DANIEL OLIVAS: Your Ph.D. from Berkeley is in city and regional planning yet your first book focuses squarely on the political debate over our country’s approach to immigration reform and undocumented immigrants. What led you in this direction?
ALVARO HUERTA: Upon entering UC Berkeley as a doctoral student, I initially intended to study U.S. urban history, labor and social movements. It was not my intention to study and write about the politics of immigration, even though it’s intertwined with the modern urban planning profession due to the mass influx of European immigration to the U.S. during the second part of the 19th Century to the early 20th Century, where many planning laws, regulations and housing codes arose due urban congestion and the deplorable living conditions for the newcomers at the time.
That said, given the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric and laws in Arizona (and beyond) during the last decade, where we’ve been operating under a post-9/11 state of fear and hate for “the Other,” I felt morally compelled to speak out and write about this important issue, especially as a son of Mexican immigrants and member of the educated class in this country. More specifically, during the past several years, while completing my dissertation, I set aside time and energy to intellectually challenge those who peddle lies, fear and hate in this country for their own self-interest. For example, while then presidential candidate Mitt Romney argued for Latina/o immigrants to “self-deport” as his so-called immigration policy, simultaneously, he hired Latino immigrant gardeners to maintain his lawn, where some of them lacked legal status in this country. While I’m sure Romney, an educated man, knows that Latina/o immigrants mostly represent honest, hardworking individuals, his primary intent was to appease the ultra-conservatives and Tea Party members for their support and votes.
DO: In the essay, “I Ain’t No Anchor Baby,” you declare: “Republican leaders are consciously instilling fear in the American public by scapegoating Latinos (both documented and undocumented) in this country.” And in other essays, you note that such scapegoating resulted (at least, in part) to President Obama racking up a huge margin with Latino voters that sealed his reelection victory. Despite some initial post-election breast beating by Republican leaders, it looks like immigration reform may die in the Republican controlled House. Are we watching a slow motion suicide, at least at the national level, of the GOP?
AH: Republican leaders have a long tradition of xenophobia against Latinas/os, especially to appeal to white, working-class voters. For example, if white workers feel anxiety and insecurities about their job security and economic outlook, it’s politically convenient for Republican leaders and other conservatives to seek a scapegoat, such as Latina/o immigrants, as the source of the problem. That is, instead of white voters focusing their anxiety and insecurities against their employers or elected officials, those in power point to the Mexican woman working at a garment factory or Latino day laborer for depreciating wages and “taking away jobs from Americans.” Ironically, American workers have created what scholars refer to as “immigrant jobs” since many American workers reject jobs associated with extremely low-wage, low-status and deplorable employment conditions, such as carwash workers, garment workers and farmworkers.
President Obama’s re-election only perpetuated the Republican xenophobia towards Latinas/os. Given that Obama received an estimated 75% of the Latina/o vote, like the African American vote, many Republican leaders have discarded the Latina/o vote, arguing it’s futile given the strong voting results for the Democratic Party. Let’s take the case of the recent 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, where Obama, former President Clinton and many other Democratic leaders commemorated this important civil rights event, where not one Republican leader spoke. In short, if Republican leaders continue to live in denial about the dramatic demographic changes taking place in this country with over 50 million Latinas/os (and counting), the “Grand Old Party” will soon become the “Grand Obsolete Party.”
DO: You suggest that the humane thing for President Obama to do is to grant amnesty to the vast majority of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now living and working in this country (with the exception of those who have committed serious crimes). While you give reasons why this makes sense both economically and on a humanistic level (which, I might add, is assisted by illustrating your new book with evocative images by award-winning photographer Antonio Turok), the odds of this happening are basically nil. Why do you offer this and other provocative solutions when politicians and many voters would never even consider following such advice?
AH: As a social scientist and public intellectual concerned with the plight of los de abajo (those on the bottom), I strongly believe that we need to think big and bold. Like the distinguished linguist from UC Berkeley, Professor George Lackoff, I don’t accept the “frames” provided to us by Republican leaders and other conservatives in this country. According to Lackoff in his book, Don’t Think Like an Elephant, frames “are mental structures that shape the way see the world.” Moreover, frames or framing is not just about “getting language that fits your worldview.” It’s primarily about ideas, Lackoff writes, “and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.”
Let’s take, for example, some of the pejorative terms associated with undocumented immigrants in this country, such as “anchor babies,” “illegal aliens,” “social burdens,” “parasites,” and “job takers.” Perpetuated by both Republicans and Democrats, these terms conjure ideas and imagery of the U.S. and its people being under threat by external invaders who arrive to this country “illegally” to drain “our” resources, representing what economists refer to as free riders — when you consume more than you take — that will destroy the so-called “American way of life.” These are not just elected officials and conservative, talk-show hosts on cable parroting these dehumanizing ideas, but also scholars from prestigious universities like Harvard, such as the case of the late political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington with his racist article, “The Hispanic Challenge.”
As part of my efforts to re-frame the argument of immigration from a negative story to a positive narrative, I wrote this book, which represents a compilation of non-fiction essays. Here, I argue that Obama should decree amnesty for all undocumented immigrants (with some exceptions). While I believe Obama to be a centrist, like Clinton, and while this proposal may not be within the powers of the White House, throughout history, we have learned the simple premise of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” For instance, if George W. Bush and his administration found a way to “legalize” torture (e.g., water-boarding) and invade Iraq without proof of weapons of mass destruction, then I’m sure Obama, a former constitutional law professor, can find a way of creating a safe haven for over 11 million immigrants who live in America’s shadows. Fortunately, I am not alone in this ambitious endeavor. At UC Berkeley, the urban scholar and theorist, Professor Michael Dear, calls for the removal of the U.S.-Mexico border in his critically acclaimed book, Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the U.S.-Mexico Divide.
Finally, I want to acknowledge my collaborators on this book. First, as one of the most distinguished historians in this country, Professor Juan Gómez-Quiñones of UCLA, provides and excellent foreword. He is not only a brilliant scholar with many books to his name, including the current book, Indigenous Quotient/Stalking Words: American Indian Heritage as Future, he’s also an excellent writer with a long history of social activism. In addition, this book wouldn’t be complete without the amazing photographs of Mexican immigrants by Antonio Turock. Complementing my research and writings, the foreword and photographs depict Latina/o immigrants in this country with a deep sense of dignity and respect for those who care for our children and elderly, mow our lawns and clean our homes, pick our organic grapes and serve our food.
In short, my humble aim for this book is to force people to question their preconceived notions of Latina/o immigrants and to view them not as “the Other,” but as one of us.