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Sunday, June 7, 2009

You're just mucking up their farm, see.

The police, four of them, stopped him in his tracks.

A female policewoman pressed her palm against his chest and pushed him sternly but not aggressively, using force but not violence. With her push she moved him about a foot from where he was originally standing; it was not a purposeful gesture, but a symbolic gesture of the power of the state over this African immigrant. It was as if to say, "even though we don't recognize you as legitimate, you will be the subject of the state now at this moment and you will succumb to us."

I sat in a beauty salon waiting for my turn to be serviced. I --legitimized by that small blue card inside my wallet, given to me upon civil marriage, that little plastic covered card that allowed me to find fair employment -- sipped a frappuccino in the cold air conditioned place where people who can afford to go to have unessential things done to their hair, skin and nails. I watched curiously out the window at this unfortunate black man sweating in the hot Andalusian sun trying to keep a smile on his face to hide the worry he felt, the worry evident in his posture.

The police were not brutal in any way to the suspect although they demanded that he hand over his backpack to which he cooperatively complied. The man watched as items, which just minutes prior were his personal belongings, became items on display for the officers and for the women staring out the salon window. He continuously shifted his weight from one leg to another. He appeared to not quite know what to do with his long, dark, lanky arms that he decided to fold and then unfold, possibly discarding the folded arms option so as not to appear defiant in any way.

The policeman in charge of the backpack passed the man's items that had been previously concealed in the privacy of his person to another policeman to hold.

A wrench.

A compact mirror.

A small blue book.

A calendar, crumpled.

A pair of sunglasses, broken.

A bar of soap in a plastic baggie.

Papers, but, alas, not the right kind of papers; not the ones that legitimize a human being. Not the ones that make a person a real subject of the state and therefore easily managed. Without such papers this man was an unreliable subject who the state could not keep track of, who may disappear into thin air at whim and reappear elsewhere, evading official stamps of approval or rejection, necessary paperwork and nosecounts, ducking under the diocese of the nation-state apparatus, sidestepping jurisdiction at the last second.

Without such papers, he didn't fit into the perfectly crafted forest of organisms to be managed.**

This is the real reason why the state will not allow for "illegals". It is not because the state and those who represent it are genuinely concerned about the jobs available to constituents or that they are concerned over the balance sheets of federal and local budgets, and exactly how much illegals subtract from or add to them. It is merely a question of knowledge of subjects and therefore power and veto over them. Those who attempt to float in anarchy above territorial dominion are simply not tolerated.

"Would it not be a great satisfaction to the king to know at a designated moment every year the number of his subjects, in total and by region, with all the resources, wealth & poverty of each place; [the number] of his nobility and ecclesiastics of all kinds, of men of the robe, of Catholics and of those of the other religion, all separated according to the place of their residence? ...[Would it not be] a useful and necessary pleasure for him to be able, in his own office, to review in an hour's time the present and past condition of a great realm of which he is the head, and be able himself to know with certitude in what consists his grandeur, his wealth, and his strengths?"

--Marquis de Vauban, proposing an annual census to Louis XIV in 1686*

This makes sense to me, but I'm amazed by how in tune to this idea this policewoman is with her seemingly insignificant gesture, not only of physical power, but of power on paper, theoretical power, symbolic power. She knows that even one "illegal", whatever his sad story is about his exile from sub-Saharan Africa, is a challenge to state sovereignty itself, a rebellious tree growing in the wrong place in the wrong tree farm, attempting to convert the place into a wild, unmanageable forest.

As a person who has defied borders myself, who has also spent my time in Europe sin papeles, jumping over the hoops of the state while everyone else around me got to jump through them, it is difficult to not feel that people should be able to move freely across borders, (just as products and production lines do) as an obvious human right. The lost creativity, lost input and lost ideas that get hidden along with the illegals with whom they originate, pushed under the dirty rugs in their tiny rooms of their infrahousing and in the shacks outside the city they are forced to inhabit is a devastating loss to the world and especially to the country they have fled to. All of that human potential, so great, becomes suppressed as they stand on street corners selling packets of Kleenex, or selling bootleg CDs while always keeping an eye out for the cops.

