For many in the U.S., this is a day of demonstrations for immigrants’ rights. For me, it is the culmination of a long trip that began two months ago in Guatemala, and—after a difficult journey that included a near-death experience at the hands of smugglers—will end today with a speech at Georgetown University. The pro-immigrant movement is bigger than amnesty, workers’ rights, and equal access to education; this movement is an declaration of the universal human value. In the words of popular Guatemalan singer, Ricardo Arjona, it is an affirmation of the “universal visa” granted and taken away upon birth and death by “the consulate of the sky.”
Past social movements have attacked the inequalities associated with being born of a different skin color, of a different gender, of a different economic class but never of having a different citizenship. I was born with the privileges of being white, male, and well-off, but the greatest privilege bestowed on me at birth was my U.S. citizenship. Today, a U.S. citizen, ceteris paribus, is worth more than any other citizen on this earth.
The easiest way to learn this is to posses both U.S. and Guatemalan passports. My U.S. passport gives me the freedom to travel the entire world with ease, while my Guatemalan passport limits me to Central America. My U.S. passport stopped the shoves of Mexican officials on my trip, and my U.S. passport could have saved me from having my money taken by smugglers. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that the Guatemalan government cares more about my safety and well-being as a U.S. citizen than as a Guatemalan citizen. These inequalities are not only accepted, they are actively encouraged by people of almost every political stripe in the U.S.
If two citizens, one from the U.S. and one from any other country, were suffering from the same affliction, most people in the U.S. would see no problem with helping the U.S. citizen first. This reaction comes from the stereotypical “American” practicing his own brand of patriotism but is also present in the most progressive circles. This isolationist sentiment fails to recognize that—in this age of globalization—countries need to look beyond their borders to solve problems within their borders. With a global economy it is impossible to isolate the U.S. in a utopian bubble of prosperity, and the mass migration we see today is the best proof of that point.
But another, more insidious, argument prevalent at Harvard is that global challenges are too big and complex to tackle, and that conflicts closer to home have to be fixed first. We have to focus on the most immediate and tangible issues, people say, if a movement is to be successful. The dilemma is that there are always going to be local problems to solve, and therefore, the afflictions of people far away (who need help the most) always go unaddressed. These are sad times if the challenges facing the globe are too difficult for students at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Furthermore, the inherent inequality of national citizenship weakens the pro-immigrant movement, because it forces many leaders into debating within parameters that radically limit potential gains. Undocumented workers are portrayed in ways that indicate their “American” values and are forced to drop their own flags for that of an adopted patria. “America” is depicted as a dreamland, practically paved with gold, while the average undocumented immigrants slave away, heartbroken after separation from their family and surroundings. Even the eyes of the most prosperous immigrants light up at the mention of their homeland, which has been left behind as they stay in the U.S. for the comforts they have found and the opportunities provided for their children.
Today, people are not marching against a bill that criminalizes immigrants. People are not demonstrating for workers’ rights, or equal education, or even amnesty. They are fighting for universal human dignity, the fundamental worth of all humans, regardless of national citizenship. That is a cause greater than any organization can hope to present in bullet points.
On the first of May, I urge students to step outside and march for this great cause, but our future work to end global suffering is even more important. After all, the most efficient way to keep immigrants from invading a country is to give them a reason to stay in the areas from which they come. Tomorrow, I return to the rural south pacific coast of Guatemala to do just that for a family, and I hope that others will do likewise.
Kyle A. de Beausset ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a environmental science and public policy concentrator in Leverett House. He runs the “Immigration Orange” blog at http://immigration.campustap.com.