Passports and Pink Slips

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

-- "Deportee," Woody Guthrie

In January 1948, a charter plane carrying 28 Mexican farm workers from Oakland to the El Centro, CA, Deportation Center crashed in Los Gatos; all of the farm workers perished in the accident. Most likely, at least some of those who died onboard the airplane planned to take advantage of a provision in the 1947 labor agreement between the US and Mexico, which allowed undocumented immigrants to gain documented status as temporary contract laborers (called "braceros") if they crossed back to the Mexican side of the border. The bracero program, the precursor to contemporary H-class visas, was a program for US agriculturalists to recruit workers from Mexico, ultimately allowing for 4.5 million Mexican nationals to legally contract for temporary work in the US between 1942 and 1964.

After reading reports of the crash in Los Gatos, US songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote his poem "Deportee." The poem was later set to music to become a classic song of the US labor movement. In the chorus, Guthrie addresses farm working immigrants who are deported at the end of the harvest: "You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane/ All they will call you will be 'deportees'". After a different set of plane crashes on September 11, 2001, immigrants have been detained and deported. They are known as "detainees", "deportees", or sometimes, "terrorists," rather than by their names. Guthrie gave names to those who died: "Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita/ Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria". More recently, at demonstrations and actions of solidarity and resistance, activists have responded in a similar manner by handing out badges with the names, ages and countries of origin of immigrants missing and detained since the declaration of the "War on Terrorism."

The 9/11 airplane hijackings and crashes were cast as an "Attack on America," but many of the domestic victims of the attacks, and the reactions to the attacks, have been immigrants, people who lack many of the rights of US citizens. Immigrants are a class separated from "America" by legal status, especially in relation to access to jobs, benefits, and political participation. The US engineered "War on Terrorism" has in many ways been a war on immigrants, especially those from Arab or Muslim backgrounds. Although many of the recent turns in public understandings of race and immigration -- such as increased support for racial profiling of Arabs -- can be explained as fallout from the "War on Terrorism," other factors such as the recessionary downturn in the economy since spring 2001 have also influenced these shifts. The position of immigrants of color in US society during this war should not be thought of in isolation from their position during the current economic recession.

Immigrants in the US are useful to employers as labor surplus, although employers justify recruiting immigrants on the basis of a labor shortage. This idea of a shortage is often enabled by excluding citizen workers from jobs through either lack of training, as in the digital divide that undercuts Latina/o and African American access to hi-tech jobs, or through suppressed wages, as in service sector jobs that pay far below a living wage. In both of these examples, the US government is complicit in excluding specific communities from certain types of jobs, and in undercutting wages for other jobs below subsistence levels. The digital divide arose and is reproduced in the context of resegregation of US public schools and universities and cuts in education spending for institutions serving youth of color. Service sector wage cuts are enabled to a large degree by prison and workfare labor. The specific types and terms of work laid out by immigration policy further enable employers to undercut wages and defuse workers' resistance by hiring immigrants who hold temporary work visas or have no documentation.

In a time of recession, with large-scale layoffs, the work of constructing a labor shortage becomes difficult for employers. In addition, unions have less leveraging power over bosses in a recession, and citizens' wages drop in the context of market contraction. This renders immigrants unnecessary and unwanted from an employers' point of view. Besides green card holders and citizens, workers in the US are ineligible for unemployment benefits. Some, like H-class immigrants, are ineligible to remain in the US when unemployed. Immigrants' contributions to US society are framed almost exclusively in terms of their labor. During a boom period, it's all good. Corporate leaders praise the hard work of immigrants in increasing US productivity; union leaders extol the role of immigrants as a base for recharged workers' movements; liberal writers wax poetic about the cultural work of immigrants and their enactments of the American Dream (reframing immigrants as quintessentially "American" even as their access to "American-ness," paradoxically, is predicated on their being non-American). During a bust period, though, immigrants become scapegoats, and the arguments of anti-immigration extremists resonate with wider sections of society.

The threat of deportation looms as a recapitulation, with a difference, of the rupture of migration. Pink slips are among the causes for such a recapitulation. They can force a rupture that is swift and sudden, even among groups of immigrants who are often thought of as largely immune from the pressures of labor exploitation. In August 2001, I heard stories of luxury cars left running at the departure curbs of airport terminals -- cars left behind by IT consultants with H-1B visas who were laid off from work, hurried home to pack their luggage, and left the country immediately; leaving behind everything they could not carry. These stories recapitulate, with a difference, the experiences of Japanese Americans in the early 1940s, abruptly forced to leave behind their property and earnings as they were rounded up and herded into concentration camps.

Passports and visas are two of the primary forms of state control and management of the immigrant labor force. The differences between various types of passports and visa statuses facilitate different levels of access to economic mobility for immigrants: access to benefits, education, and jobs. This difference is also manifest in levels of state surveillance, as the wave of detentions since 9/11 demonstrates. When viewed in conjunction with economic and cultural processes that connect the US with those underdeveloped countries which send immigrants here, passports and visas are documents that enable racialized economic control on both the domestic and imperial levels.

