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June 16, 2010, at 3:42 pm — Arts and Culture | Poetry | Writing | writing blog / / / / / / / / / / / /

(Il)Legal Immigration

One can’t help but think of the Cold War “red terror” reign of fear and the subsequent post-9/11 fear that triggered a rash of xenophobia against immigrants coming into the U.S.  Many scholarly critics—the most recent, Jodi Kim, in her new 2010 book Ends of Empire, have traced a history of U.S. imperialism in Asia and the Asian Pacific as continuing as a kind of “protracted afterlife” since its formal end in 1989.  The recent controversy over Arizona’s new immigration law that legitimizes racial profiling (to take effect in July) and has banned ethnic studies from public school programs represents a small but growing portion of such anxiety.
Not too long ago, Current TV featured a story on its program, Vanguard, where rogue reporters seek out “dangerous” missions of little-known events that garner human interest, mostly international. In this particular feature about illegal immigration in the U.S., the journalists follow a small group of Central American youths as they make an arduous journey by foot and train-hopping and bus, all the while hiding from police who look for suspicious activity at the weigh stations. Zigzagging their way slowly through Mexico up to the border of Texas where they hope to find safety in a new home, you can’t help but wonder what kind of spotty American Dream is lying in store for them. An image stays with me, several nights into the trip, of the tired group huddled together on the top of a cargo train, whipped by wind and rain that begins pouring down, flecking the lens of the camera with large spots of rain that obscure the view. It reminded me of the stark difference of power of these sides; on one side of that glass, separated by the camera’s and the shield of the TV screen, are the invisible made briefly visible by the camera’s gaze, and on the other, wrapped in safety, the privileged. Although one of the migrants is able to speak in English, the others in his group remain silent throughout the documentation, rendered unknowable despite the feature’s motivation to make them into human, real subjects.

If you remember last year’s media sensation around the capture and return of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, they had ventured across the frozen Tumen River along the border of China and North Korea to film a glimpse of the demilitarized border zone where most defectors try to escape, only to become the unfortunate hostaged subjects of their own story. Eventually, four months later, through a tug-of-war of negotiation and the diplomatic appearance of former President Bill Clinton in North Korea, the two journalists were safely returned home to California.  Media coverage of North Korea typically tends toward caricaturing Kim Jong Il as a crazy dictator who is secretly developing nuclear arms, but the real tragedy of this country is the exorbitant number of civilians who are sufferring from starvation and human rights violations.  Many are desperate enough to try to cross the DMZ into China, becoming refugees who often have even fewer rights as non-citizens, without the language and cultural knowledge to survive.

Both of these documented stories remind me of the many other borders that separate and insulate nations, keeping in those who have the privilege as “natural” citizens while excluding those who have little bargaining power.

Below is a poem by Sarah Gambito, author of the collection of poems Delivered, published in 2009.  She is a co-founder of Kundiman, a non-profit organization that promotes Asian American poetry and is the Director of Creative Writing at Fordham University in New York City.  I chose this poem, “A Borderless Ethos Would Please Everyone” because it plays on the idea of a cosmopolitan sense of the world, in which we can no longer view any nation as being insular, but as a globalized and deterritorialized place of tenuous borders.  Her satire of “naturally American” plays on the idea of freedom as being immersed in capitalism, a land of limited choice.

A Borderless Ethos Would Please Everyone

This is what makes everyone naturally American.

They want to wind up their American.

Who can blame them.

Access to reliable birth control.

Meeting strangers over the Internet.

Your American is a little late.

He was eating pizza and forgot the time.

He buys drinks.

My American is polite and buys drinks back for you.

It continues like this.

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