I understand their frustration, their desire to go where they need to go for survival, but my situation is not even remotely comparable. I never had to survive. I never had to fumble my way through questions in the airport about what I was doing here. It never even mattered. Nobody suspected that a 21 year old blonde from the first world was an illegal. I remember standing in the line at Customs with my heart racing and sweat dripping down my back, watching officers interrogate brown colored people in line ahead of me for what seemed like ages on why they were attempting to come into Spain. The officers held their passports up to the light to make sure they hadn't been fudged, consulted with other, more senior customs officers on what to do next. But when it was finally my turn they just said "buenos dias" and opened my passport and put a new stamp on it, never even bothering to look through it, where they would see that I was clearly living here in Spain illegally.

Nobody ever pushed me with the palm of their hand in a symbolic gesture of power or demanded that I hand over my belongings, even though I feared at times they would. And while those days are gone now for me, I remember feeling a fraction of their fear and impotence, because I too was a rogue weed growing in the middle of a perfectly aligned forest of trees, always expecting someone to uproot me at anytime and toss me out of the perfect tree farm and throw me back into the one that I corresponded to.

*Quoted in Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott.

**The comparisons in this post to the forest are also based on James C. Scott's book. You can read a short except of the book here where Scott compares the difference between a forest which is wild in its flora, organic inhabitants, and freely growing trees in a balanced ecosystem with a tree farm where the only thing that matters is the knowledge of the forests' equivalency in terms of firewood, paper, or pulp. Any plants or animals that don't fit perfectly into the calculated tree farms are not tolerated.

"Perfect Alignment" by lakewentworth via Flickr.

"Fageda d'en Jorda" by MorBCN via Flickr.

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Ginny June 7, 2009 at 10:23 AM  

Oh god. That poor man, men, everyone who doesn't fit.

Wonderfully written, Blue. This is one of those posts that will stay with me for a while.

Ellie June 7, 2009 at 11:59 AM  

Deja vu. I was the girl from the first world (not blond, but close enough) who was illegal, but no one seemed to care or would think it. My Man, on the other hand, looked like an illegal (ie - mocha latte coloured skin). He was stopped by the cops all the time. When he showed the American passport, the waved him away.

Ironic that the 'father of international law' and one of the first proponents for paso libre was the Spaniard, my hero (for the time), Francisco de Vitoria.

xx, e

A Free Man June 7, 2009 at 9:02 PM  

I'm as liberal as they come, but I've got fairly right wing views on immigration. Having spent four years in Britain and seeing the effect of virtually unregulated immigration on that country I came to realize that it isn't a black and white issue. Western European social democracies simply cannot maintain the services that they offer the public with the rising tide of immigration from the "third world" it isn't working. It's the reason for the rise of center and far right parties in traditionally liberal nations like Sweden. It's complicated and there isn't an easy answer. But the current system is under a major strain right now.

The Unbearable Banishment June 8, 2009 at 5:02 AM  

I agree with A Free Man (as usual). This is a problem of numbers, not race. People have an innate desire to go where the opportunities lie, but each land of opportunity has a saturation point. I’m not sure what the right answer is. I leave that to our competent men and women in office [smirk].

Gypsy June 8, 2009 at 6:49 AM  

I bet it's a problem of numbers AND race.

This was powerful, Blues. Nicely done.

Denise June 8, 2009 at 8:37 AM  

Immigration is such a complex issue. Our economies have been, and are, built on the backs of the developing countries, so it seems emminently hypocritical to exploit their resources but then complain about the added burden to our states of immigration more or less caused by such exploitation. On the other hand, being forced to leave home, family, friends and culture behind in order to survive is not an answer either. Greater minds than mine have addressed the issue without reaching a solution, so I doon't expect to come up with one just now, either. But I do believe in everyone's right to be treated with dignity, and your description of the poor man being obliged to display the pitiful contents of his backpack in public and to order just guts me.

jen June 8, 2009 at 10:14 AM  

the day i start seeing white immigrants (like myself) get harassed with the same regularity as minorities, is the day i'll really believe it's about "immigration" and not heavily coded racism. as i white immigrant, i over hear a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment... because of course, they don't actually mean *me*.

sad day here in the UK, with the anti-immigrant neo-Nazis getting into the Euro. Parliament. xenophobia is on the rise everywhere it seems...

