Sunday, May 23, 2010

José Martí and Arizona's Immigration Law

I try to avoid writing in the "What would José Martí have done or said vein" not because such conjectures are impossible or unfruitful -- we are not so removed in time that what concerns us today did not also matter to him -- but because Martí didn't appoint anyone his spokesman with the right to use his name as he pleases. Such license is rarely given. I know of only one instance in our history: when Betances deputized Martí to speak for him on all matters pertaining to the Revolution ("use and abuse my name as you see fit"). What is more remarkable still is that Betances and Martí never met, the one exiled in Paris and the other in New York. Such implicit faith must be both given and earned; it should not be assumed unilaterally or under the pretense that death authorizes the misappropriation of another's name. If the names and images of movie actors cannot be commercially exploited after death, then surely the legacy of our prohombres should be at least as morally inviolate. Loathe as I am to insert Martí's name into a controversy where it has already been abused, at least I will not be the first to do so; and it is not his name that I invoke but his words because these alone carry his sanction, or at least the closest approximation to it.

The assumption that José Martí was an immigrant -- in fact, he never referred to himself as one or identified in any way with immigrants as a group -- has led many to suppose, incorrectly, that he was an advocate of immigration. The National Association of Hispanic Publications (NAHP) even instituted this year a "José Martí Award for Outstanding Immigration Article" (we suppose that this award will not be granted to an opponent of illegal immigration). And, according to celebrity blogger PérezHilton, the Cuban-American rapper Pitbull, standing before Martí's statue (which statue was not specified), condemned Arizona's new immigration law as racist, cancelling one of three scheduled concerts there (well, it is remarkable today when anyone stands even 33% behind his principles, much less against his interests). The truth is that Martí himself could never have been awarded NAHP's "José Martí Award" for his writings on immigration because his opinions on the subject were as "politically incorrect" as you can get, and though he would have been pleased with the success of any young Cuban in this country, Pitbull's announcement should have been made in front of a statue of César Chávez. Martí, as was explained in the previous post, is not an "all-purpose hero."

In Martí's famous article on the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, in 1886, he envisioned it as not only a representation of the friendship between France and the United States, personified by Washington and Lafayette, but as a beacon for the oppressed of all nations and the emblem of a new epoch in the history of mankind. This interpretation, which prevails today, was not the most popular when the statue was inaugurated. In fact, none of the speakers on that occasion alluded to the U.S. as a "nation of immigrants," nor does any contemporary newspaper account make that connection. The statue's complete name, "Liberty Enlightening the World," describes its intended symbolism. The U.S., by its example, would awaken the world to a new dawn of liberty and other nations would then kindle their own torches of freedom from its flame. The statue proclaimed that freedom was the universal birthright of all men. No one then, except Martí and Emma Lazarus, imagined that this birthright was to be claimed by all the world's oppressed on America's very shores.

In contrast to Lazarus, however, Martí did not mean nor did he want the "wretched refuse of Europe's teeming shores" to settle here, especially anarchists ("who don't want laws nor know what they want except to spread fire and death among the living and everything else standing") and socialists ("who use the agonies of the poor as an excuse to vent their own need for destruction"). Martí regarded their "revolutionary theories" as antithetical to American democracy and the greatest danger facing it. These radical immigrants, "who did not know how to win without bloodshed," Martí believed to be an insidious element that would introduce to this country the class hatreds and divisions that had been the bane of Europe for generations. Despotism had largely suffocated these violent passions in Europe; American liberty, however, would fan them till the inevitable conflagration. Then the United States would have to decide whether to adopt the methods of Germany and Russia to meet this challenge to its social order, becoming, in effect, the thing it abhorred; or else hold fast to its democratic ideals even at the cost of stability and progress, and, eventually, its freedom, too.

