Illegality and Idiocy: Only One Can Be Solved for Sure

Yesterday, the New York Times published a roundtable “Room for Debate” on whether it is wise for undocumented persons should “come out.” Now, I thought that it was the NYT who decided to apply the term “coming out” to undocumented persons, and was prepared to lambast their self-serving idiocy yet again. But, apparently that honor goes to some law faculty who used the term. Still, one wonders why the NYT would load the decks against undocumented migrants by associating with them a term that symbolizes the singular moment when LGBT folks publicly registered their sexuality. “Coming out” to others about being gay, or bi, or trans is a unique moment, and to “borrow” it for another charged issue sets up the field against undocumented migrants. This is not a neutral way to introduce the issue.

So why does the messy vitriol and rich, creamy idiocy of Americans continue to surprise me? Probably because I’m an overwhelming optimist and think that if people are given information that counters what they think they know, they will somehow change their minds. First mistake of the day, and I haven’t had my coffee yet.

I try never to read the comments sections of incendiary issues like these, but it’s a bit like finding porn on the tube: so lurid, and yet so hard to stop watching. The comments section attached to this roundtable read as if they were written by the gay (and straight) and liberal (if their self-identification is to be believed) Daughters of the American Revolution and the Minutemen:

(I’m paraphrasing) I’m gay, but I’m against illegals…I’m gay, but there was nothing I could do to change that. Illegals, on the other hand, could….the children of illegals know they’re doing something wrongThe Constitution is…get ready, wait for it…for CITIZENS. WTF?

So…umm, Black Slaves were doing something wrong by being slaves? Women who wanted the right to vote were evil beings, because the Constitution didn’t count them as citizens? Even the very same GLBT (again, if their self-id is correct) folks railing about “illegals” on the pages of our very own version of Pravda have so conveniently forgotten that their very presence was considered criminal until—well even now, in some states, their sexuality is STILL criminal.

Really, watching so-called liberals who have been the target of legal persecution now cloak themselves in self-serving double-standards is like watching Wolf Blitzer pretend to be a hard-hitting investigative reporter: grotesque and fascinating all at once. I keep forgetting that being liberal is not even closely connected to being progressive. Mistake #2. And let’s stop pretending shall we? Gay, lesbian, trans, or straight, these commenters are not just railing about undocumented migrants, they are simply anti-immigrant. No, just stop protesting. Let’s engage in a thought experiment, shall we?

They should stop cutting in line. They should apply legally, like the millions of others who did. Please. Suppose, by some miracle, the gods magically turned the members of Congress into un-selfserving, moral beings, and that they passed a law that opened up the borders to all migrants who wanted to enter, you’d stop bitching? Really? You’d suddenly turn around and say…”Well, I’m so glad that Latinos can now migrate here legally. It’s wonderful to see the rich additions of so many Mexican migrants to our country.” Please, just stop hiding behind the veil of legality; just say it: By passing the buck to Congress, you’re indicating that you’re pretty happy with the status quo.

I keep forgetting that being a target of persecution doesn’t make one free of hypocrisy. Mistake #3. Just look at Israel’s policies toward occupied Palestine, or genocidal tendencies of the religious dissenters who founded the American colonies toward the Native Americans. Gay and straight liberal denizens who object to “illegals” (sure, we’ll pretend that it’s just about undocumented migrants for a minute), could use some history lessons, not to mention lessons in conceptual logic. To paraphrase that famous moral thinker, Forrest Gump, legal is as legal does.

Here are some interesting facts about legality:

Laws are made by human beings (originally this meant white men with power; now men and women– white or otherwise, straight or gay–with power). That means laws are based on the (unreliable and varying) emotions of men and women in power (In philosophy, we like to pretend that this is called “rational thinking). And that means laws are almost always self-serving, designed to protect those with privilege (and that includes you, my LGBT anti-immigrant neighbors). Recall

The Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, which annexed parts or all of California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, and several other states from Mexico.

The Black Codes, which made it illegal for Black Americans to be found without an employer (this is the original anti-loitering law, fyi), among other things. These are some pretty heinous laws criminalizing ex-slaves.

Bowers v. Hardwick, which ruled that a Georgia sodomy law was constitutional). Umm, btw, sodomy is still illegal—if you’re gay—in Kansas, Texas, Montana, and Oklahoma. And illegal for everyone in the rest of these states.

The boundary between legality and illegality changes constantly, as we know. It is true that we’ve had continuous prohibitions against migrants since the mid-1700’s. But those restrictions have ebbed and flowed—often because of the victory of racist fears rather than because of any real danger: The Chinese were the target of exclusion laws in 1882, after the US had finished exploiting them to build the TransPacific railroad. Japanese laborers were excluded in 1906 for similar reasons. In 1901, Samuel Gompers, the president of AFL and still today the hero of many unions, championed the restriction of all Asian migrants in order to strengthen support for white workers. Similar restrictions were applied to other Asian, African, and Hispanic groups throughout the 20th century. No, I’m not putting up links to all of these examples. Read some history, or take an Ethnic Studies class. Unless you’re in Arizona, because ignorance is legally championed out there. Whoo-hoo.

Among the comments from folks self-identifying as gay and opposed to undocumented migrants in this country was a remark about how one can’t help being gay. As we know, this logic has been debated for decades (including by feminists and various celebrities who identify as gay or bi).

Regardless, let’s talk about what is natural, since that’s really what it means to insist that one doesn’t have a choice of being gay or straight. It’s pretty natural for human beings to have a survival instinct, or at least to avoid being killed (do I really need to provide evidence for this? Just watch any Youtube footage of tourists being attacked by sharks.  Or WikiLeaks footage of Iraqi civilians running for cover as bombs are dropped on them). Given the US’s imposition of NAFTA and various nefarious drug interdiction and money-lending policies on Mexico, and the subsequent decimation of its internal safety-net and infrastructure, it seems pretty natural to do whatever is necessary to keep oneself and one’s family alive. Is it any wonder then, that despite the remarkable, ludicrous attempts by the US to build a border, to assign hundreds (thousands?) of Border Patrol agents, to make life insufferable for border-crossers, that Latinos—or folks of any descent who are suffering poverty, persecution, war, drug wars–are willing to risk life and limb in an effort to ensure the survival of themselves and their families, let alone live decently?

Now, I agree that “coming out” is an inappropriate term to appropriate for the question of whether undocumented migrants should publicize their status, but let’s not have that detract us from the question at hand, namely whether taking such a risk will be beneficial, and perhaps, enable people to sympathize with them.  That is a genuine question, but one that needs to be decided by folks who are in the precarious position (and sympathetic lawyers).

In the meantime, let’s stop pretending that because migrants have entered this country at this particular moment, they’re somehow committing a grand moral travesty. They are doing what any of us would want to do, if faced with the choice between certain death or immiseration or an alternative somewhat less worse. “Illegality”—criminalizing people–is a matter of the moral preferences and whims of the privileged, not of human beings trying to survive. So, please stop insulting me with your insistence that we have to abide by the “rule of law.” Laws can be changed. Idiocy, on the other hand—well, I’m not so sure.

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