Written by Jessica Silbey
Although clearly the rash of anti-immigrant laws have material effects on people living in the states in which these laws are being enforced, I am obsessed with the hateful symbolism of the laws more than the anxiety and fear of incarceration and deportation the laws engender.
Here in Massachusetts, the state senate just passed a bill that purports to make it even harder for illegal immigrants to be employed or receive any state benefits. Most commentators agree that the law is nothing new — illegal immigrants are not eligible for state benefits — but the symbolic add-ons to this law (e.g, a hot-line for anonymous tips to turn in illegal immigrants holding jobs and criminalizing higher education funding for illegal immigrants) are despicable. The message sent by laws like this (and those that are the subject of on-going criticism in Arizona) are of exclusion and greed.
This is “our” country, the laws say, and “you” are not welcome, not welcome to make a better life for you and your family, not welcome to traverse the streets without fear of being deported. So short-sighted. Since when did this country not need the new minds, new bodies, new energy of world travelers courageous enough to leave their home and make a new one? Since when did we forget that we are all of us immigrants, some lucky enough to have been sponsored by previous ones, some so brave to come without connections and make their way. “Illegal” is a shifting term. What is today illegal was yesterday not. Lest we forget and brand all who are new and undocumented unwanted, and grace only those very few who are invited with the papers that say “I belong,” we will shrivel as a nation, become dry, pastey and bland. I understand these are lean times, money is tight. But when that happens, in small families and big government, we don’t skimp on the essentials and we conserve our energy for the really necessary things. Passing laws that send hateful messages like this one in Massachusetts, and that fail to materially alter the status quo for the better, are a waste of time and an embarrassment.