The anarchists and socialists, by equal parts violence and vehemence, had already seized effective control of much of the nascent American labor movement, and Martí feared that they could precipitate, indeed, that they intended to precipitate a social war between American workers and capitalists from which they alone would profit. Martí did not regard the robber barons favorably, either: in fact, their penchant for using the police and hired goons in confrontations with striking workers complemented the anarcho-socialists own incitements to violence. The common prey of both was the American worker, whom Martí considered democratic, hardworking and law-abiding, but woefully ill-equipped by virtue of his own guilelessness to confront the forces gathering against him from all sides. Martí warned: "No immigration is good which brings strong hands but cold and hostile hearts" [No hay inmigración buena, cuando, aunque traiga mano briosa, trae corazón hostil y frío].

Martí had no sympathy whatever, but, rather, a profound disdain, unparalleled in his writings, for criminals and evildoers who, under the guise of immigrants, invaded the country in order to sow terror among its population and "avenge" here ancient grudges, real or imagined, transplanted from other lands and cultures, philosophies and ideologies explicitly hostile to America's democratic society and vent on its ultimate destruction: "There is no more plentiful a fodder for the jails, nor more lethal a poison for the nation, than these hordes of vicious and bestial people. Yes, not brutish but bestial." [No hay alimento más abundante para las cárceles, ni veneno más activo para la nación, que estas hordas de gente viciosa y abrutada. No embrutecida, no: abrutada]. In a time not so very long ago, this statement might have been compared to and dismissed as "nativism," even xenophobia; but the events of September 2001 have a relevance not only for our time but Martí's: then as now, the U.S. was beset by external (but imported) forces conspiring against it which remained mostly unnoticed and certainly unperceived in their real dimensions until one barbaric act brought them to national prominence. For the 19th century this act was the Haymarket Explosion (1886), which convinced most Americans (and Martí) that foreign radicals -- who had settled here through a policy of unregulated immigration -- were undermining the state by introducing dynamite as an instrument of national polity.

In an unintentionally ironic article entitled "A Warning to Mexico" (1888), Martí cautioned that country also against emulating the open-door immigration policy of the United States. He didn't have to admonish it against welcoming American immigrants because the loss of California and Texas had already done that four decades ago. Instead, Martí warned of a plan -- or plot -- to turn Mexico into a "vertidero" (dumping grounds) for America's unwanted newcomers, by diverting the flow of Southern European immigrants from the U.S. to Mexico, because, as newspaper editorials alleged, Mexicans and Italians were "analogous races," or, to phrase it less elegantly, both were "greasers." Martí warned Mexicans not to fall for this trap that could introduce the Black Hand into Mexico: "We must be very vigilant, and quickly, because they [the Americans] want to people this country with criminals." [Urge vigilar mucho, y en seguida, porque nos van a querer poblar con criminales].

Martí was not against immigration, but he was opposed to unrestricted and unsupervised immigration. Nor did he view all immigrants alike: Martí preferred the political over the economic immigrant; the assimilable over the unassimilable; the tradesman over the laborer; the skilled worker over the unskilled; and the farmer above all ("better the apple grower than the apple peddler"). Some nationalities, he believed, made better immigrants than did others, not because one was superior to another, but because some adapted better than others to a new country and were no encumbrance upon it. Open borders were to him the greatest danger that a nation could face short of war (and not very short of it, at that), and more culpable even than war because war cannot not always be avoided but unrestrained immigration was never forced on any country. Martí asked:

"Should respect for the rights of man be taken so far as to allow the base company of some men to ruin the lives of the rest? Should a nation that once admitted good immigrants continue to admit immigrants even if they are bad? Should a nation that recoursed to immigration when it needed it continue to foment it when it no longer needs it, or should it curtail it?"

[¿El respeto al derecho del hombre ha de llegar hasta permitirle podrir con su compañia impura a los demás hombres? ¿El pueblo que admitió a inmigrantes buenos, debe continuar admitiendo a inmigrantes malos? ¿El pueblo que aceptó a la inmigración cuando la necesitaba, debe continuar fomentándola, o debe contenerla, cuando no la necesita?]

The answer to all these rhetorical questions, Martí's answer and the obvious answer, is no. Of course, today it would be considered politically incorrect to suggest that there could be such a thing as a "bad" or undesirable immigrant (unless we are speaking of a 100-year-old Nazi), and one would risk being labelled a Nazi for supporting immigration restrictions of any kind, let alone ending immigration (even the illegal kind).

