What Is It About Illegal That You Don't Understand?

Debating the meaning of amnesty and who needs it

By Roberto Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: May 16, 2006

What Is It About Illegal That You Don't Understand?

Anti-immigrants like to bandy about the phrase: What is it about illegal you don't understand? And they go ballistic at the thought of ?amnesty? - at the thought of treating all human beings equally and humanely.

Here's a question that should help clarify the meaning of illegal: In U.S. history, which of the following were not simply common practice, but legal?

a) forced removal of native peoples and the theft of their lands.
b) slavery, segregation & racial discrimination and the denial of voting rights to women.
c) mass internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent and the mass repatriation of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.

If you answered yes to all of them, you would be correct. But let's fast forward to 2006. Which country asserts the right to:

a) wage preemptive and permanent worldwide war against nations that do not pose an imminent threat?
b) secretly and indefinitely detain suspects incommunicado, without charges at home and also outside of its legal system, while exempting its military from the international war crimes tribunal and claiming that the Geneva Conventions on war do not apply to this nation?
c) spy on its own citizens outside of the law, and also asserts the right to use the military for domestic purposes?

If you guessed the United States -- right again. The U.S. formulation of what is legal/illegal emanates from its military arsenal. (Since the 1950s, the United States has overthrown dozens of legitimate governments and propped up brutal military dictatorships). President Bush is but carrying on a tradition that says that whatever he says is legal, is legal, or else.

Truthfully, that legal/illegal formulation- in relation to immigration -- can be traced to a much earlier era when Europeans first arrived on this continent.
Americans like to collectively forget/deny that Europeans never had the legal right to seize lands or peoples (as slaves or subjects). American Indian law scholar, Steven Newcomb has long argued (Five Hundred Years of Injustice) that EuroAmericans have never established a recognized international legal claim to any land in the Americas. The basis for such claims comes from the so-called doctrine of discovery and the Catholic papal bulls of the 15th & 16th centuries that ?gave? European powers the ?right ? to divide up and conquer the non-Christian world.

Law scholar Sharon Helen Venne (Our Elders Understand our Rights) also asserts that the institution of the law itself was created by Europeans to specifically deny indigenous peoples their humanity and their rights as human beings and as peoples, thus facilitating land theft and attempts to eliminate and/or dehumanize native populations.

This history is the context of legality/illegality in regards to immigration. It includes a clearly illegal war against Mexico in the 1840s - a history that has treated Indians-Mexicans as demonic, uncivilized, criminal and now equates them with terrorism. The only reason immigration is illegal in relationship to Mexicans is because this society continues to view Mexicans - most of whom are indigenous-based peoples -- as subhuman. The book, Decade of Betrayal, (Balderrama & Rodriguez) reveals the inhumane anti-Mexican U.S. deportation policies during the 20th century. Additionally an examination of laws regulating immigration from Canada and Mexico shows that they've always favored the northern border. Historically, Canadians were able to cross into the United States for six months, no questions asked. After those six months, there were no migra hunter battalions looking for them or other Europeans who had overstayed their visas. All sides fail to address the fact that 40 percent of the undocumented population comes in this way. Yet, government always finds a way to single out and hunt down Mexicans.

It's time to repeat the phrase: What is it about illegal you don't understand?

There actually is an alternative by way of the policies of the European Union that would solve this crisis overnight. All workers from member nations are eligible to work in each others' countries, without losing their rights, citizenship or humanity.

Thus, we can clearly see that notions of illegality are arbitrary. As University of New Mexico scholar Margaret Montoya notes: All law is narrative. That's why if this nation wants to sign multinational agreements such as NAFTA (U.S., Canada and Mexico) or CAFTA (Central America) or the FTAA (Americas), then human beings cannot be left out of the equation. That's the narrative being inscribed in the jungles of Chiapas and by millions of people marching on U.S. streets -- that ?no human being is illegal.?

Shall we debate the meaning of amnesty and who actually needs it?

? 2006 Column of the Americas

About Roberto Rodriguez:

To reach us: - 608-238-3161 or Column of the Americas, PO BOX 5093 Madison WI 53705. Our bilingual columns are posted at:

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