Those who have known me for the last decade have heard me insist ad nauseam that the war against undocumented migrants is tightly linked to the war on Muslims as terrorists—and that to fight one effectively, you have to find the parallels and fight both. While writing my post on Homophobic Harassment, Self-Deportation, and Surveillance, I discovered the missing link: Kris Kobach, currently the Secretary of State of Kansas. His bio lists an appointment as a law professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) Law School, but he is not listed on the roster there; it would appear that he is on leave. Kobach, who eerily enough resembles Aaron Eckhardt (the meanie in In the Company of Men), went to Harvard for his undergraduate degree, Oxford for an MA, and Yale for his JD. Kobach first came to power as an attorney during the Bush Administration, under the aegis of Attorney General John Ashcroft. At that time, he engineered the National Security-Entry-Exit-Registration-System (NSEERS), the Special Registration Act that, in 2002 rounded up over 82,000 Muslim men and issued deportation orders against over 13,000 (Also see the AALDEF Special Reg Report). NSEERS was finally suspended last year in May 2011, but it managed to do some serious violence in the intervening decade by facilitating the extended incarceration (without cause) of thousands of innocent Muslim men.
According to his interview with Reporter Jack Hitt on This American Life (#456, Reap What You Sow), he figured out that some 5 of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001 were in the US “illegally,” and of those, four had traffic violations, but their immigration status had never been checked. This led to his idea that domestic identity databases needed to be cross-checked with federal/immigration databases. NSEERS has its precedent in a number of interesting older internment and profiling laws: President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which enabled the Feds to round up and incarcerate some tens of thousands of citizens and migrants of Japanese descent after the December 7, 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor. There were also other precedents that made NSEERS possible, such as the Palmer Raids of the 1919-20’s, which targeted suspected anarchists.
Energized by that success, Kobach became the chief legal strategist for Immigration Reform Legal Institute (IRLI) which is the legal branch of Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR, founded by John Tanton, is one of the foremost anti-immigrant foundations in the US. There Kobach turned his efforts to figuring out how to engineer a number of some of the most devastating (note: I didn’t say “effective”) anti-immigration laws in Pennsylvania, Texas, Missouri, Arizona, and Alabama. Those bills were ineffective, in part because they were constantly and effectively challenged in the courts. But they also didn’t solve the unemployment or crime problems that were attributed to undocumented migrants.
Kobach’s career is predicated on the creation of destructive obstacles for brown folks—especially for MEMSA’s** and Latinos—regardless of citizenship. Just goes to show you that an overpriced, elite education and a charming spiel does not a more moral person make. In effect, his answer to the solution of preventing terrorism was to legalize and systematize racial profiling. There are two important ideas embedded in the Arizona and Alabama ant-immigration laws among others: 1. Make it legal to stop anyone at any point, regardless of a whether or not some violation is being committed, to check on the legality of their presence. By extension, 2. require that migration or citizenship papers be carried on one’s person at all times. Judging from this editorial that he wrote, he’s also figured out how to pre-empt the DREAM Act. He doesn’t mention it in the letter, but he has figured out that any proposal to enable undocumented migrants to pay less for college tuition will, chances are, fast-track their ability to become legal through the DREAM Act, were it to pass one day.
Kobach has figured out how to write legislation that enables a wide-ranging institutional surveillance. He helped the Mayor of Hazelton, PA write legislation that would fine the landlords and employers of undocumented migrants. The idea behind these ordinances, like that of NSEERS, is to establish that every “foreigner” (read: neither white nor black) must be codified into a taxonomy of membership (citizens, legal resident, H1-B worker, tourist, etc.): Who are you, where do you fit in, what do your papers say, and should we read you as an acceptable interloper (do you have proper papers) or hostile (lack of papers is a criminal offense; therefore you must criminal or terrorist intent). It is in many ways, a beautifully engineered binary system: Papers = friendly/no papers = criminal. There is no space in this system for multiple contexts or complexity.
You enrolled in university on a student visa, wanted to stay, fell in love, overstayed visa, had children, and now your life is here with your citizen partner and children. Or: After the World Bank’s loan repayment policies required your home country to decimate its own economy and/or social safety net, your town was economically devastated, and you migrated to try your hand at earning money in jobs that “Americans” (with papers) would never want, in order to help your extended family survive.
Americans, as I’m sure Kris Kobach—a mid-westerner with Ivy League degrees who likes to go turkey-shooting while writing anti-immigrant legislation—will agree, are more complex than computers. Is it so difficult to believe that foreign nationals and migrants have complex narratives as well? Go read some Isabel Allende, Amitav Ghosh, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez, and they’ll set you straight.
As importantly, this form of surveillance is highly inefficient. Go back to the numbers of hijackers who had both a) illegal immigrant status (five) and b) traffic violations (four). Out of 19. That means the other 14 had papers and NO traffic violations. They were inconspicuous. But as importantly, of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims residing in the United States, and of the 82,000 Muslim men arbitrarily imprisoned under NSEERS, not a single person was shown to have committed a terrorist act.
Here’s the other thing: In Alabama, where HB 56 has taken effect, fewer than 4% of the residents are migrants. In places like Tuscaloosa, where there was a high profile arrest of a German car executive, Detlev Hagar, who was stopped for a traffic violation. Oops. Steven Anderson, the Tuscaloosa Police Chief freely admits that “Hispanics”—migrants–are not the cause of crime. And Alabamians aren’t thrilled with the law either.
So, tracking undocumented migrants for the purposes of enhancing the safety of legal residents—that’s really not what immigration surveillance is about, now, is it? Rather, the goal of immigration legislation is to move from a space in which we assume that our neighbors are varied and diverse to one where all “newcomers,” “outsiders,” “visually distinctive,” are assumed to be suspicious, dangerous, or otherwise nefarious. And most importantly, the goal of HB 56 and NSEERS, is to legalize racism under the rule of law, and to pave the way for cementing the whiteness of the Homeland.
The War on Terror is intimately linked to the War on Migrants. These are, for folks like Kris Kobach, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum—part of the same war. For folks like the current POTUS, under whose administration, nearly 1.2 million migrants have been deported—Muslims and Latinos are part and parcel of the same threat to the Homeland: Brown, unwanted unwelcome. If Kris Kobach is cementing the links between NSEERS and Alabama’s HB 56, Arizona’s SB 1070, and similar laws, isn’t it time for liberals and progressives activists to challenge these together?
**(MEMSA): Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian
I should have mentioned that Kobach is an unpaid advisor to MItt Romney, and is responsible for the “self-deportation” concept that Romney endorses. Also, Kobach worked with Samuel Huntington at Harvard. Huntington, you will recall, was a notorious xenophobe and detractor of migration. Among his books, Huntington wrote the infamous Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which was a harbinger? a prescription? for the War on Muslims. Huntington also wrote “Who Are We,” which was a harbinger of the War on Latinos. Here is a summary of the article-length version of the first book (you can find the entire article as a pdf if you google it), and an article-length version of the second book, entitled, “The Hispanic Challenge.” Both the book and the article are self-contradictory and virulently racist. Kobach, as Huntington’s model protege, produced a thesis on South African apartheid in which he argued against divestment but rather “engagement” as the way to combat apartheid. That thesis apparently won a Harvard prize for best thesis in 1989, and was later published as a book.