What would Martí's reaction have been, then, to the Arizona law requiring that aliens produce documentation certifying their identity and immigration status when so requested by state authorities (mirroring the unenforced federal law which already requires this)? I will leave out the final proviso of that law -- that such information will be solicited only when an individual is apprehended in the commission of a crime -- because then the question becomes, frankly, ridiculous, since it is inconceivable that Martí or any rational person would object to criminals being required to reveal their real identity, anonymity being useful to the lawbreaker but not to society. But we don't need to leave this question up to commonsense: Martí explicitly stated, discussing this very subject, that "immigrants have no more right to be lazy than they do to be criminals; nor should society, even indirectly, support those who are" (Como no se tiene derecho para ser criminal, no se tiene derecho para ser perezoso. Ni indirectamente debe la sociedad humana alimentar a quien no trabaja directamente en ella).

Martí could certainly never have imagined that one day there could be those who would claim that immigrants have the right not only to be here illegally but to engage in criminal activity while here . Yet the city of San Francisco recently informed the Justice Department that it would not provide it with the fingerprints of criminals who also happen to be illegal immigrants lest they be deported after completing their sentences (as the law requires). Always in the vanguard of the nonsensical, San Francisco also has a proposal on the November ballot, supported by its mayor, that would allow illegal immigrants to vote in city elections. Arizona has been excoriated and boycotted for attempting to enforce federal law and treating illegal immigrants as, well, illegal immigrants, whereas San Francisco has received no criticism and precious little coverage for its repeated efforts to nullify federal law and to accord the most fundamental right of citizenship to those who are not citizens, the Constitution be damned. (What is next for the city on the bay? Will it mail absentee ballots to all residents of Mexico and parts south?)

Opponents claim the Arizona law seeks to create a new criminal class based on race and nationality -- something Martí would certainly have objected to -- when, in fact, it criminalizes no one, fines no one and punishes no one for being an undocumented alien per se. In the United States it is not illegal to be an illegal immigrant. No one is sent to jail for crashing the U.S. border because there is no punitive law against it. In this case, trespassers will not be prosecuted. Illegal aliens are subject to deportation, as in any other country, but with rights and guarantees (including due process) which are not available, say, across the border. More importantly, here they are spared the murders, beatings, rapes and disappearances which characterize Mexico's official interactions with its illegal immigrants from Central America. Even the illegal immigrant who is deported to Mexico can enter the U.S. illegally again (and again and again), as almost all do, without incurring any further punishment than to be re-deported. Not so in Mexico, where a repeat offender faces a 10-year sentence in a Mexican jail.

The Mexican government and the Castro regime recently signed a treaty which authorizes the automatic deportation, without exception or appeal, of all Cuban nationals who desert in Mexico or seek asylum there -- the kind of agreement which Communist Cuba should like to conclude with the U.S. (and nearly did under Bill Clinton) but which the Mexican government would never consent to in a million years for $53 billion reasons. President Felipe Calderón, who, like all his predecessors, refuses to criticize Cuba for its human rights record because he regards that as interfering in its internal affairs, had no scruples about castigating the Arizona law in his public remarks at the White House and his speech to Congress as "discriminatory." No matter, of course, that the Mexican government discriminates against the rights of all Mexicans in exactly the same way: In Mexico, as in most countries, citizens (not just foreigners) are required by law to carry identity papers on their persons at all times and produce them upon demand. In Cuba, whose one-party legislature blasted the Arizona law as "racist and xenophobic" and a "brutal violation of human rights," citizens are also required to carry official identification and are subject to internal deportation if they relocate to Havana from the provinces without official authorization exactly as black South Africans who once left their "homelands" or townships for Pretoria were "repatriated" under apartheid.

If Martí's name means anything anymore -- and it has been so abused in the last 50 years that in many regards the anti-Martí now trumps the real Martí in the consciousness of his countrymen -- it surely should be invoked in defense of justice and not as a prop of demagogic politics. With his country in ruins and his people in chains, José Martí has other work to do than be a poster-boy for illegal immigration.