The passport, a type of document used to control labor globally in a way which few other documents can, exercises its control in one direction. Ultimately it is the state that conveys its power through passports. Can the passport holder make any legitimate claims or demands in relation to the state? Certainly possession of this document can increase the holder's opportunity for institutional access and involvement in very specific ways in terms of class position in society, but could it ever serve such a purpose when it comes to the holder's racial position? What did British passports mean for Indians who were excluded from entering Great Britain after their expulsion from Uganda? If Amadou Diallo was pulling a passport out of his pocket, would it have made a difference?

The experience of detainment and control during recession and wartime is linked to race. Immigrants of color are distanced from participation in the US nation state through their immigration status and their status as nonwhites. During World War II, Japanese Americans (immigrants and citizens alike) were dispossessed of their property and interned in concentration camps en masse, while German and Italian immigrants (not citizens) were also interned, but on an individual basis. There was no effort to round up Germans and Italians; they were not even interviewed by government agents. Unlike Japanese Americans, German and Italian Americans could be incorporated into whiteness, and so escaped the fate of mass incarceration. In the "War on Terrorism," a similar logic operates in the profiling and detention of Arab and Muslim immigrants while right-wing and Christian fundamentalist groups linked to anthrax attacks and threats, such as the Army of God, are not being profiled or declared terrorist organizations, nor are their members being detained.

Since 9/11, the majority of detainees in the "War on Terrorism" have been held on immigration charges -- often minor violations of a legal, bureaucratic system ridden with contradictions and technicalities. As of November, 2001, of the 1,200 people arrested as part of the nationwide search for terrorists, approximately 600 remained in custody. Five-hundred and forty-eight, all unnamed, were being held on terrorist charges, and only a dozen were suspected of having terrorist ties. The rest were being held on federal charges completely unrelated to terrorism. Since November, the number of people being held in detention has continued to increase past 1,500, even while detainees are being deported -- overwhelmingly on the basis of immigration violations. These detentions and deportations are surely manifestations of racism and anti-Islam hysteria, but they are also actions of labor control, especially in a time of recession. Those being detained and deported are predominantly Muslims, predominantly Arabs and South Asians, but they are also immigrant workers, living in a recession.

The objectives and mission of the "War on Terrorism" are vaguely defined. The US government has never defined "terrorism" in strict limits, and the terms of victory have likewise not been made clear. This sets up a situation in which the pretext of a "War on Terrorism" can be used indefinitely to wage war on domestic and international communities, much like the "War on Drugs." Arab and Muslim immigrants -- Arabs and Muslims in the world at large -- remain particularly vulnerable populations within this context. By detaining immigrants on the grounds of immigration violations as part of this war, the US government sets the precedent to link immigration violation and terrorism. To extend the logic to its extremes, which seems to be a Bush II administration modus operandi, it might not be hard to imagine undocumented farm workers rounded up at the end of harvest and detained or deported as "terrorists." In 2002, Woody Guthrie's "Deportees" might instead be called "Terrorists".

In 1998, New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir discharged a massive police presence to disrupt a taxi drivers' protest on the streets of Manhattan. Safir justified his actions by saying, "It's no different than if we discovered a terrorist threat and we moved to stop the terrorists from carrying out their act." This language was echoed by comments and epithets, such as "taxi terrorists," from Mayor Giuliani, as well as subordinate officials in City Hall and the Police Department. Hundreds of police used tow trucks and plastic handcuffs to stop cabs from gathering at the staging area of the protest, and barred cabs not carrying a fare in Brooklyn and Queens from entering Manhattan for most of the morning. Police also posted "no-parking" signs around the staging area the night before the protest. Giuliani bragged about NYPD's efforts, declaring, "...we broke their strike, destroyed it, really." City Hall justified its actions, partly, on the basis of police "intelligence" that showed that taxi drivers were planning to shut down all traffic in the city, which Guiliani likened to a terrorist threat.

While it is not unique in US history for government agencies to opportunistically adapt laws and use force towards breaking strikes, the conflation of workers on strike with "terrorists" took on a particular tone in the context of the taxi industry, whose workforce is largely immigrant, with a visible presence of Muslims and Arabs. The ways in which officials marshaled the resources of the NYPD and New York Municipal Government to attack a taxi drivers' protest were informed by racism and anti-Islam hysteria, as well as anti-immigrant and anti-worker sentiment.

There is no song yet written for the targets of the "War on Terrorism." Arab and Muslim immigrants are forced to live under the intense pressures of recession and the war, which place them under heightened scrutiny from every direction. They face threats of future layoffs and further erosion of civil liberties (not to mention hate attacks). On the combined basis of their racial background and immigration status, Arab and Muslim immigrants are portrayed as an "outside" threat to the US nation, an image linked to the historical reception of Asians and Latinos in the US as invading, alien hordes. The "War on Terrorism" and the "Immigrant Invasion" are linked. These processes work partly to consolidate "Americanness" by naming those outside of the nation, but they also serve to regulate the labor supply during periods of economic growth and recession.


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