On The Illusion of Security

From the July-August 2013 PNL #826

by Aly Wane

As I write this, it will have been a little over a year since I came out to my beloved community of Syracuse as an undocumented immigrant. I can honestly say that this was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Something shifted in me after that “coming out event.”  Paradoxically, I have been less afraid in the past year than I had been in a very long time. Before I made the decision to “come out,” I agonized about waiting until the right time to do it, hoping that there would be a perfectly “safe” moment to do so. There wasn’t. In the end: I had to take a leap of faith.

This type of faith is what we often lack in ourselves and in others. Internalized oppression is defined as the manner in which members of an oppressed group come to internalize the oppressive attitudes of others toward themselves and those like them. One of the things that was the hardest about living in the shadows was that I had come to believe the messages put out by society about undocumented people. Despite all my outward claims that I felt valuable, the truth is that I believed that there was something “criminal” about my very existence, that I needed to tiptoe through life, and that I should be grateful for simply breathing the air in this country and for not being deported.  Fear was at the very heart of my existence because I had internalized the idea of my “criminal existence.” And even as an undocumented person, I bought the lie sold by this government that people in its detention centers had committed a “crime.” It wasn’t until I got to work on the cases of undocumented people that I was confronted with the reality that ICE and Border Patrol are imprisoning and deporting people who have no criminal records, whose only “crime” is to work in order to feed their families. Paradoxically, witnessing the fear of many of these families helped me get in touch with mine, and helped me realize that I needed to own it and try to act despite it.

The current face of Immigration Reform: more drones at the border.
Image: Yonatan Frimer. Source: Teamofmonkeys.com

So many of our struggles for social justice involve confronting fear. The thing that is so harmful about the current debate on immigration reform is that it is a fear-based conversation. As I’ve been listening to Congress debate this increasingly punitive immigration bill, a bill which might do more harm than good, I’ve realized that the real subject of the conversation is not undocumented people. The conversation is a fear-based debate about “border security.” The framing is that undocumented people like myself are 11 million potential criminals/terrorists who should pay a dear price for violating the law. The humanitarian crisis of migration is secondary to concerns of national security. Such an atmosphere can only create bad legislation. The problem with this framing is that it sets up a problem that is impossible to solve because of an inconvenient, politically uncomfortable truth: there is no such thing as “absolute security.” The problem of migration is one of economic need. Study after study has shown that the main driver of so-called “illegal immigration” is economic despair, not criminality. One of the tragic results of border militarization has been that, despite the fact that migration from the South has decreased, the number of border deaths has mushroomed because militarization has only resulted in desperate migrants seeking even more desperate routes into the country. The current state of the new immigration bill is that it will increase the level of border militarization to an absurd level, absolutely guaranteeing future deaths of migrants.

This type of almost childish belief striving for “absolute security” is one of the things that ties the migrants’ rights struggle to antiwar activism. The entire project of the War on Terror is based on the utopian idea of absolute security, of turning this nation into “Fortress USA.” After 9/11, the United States became obsessed with the idea of re-entering an Eden it had never lived in. It projected enemies both within and without. In the pursuit of absolute security, the US curtailed the civil liberties of its own people, launched multiple pre-emptive wars, demonized Muslims and immigrants (both legal and undocumented), and continued to feed its prison industrial complex. We are now launching murderous drones that kill more innocent people than actual “targets,” and all those bodies are sacrifices at the altar of “Security.”

The Truth is, this country will never find peace until it starts creating policies that aren’t rooted in militarism, fear, division and xenophobia. Until it finds true faith, one rooted in a realistic assessment of its own vulnerability, it will never find true peace.

Aly is an undocumented activist and a member of the Editorial Committee of the Peace Newsletter.