Rassles June 8, 2009 at 2:04 PM  

My roommate is liberal as fuck, and absolutely right wing, conservative, shoot-em-on-the-fence anal about immigration. She's Mexican, grew up in San Diego, and hates the Illegal Border Jumping Sonsabitches. But it makes sense for her, because in San Diego, half the population is comprised of illegal immigrants. She has a completely different view on the situation than I do, for example, since I've always been thousands of miles from the border.

So...I don't know how I feel about it.

Blues June 8, 2009 at 3:21 PM  

Hi all,

Thanks for all your interesting comments. It's funny because I didn't think of this post as being political but now I re-read it and see that it is. I understand the legal and practical reasons why the gates can't just be wide open to let anyone in -- that's not really what I meant to focus on in this post. I meant to focus on looking at the issue on a human to human level contrasted with the totalizing institution of the state, something human-made for humans but that some humans can't work within because they need to cross. When I saw that man outside the salon, none of the politics mattered - it was just a man trying to make it in the world, wherever he could manage to do so and me getting it somehow and feeling part of his struggle in some way. I would have done the same as him, were I strong enough, but you know, I'm probably not.

Growing up in AZ, my grandfather being from Ajo, Arizona right smack on the border, I often think, you know, I could have been born just a few miles over that way, just as easily as I was born over here.

I also feel bad about the human talent that goes to waste when people cross borders hidden under the radar, because hidden with them goes a lot of other brilliant things and it's not something you hear talked about in debates on immigration - the wasted human potential.

I don't suspect it's about race - I know it's about race, based on my own experience. Or what race apparently represents to some (lack of education, lack of skills, lack of language abilities, no money, and if we go for the extremely xenophobic side, nothing to offer society and possibly disease-ridden and/or unclean). People looked at me here and saw someone that must have been here to drop cash and learn about culture - they didn't see a person that would take advantage of free healthcare while not contributing to social security (which I was doing). They didn't see a leech on society. And that, was definitely an issue of race.

On a political side one point is that I understand that medical and schooling services only account for those people "on paper", but on the other hand, I'm sure there are many immigrants who would love to contribute their taxes to those systems, if only they could.

Thanks again for all your points.

Mongoliangirl June 8, 2009 at 3:48 PM  

I'm late to the game, Blues. But want you to know I love this post. Yes, it is a political issue. But also a human one. I have such a hard time with complaining about someone wanting to get away from a horrible situation. Even if it means going to another country.

Anonymous June 8, 2009 at 4:40 PM  

As you know, I'm not the deep thinker of this crowd, but my observation is this: Why does stuff like this always happen when the contrast between you and the person it's happening to is at its greatest possible point? Why do I always see the woman with too many ill-dressed kids buying shopping carts full of mac and cheese when I'm complaining because the store doesn't have the specific Rouquefort I want?

Gwen June 10, 2009 at 3:10 PM  

I completely agree with you that it just feels wrong to have borders, somehow unnatural, even as I understand the need for them, the need for order in an otherwise chaotic universe. Sometimes I get this overwhelming desire to flee, discover other people and places. How would they be different? How would they be the same? I've lived in the same place my whole life. But reading your blog, and that of other expatriates or well-travelled folk (like Here in Franklin) I get a taste of what it would be like to be in other places. I really feel for that man. Truth be told, there are days when I feel guilty about the color of my skin and how my paleness opens doors for me that aren't as easily opened to others.

Te June 17, 2009 at 11:39 AM  

This literally brought a tear to my eye, and I am still in the locutorio. They´re going to think I am so strange, first the clash and then tears..

I understand the feeling of being powerless, in another context, but I get it. Time after time I hear white illegals say nochalantly that Spanish laws are more of a guideline, perhaps they would feel differently about the laws they are beaking if they were another skin colour.

However, Spain is in desperate need of native and trained English teachers and the message I have picked up is that if you´re improving the level of English literacy and not taking jobs from Spanish people, go for gold.

I can´t remember where this comment was going...

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