Thursday, July 29, 2010

Immigration in the United States: The Nature of the "National Interest"

I was considering some of the rhetoric I have been hearing on the issue of immigration. A few things came to mind the other day....

There is currently a tendency to make the nation appear to be natural or organic through the racialization of the national interest. By this I mean that the manner by which states create a people who are governed and in whose name the state governs, and whose interests it is said to represent. The people who created the state become the people whose existence as a nation legitimizes the power of the state. The national interests are those of both this people and the state, and the naturalness of the people imparts to the state its own basis in the nature of that newly constituted people.

Now that might be a long way of saying in the Weberian sense that the state creates its own legitimacy through the legitimate and legitimizing monopoly on force. There is much that underlies this state power which has, of course, a necessary relation to a territory or place, or now in America, a homeland. If we were to examine this from another direction, we might also trace out the ways in which race is itself a category used in scientific classifications of human variety; a category that has always been associated with the disciplines that serve the state by accumulating knowledge about the nature of the people. These classifications, and not citizenship, are at the heart of the anti-immigrant rhetoric just as they were in the early 1900s.

Why do we keep returning to these questions? Because the attempt to rethink the state always begins with the state as another way of saying “the nation” or “the people”. So long as human relationships and human variety are considered from within the context of the nation-state, the nature of the people will remain racialized.

Now I would propose that struggles around immigration are presented in this this racialized and naturalized setting of national interests, for within the ideology of national interests also lies the ideology of national threats. So it is no accident that the terror of terrorism is often associated with the fear of immigrants, of threats to national identity under the weight of migrant workers and terrorists that enter the nation through the same routes and who also threaten to erase “who we are”, except by violence and not demographics. The largest attack in the United States prior to 9-11 also unleashed widespread harassment and violence against Moslems and those thought to be Moslem, at least until Timithy McVeigh was charged with the crime. Since the nation is always naturalized through race, the threats it confronts are always racialized threats by natural enemies who therefore can not simply be reasoned with. In the case of immigrants the threat can only controlled or expelled, and in the case of terrorists, it can only be met and defeated in “a war without end.” On the side of this difference is the immigrant as an instrument of production-- the most degraded and exploited of workers, and on the other side there is the terrorist who “hates us for who we are”. Both are seen as welling to do anything, though one dies in the desert while journeying toward the hope of a livelihood and the other blows him/herself up hoping to journey to a paradise. While both can not help but be disappointed by the outcome, they can not and should not be otherwise compared.

The opponents of immigration to the United States oppose it because they see the nation as natural, as having a people that are organic to it, and they see themselves as potentially having a state that can protect them and enforce a peculiar view of the nature of the people. They see both the immigrant worker and the terrorist as degenerates who either unconsciously or consciously will cause a general degeneration of the “body politic” of the nation.
So when you hear it said that the immigration debate has nothing to do with race, don’t believe it. It has to do with the scientific ideology of race because the nation-state has always been associated with at the very least “a people” if not a race.