Sunday, August 05, 2007

Illegal Immigration

This post talks about what has come across to me as the general ideological/political stance of the entities involved. I am well aware that there exist other stances with huge followings, and many individuals who fight these very stances I discuss.

Living in New York, and having travelled through Spain, the country that is essentially the border-town between Africa and Europe, illegal immigration is an inescapable subject of conversation, writing, and news coverage. I try and not involve myself as a rule, because after all we cats like to walk by ourselves, but sometimes it's hard to avoid. I like to think that I come from a family and a social background characterised by its tolerance, of other people, their ideas, their opinions, their idiosyncrasies or whatever. So, when I find a very good friend, whom I love and respect, making casual and callous remarks about gypsies, it makes me cringe. But I also feel it is that person's right to comment about a community in that country, with the experience of that life. After all, I make Sardar jokes [well I don't anymore, but I used to] and I'm sure that often I say things that make outsiders cringe. I like to think that I refrain from making a lasting judgement of a person I have recently met, and that I'm open to changing my mind about them all the time I might know them. And I do my best not to engage in argument with people who voice opinions very firmly, especially if I have just met them, and they are not peers.

Now, in the course of the travels in Spain I had a lot of arguments about a lot of things, not the least garish tank tops with images of Indian gods on them, and George Harrison and co's appropriation of hare rama and the like. While staying with people in a small town in Spain, I found it very very difficult to behave. The family is extremely religious, which many Spaniards are, but I hadn't encountered any before, since my friend's family isn't very devout. This meant that they were also fairly traditional, or conservative if you prefer, especially since they live in this little town on the coast. In the course of my conversations with the wife, I was stunned into silence many times over by the kind of views she expressed. You see, in India, people who are educated, especially in medicine and the sciences [she's a nurse] pride themselves on being rational about certain things like religion or birth control. So the problem I face in Christian countries is that educated people express views that are, to me, exceedingly backward and ignorant. In the midst of the statements about homosexuality and birth control, the lady made a face and muttered about "los moros".

The moors in Spain are a problematic subject, because after all, it was the expulsion of the Moors that gave birth to the idea of the Spanish nation, with Ferdinand and Isabel la Catolica's wars. But having lived there for over 700 years, many of them were, for all practical purposes, and if we go by today's evaluation of the non-immigrant population of the USA, natives by that time. But, having been built up as the bad guys*, anyone African or Muslim becomes tainted. The vast numbers of Algerians who migrate up and down from France, the Moroccans who have settled in Spain, any number of Pakistani and Central Asian people who have moved there to hold menial jobs - all are faintly vilified for being there. "It starts with one and then everyone comes and then *hushed tones of horror* they live SIX PEOPLE IN ONE HOUSE!"

The term "los moros" now refers to muslims or Africans, and god help you if you are both. Both the gentleman and his wife were resentful of the illegal-immigrant presence in their country, indicating that they would be willing to tolerate a few, but not people in such numbers, because they were taking their jobs. This argument I saw as ridiculous, since not one of the Pakistanis I met was in either of their professions! But the question that occurred to me, and I didn't ask, was: And what about the hordes of illegal immigrants Europeans in India and Africa and America in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries? [And well beyond]

Just because it wasn't articulated in that manner doesn't mean it wasn't illegal immigration. After all, it was the uninvited entry into the territory of another nation, usually in possession of resources that you didn't have, to better your life and that of the people of your kingdom, and motivated by extreme circumstances, whether the desperate need for a market, resources or land. The significant differences are that they decimated populations, totally exploited the native people of the land, stole all their resources, and convinced of their own superiority, subjugated everyone they could and killed everyone they couldn't [well ok, that's an exaggeration, but not by a lot] and most of all, they sold other human beings into slavery. Now today's immigrant, legal or otherwise, is convinced of his/her own inferiority, and does his/her best to better the interests of the country s/he has emigrated to, and in the process to improve the life of immediate family.

The point I'm making is that I see this point-blank refusal to be open to a two-way exchange that is equal in content, manner and extent, for both sides. Equality for the West [as we so love to call it here, I'm going to use it till I can come up with a better term than First World] is only allowed on their terms, and equality means that they are kind enough to permit everyone else to feel equal, but don't ever forget by whose grace you are at this point, because I'll take it away any time I want, whether with a War on Terror, or economic sanctions, or a cloak-and-dagger execution. Its great to have hordes of Indians working to keep your customer service bill down, but only as long as it doesn't make you worry about your own job-security. Agreed the Asian work ethic is voluntary slave ethic in comparison to that of the West, but the West loves slave-ethics, they did invent the industry.

