May, there was an outpouring of poetry and so I made an offering as well.
I’m intrigued by your word “healthy,” which is an interesting way to approach immigration policy. To extend the metaphor, we can create a state of health only by first arriving an accurate diagnosis of the illness. And we don’t have that diagnosis.
It’s difficult for me to take seriously the assumptions from which every current discussion of U.S. immigration policy proceeds. The very existence of nation-states, of borders that can or should be enforced—all these seem to me fictions. Powerful ones, for sure, but I don’t know why we must take them so very seriously and behave as if we must defend them at all odds.
And the contradictions in every position also puzzle me. If you really do believe in the free market, free trade, and all that, why not let people go where they will, where there is need and demand for their skills? Instead we now have fake free trade, where capital is allowed to move across borders, but people aren’t. People in poor countries from which capital is being sucked out by Western multinational companies have to risk their lives to get to the Western nations where their money has already gone, so that they can work terrible unhealthy jobs that the citizens of those countries don’t want to do, to try to get a little of that money back and send it home to their children and elders via remittances.
Does this system really make any sense to anyone?
Almost every suburb in the United States is filled with domestic workers, gardeners, and construction day workers who come from somewhere else “illegally.” Almost every strawberry or leaf of lettuce relies on this economy that is not supposed to exist, that we claim we don’t want yet somehow just can’t seem to get rid of.
And at the same time we’re exporting a Hollywood vision of America, a steady stream of propaganda that advertises a life of luxury that isn’t even accessible to many people who work 40 hours a week in this country.
America is like that stereotypically beautiful cruel blonde who wants everybody to want her, just so that she can reject them.
I suppose a healthy immigration policy would begin by acknowledging how many fictions are involved in our current perceptions, and acknowledging that our so-called immigration problem is not really the disease. It’s one symptom of the much larger disease of corporate globalization.
A healthy policy might also begin by acknowledging that this is a nation of illegal immigrants, that all of the land we call the United States of America has been stolen or claimed by violence or trickery from other peoples, and that as the most prosperous nation in the world, we might consider being a little more generous with our borders, and a little less generous in exporting our soldiers and our weapons.
And a healthy immigration policy would have as its end goal an open-door, welcoming policy. We’d look at what steps we need to take toward that, and come up with a phased plan that is consistent with a responsible (not “free”) international trade policy, and that is aimed at inviting people in, transitioning them into healthy work as part of healthy communities, rather than keeping them out with weapons and barbed wire.
I suppose that makes me, in the words of Fox News, an “open-borders extremist.” I think it’s actually inevitable. Our borders are and have always been open, permeable, because they are fictions. Grasses, oil spills, coyotes, environmental changes have no respect for little white lines on a piece of paper. All empires rise and fall, so why do we believe the American empire is immune to history? One way or another, sooner or later, borders will collapse.
We can choose to acknowledge and plan for that and create graceful transitions, in a phased way that does not create radical suffering on either side of the so-called borders.
Or we can continue to cling to our fictions.