Racism and Immigration: The figure of the “Good Immigrant”

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By Claudia Zapata Silva, Latin American Cultural Studies Center, Universidad de Chile.

Translated by Anthony Rauld.

“No Human Being is illegal,” is the slogan shared by immigrant rights organizations in Chile, which for more than a decade have been fighting for the passing of a new law that goes beyond the limited ideological framework of the current decree that deals with immigration, and which dates back to 1975.  In accordance with the national security doctrine of the military dictatorship, this decree encapsulates the logic of the internal enemy, identifying all foreigners as a potential threat.  The proposal of these organizations, many of which are grouped together in the Migrant Action Movement (MAM), includes legislation that overcomes this ideological and legal framework—which are obsolete and discriminatory—inspired by the paradigm of human rights, and reflected in the international agreements signed by Chile.

During the month of November, right wing parties—grouped together in the Chile Vamos coalition—presented a legislative proposal that goes in a different direction altogether, proposing instead the option to align themselves with the political initiatives that, globally, are embracing an insensitive and even irrational rejection of immigrants and refugees (the project envisions the expulsion of those who commit infractions with regards to their migratory status or who commit minor crimes, suggesting a nefarious equivalence between criminal acts and immigration status).  More disheartening was the support for the proposed legislation expressed by the two presidential hopefuls of the Chile Vamos coalition, Sebastian Piñera and Manuel José Ossandón—especially the latter, whose virulent declarations linked immigrants to organized crime.  “Chile must be open towards receiving immigrants who contribute to the development of our country, but we should close our borders completely to narcotraffickers, to delinquency, to contraband, to organized crime, and also to illegal immigration,” were his words.

Beyond the obvious political opportunism inspired by Trump’s victory in the United States (and his racist and misogynist formula), it is worrying that such a disturbing statement could define the parameters of the debate.  Although his phrase concerning criminalization did manage to generate controversy, the idea that immigrants should contribute to the development of the country did not, and was accepted without the problematization that is deserved.  This warrants a few questions: what should this contribution consist of and who defines what it should be?  What “development” are we talking about?  What could happen to the human rights of those migrants who don’t live up to these parameters?  Unfortunately, the presidential hopeful was able to consolidate in the public debate—since this is a conservative discourse that already exists—the dangerous stereotype of the “good immigrant,” which is always defined by positions of power, obeys the interests of certain sectors, and is legitimized by ideologies that violate the rights of persons.  In this sense, human rights are on a collision course with the nationalist discourses of old.

Defining people in relation to their utility in a wider system that goes unchallenged is, in itself, an attack on human rights, which we cannot concede as a civil society.  Much less can we accept that those parameters of worth be imposed by a political (and business) sector that hypocritically moves through these discourses, since they obtain economic benefits from the low wages and pension payments of immigrants as they shamelessly criminalize them—while at the same time being questioned for unethical, and even illegal, practices.

The discourse that has been put forward in an extreme political act of irresponsibility is undoubtedly racist and should be denounced as such.  The very category of the immigrant has been racialized in the last decades by linking it to populations with afro descendant and indigenous phenotypic traits, overwhelmingly poor, and coming from Latin American countries like Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.  A lot has been said, and with reason, that the category of foreigner appears to be reserved for those who, having the same economic needs, do not have the cultural and aesthetic traits that we have devalued as part of our own hierarchical racial construction.

The challenge for today is to adjust the discourse so as to avoid falling into the most reactionary traps of all, which is precisely that of promoting the “good immigrant,” the silenced individual that is reduced to their place of work, with no history, who has access to certain rights only if obedient, instead of having their rights respected because they are inherent to their person.

The situations of flagrant racism are not recent, since with respect to the populations that originate in the countries already mentioned, it is a phenomenon that has been around for several decades.  But at the same time, and this is not an afterthought, this racism is an expression of a much older racist structure that is alive and well, since it is part of our own national foundation.  I’m referring to the physical and cultural devaluation of the Mapuche people, to the material dispossession they were subject to, to their forced migration towards urban centers, and to their subsequent exploitation through their confinement to social and labor ghettos.  This demonstrates how the phenomenon of racialized labor has a long history in Chile and that the business sector appears to remember these practices, and above all else, their advantages.

The legislative project in question has been the response of a specific sector of the Chilean political class at a moment in history that reveals to our eyes one of the biggest humanitarian crises in recent memory, marked by the injustice of capital, which roams with few restrictions while people who migrate are persecuted and even murdered.  In Chile we were moved by the heartbreaking image of a dead boy on a beach next to dozens of people who suffered the same fate.  We decried this far away injustice, but at the same time we pretended not to hear, or found trivial, the racist offenses aimed at a soccer player, and the xenophobic slurs in our stadiums.

The debate over immigration and the dangerous path it is taking is not a trivial matter; it is a profound and decisive issue that confronts us with our own history of racism, a history that perhaps we can turn around now, but not tomorrow.  This is why it is worth evoking one of the sharpest minds of the 20th century, the Afro-Caribbean Frantz Fanon, who in 1956 shared these words, which today resound with clarity and warning:

A society is racist or it is not.  There are no degrees of racism.  It is unnecessary to say that such a country is racist, but that there is no lynching, nor extermination camps.  The truth is that all of this, and more, can be seen on the horizon.

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