The bottom line is that it takes tremendous courage to up and relocate to a country with a foreign language and a strange and often antagonistic religion; it must rise from extreme circumstances in your homeland; and it demands extreme hardship to even GET there. I'm not talking, in this post, about people like me, who have something to come back to, or even people form the middle-class, who put every damn thing they've got and fight tooth and nail to get to that IT job in the US; I'm talking of the poor people, whose lives are unbearable, often as a result of actions by the developed world or their own government, of the droves of Pakistani immigrants in Europe, of the Salvadorians and Haitians and all the other people who stumble their way into the USA. It took as much courage if not more, to do it in 1492, and we valourise that courage. So why do we vilify it today?

It is also true that mass immigration plays havoc with cultural hierarchies; when your Gujarati family manages to successfully run a motel chain in Arkansas, it really destroys the pretty picture of camels and exotic sari-clad women that Folklore has allotted them, and demands both agency and relevance to the modern world for these rural people. Islam's response to the West's denial of agency has been terrorism, though I am suspicious of so convenient an explanation.

It still remains that we, of the "Third World", are doing EXACTLY what they did 500 years ago, in that Arabic, Egyptian and Vedic knowledge, and colonial resources, both natural and human, brought today's "First World" where they are today, just as learning their languages and equipping ourselves with the skills needed to occupy the interstices and gaps in their society brings us where we are today. [Education is a whole other post.]

*to the extent that the patron saint of Spain Santiago is called Santiago Matamoros [St James the Moor-Killer] and almost always depicted as a shining white man on a shining white horse that is rearing up to strike dead one of several Moors lying on the ground, as its master kills more with his shining sword.


  1. Really insightful. Watch this documentary about what the Moors were _really_ like when they came (not invaded) Spain:

  2. Thank you for that. It's good to see things from the point of view of a 'non-Westerner' to use your own shorthand.

    One point I would quibble with is your assertion that the West invented slavery. Certainly we dramatically intensified it, from the 15th century onwards, but slavery had existed well before then.

    The institution of slavery extends back beyond recorded history. References to it appear in the ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi. Its form and nature varied greatly in ancient society. It seems to have been common in the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations and in ancient Persia. In ancient Egypt slave labor was used in building temples and pyramids. The institution was familiar to the ancient Hebrews, according to passages in the Bible.

    Islam accepted slavery, and it became a standard institution in Muslim lands, where most slaves were African in origin.

  3. thanks dave. i knew someone would bring that up, so if you'll look carefully you'll see i deliberately used the word industry, because there never was such a thriving industry before the european slave trade. there always were and always will be slaves, but just not the way it was in the 17th century. one thing ive always admired the british for was their eventual stance against slavery, esp since it brought them no economic profit and some significant economic loss.

    saj, ta ever. ill look at it fi and when i ever get the dataone set up!

  4. You are too kind in terming 'colonial invasions' 'immigration'. However, I am not entirely certain that saying 'you did this, so I will do it back to you' is the right way to go. Something from the Blake class and the cycle of revenge comes back to me here.

    Do you think it would be a practical system for people to be allowed to just up and move wherever they want and for governments to allow that on the basis of the fact that the move took courage and was necessitated by need (I am not talking about mass refugee situations here)? You seem to be suggesting that because the third world is in its current state thanks to its colonized past, the colonizer now owes us and so should allow us to reserve colonize them back. Maybe true but again, I don't think it's the way to go. I don't know what the solutions are either - third world economies seem to be doing a bit of completely legal colonizing in the economic sphere and maybe (fingers crossed) that growth will peter down to the last tier and they won't need to leave their homes.

    In the interim, it might be more practical - since there actually seems to be work for these immigrants, however menial, which the locals do not want to or cannot do - that the governments supervise and insist that they be paid the minimum wage which in most cases they are not. Of course then employers might not be so keen to employ them or they might.

    For example, Hong Kong has a huge community of Filippino maids and the government has very strict rules about how much they should be paid, that they get a day off (to the extent of having entire streets cordoned off for them on Sundays so they can picnic on the road).There is probably still some exploitation but the industry is also very regulated. I don't see any resentment from the locals to these maids eithers - they probably just don't want to do these jobs.

    This is all at the theoretical level. Of course, I think people shouldn't be sniffing at immigrants but after all - it's insecurity (and maybe a sense that the tide is turning).

  5. no no i'm not saying a revenge cycle is ok, but i am saying its a bit much to sneeze at this because its not like this is depleting their lives, after all, it is the jobs they wldnt do. yes more protection wld be nice, but the problem is that the protection is once again at the benevolence of the host nation. i wonder if maybe one shld start an international movement of some sort... yes yes all theory im well aware, but it was an idea that popped into my head is all. i use illegal immigration because thats the world's worst crime today that i can identify, least in 'their' terms!