Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Utah Illegal Immigrant List -- Echoes of 1919

Vigilantism sometimes can arrive via a keyboard. A group in Utah called the Concerned Citizens of the United States sent a list of 1,300 names of suspected illegal immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices and to Salt Lake City newspapers and TV stations. It demanded that the persons on the list be deported immediately. Because the list also included personal information like addresses, phone numbers, and women's pregnancies media outlets have refused the group's request to publish the list.

Concerned Citizens of the United States has offered little to identify itself beyond the anonymous cover letter that accompanied the list. In the letter, its members assert that they not a militia, a cult, or a terrorist organization. "We are not violent nor do we support violence. We love our country. We love our state. We love our government. We love our Constitution." They decry, meanwhile, the "degradation of our country and our state caused in part by the continuing presence of illegal aliens who are allowed to stay in our country."

Part of the degradation Concerned Citizens of the United States cites is the perceived rise in crime, alcoholism, and drug abuse for which it holds illegal immigrants responsible. More forcefully, though, it decries the fact that illegal immigrants have come exclusively to "take advantage of our system" and sop up welfare benefits, free public education, and of course jobs.

In so doing, Concerned Citizens demonstrates the vigilante imagination. With the state unwilling or incapable to enforce law, they have taken it upon themselves to do so. They envision themselves as the bulwarks of law and order. Meanwhile, their targets become something other than desperate people taking a risk for a better life: rather they are a criminal conspiracy made up entirely of individuals intent on gaming the system. Everyone on the list is guilty not only of an illegal border crossing but a particular frame of mind. And that frame of mind makes them unassimilable.

Similar lists were complied after World War I of "alien slackers," or those immigrants who had supposedly took unfair advantage American conscription and naturalization laws to avoid military service. Alien slackers drew the ire of similar vigilante groups because they, too, had gamed the system -- filing naturalization papers in order to remain in the country to work but not filing for the draft to remain on the job. Self-appointed native-born patriots like the American Legion collected lists of alien slackers and sent them to local newspapers, so that employers would feel compelled to promptly fire the men named. In the economic downturn that followed World War I, the jobs that alien slackers supposedly occupied were precious. Unlike today, these lists were published, either by newspapers or by organizations themselves.

Just as Concerned Citizens of the United States didn't feel compelled to compile a list of native-born citizens of Utah guilty of tax evasion, those publicizing alien slackers did not reveal the names of American-born draft dodgers (who, some historians now estimate, represented about one in ten eligible men). And, of course, the accuracy of either list is suspect.
I raise this historical parallel not simply to say "same as it ever was," but because it's striking how consistent the vigilante imagination remains, even after vigilantism itself has fallen well out of favor. This narrative that claims that "we" the pure must defend a weak or incompetent state from "them," the inherently criminal is among the most insidious ideas in American political culture. It is so not simply because it calls for the deportation of those guilty of breaking American immigration law (and surely the list contains at least some of those), but because it destroys a capacity to perceive immigration through the context and contingencies of millions of individual lives. 

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