Why I stand with immigrants

  • by Bruce Mirken
  • Wednesday June 7, 2017
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Bruce Mirken, left, stands with Conrad Contreras.
Bruce Mirken, left, stands with Conrad Contreras.

Her name is Maria Contreras. She's a U.S. citizen, having emigrated legally from the Philippines over a decade ago.

In February, on the way home from visiting friends in Mexico, she was detained and questioned at the airport for some two hours – for no apparent reason other than having brown skin and a name that sounds Hispanic. Though she was eventually allowed to go home, Contreras described it as one of the most humiliating experiences she's ever had.

I heard about this because I work with her son, Conrad Contreras, on the communications team at the Greenlining Institute in Oakland, where he is our resident whiz on all things digital. Like most of the increasing abuse being heaped on immigrants, documented and otherwise, Maria Contreras' story never made the news. But episodes like this are being repeated every day.

As LGBTQ Americans, we must raise our voices against the outrages being perpetrated by our government against immigrants. People who come to America to live, work, raise families, and simply try to have a better life than seemed possible in their home countries – like my grandparents over a century ago – have built this country and always will.

For those of you thinking, "But 'illegal immigrants' broke the law!" (Are you out there, Gays for Trump?), a bit of perspective:

First, the United States of America was founded by immigrants who came here without permission. True, Native American tribes didn't have formal immigration laws, but they had no idea they would need them. And while the Wampanoag tribe was not initially hostile to the newcomers at Plymouth Rock, it never even occurred to the white settlers to ask the native peoples for permission – not then, and not when they proceeded to steal the rest of the continent from them over the next two and a half centuries.

For the first century of its existence – the period when the U.S. went from being a scraggly little collection of colonies to a continent-straddling powerhouse – our country had essentially no limits on immigration. And our first significant immigration restriction, passed in 1882, was explicitly racist: the Chinese Exclusion Act, which opened with, "Whereas in the opinion of the government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof ..."

Not until 1917 did we start imposing broader immigration limits based on nationality, an effort that reached full flower in the 1920s. Those laws, too, were powered by bigotry: Supposedly "objective" intelligence tests in the early 20th century produced "scientific" results that mirrored society's prejudices, with light-skinned northern Europeans shown to be most intelligent, eastern and southern Europeans trailing, and African-Americans at the very bottom. One study labeled 82 percent of Russian immigrants (for the record, that would include my grandparents on my father's side) as "morons," with Hungarians, Italians, and Jews also ranking high on the moron scale. At the time, Princeton University researcher Carl C. Brigham wrote confidently, "The intellectual superiority of our Nordic group over the Alpine, Mediterranean, and Negro groups has been demonstrated."

That was preposterous, of course, and later scholars demolished what we now see as laughably obvious cultural bias in those tests. Our immigration laws were built on a foundation of prejudice.

While we're on the subject of lawbreaking, we might also remember that LGBTQ Americans have been criminals for most of this country's existence. "Sodomy" was a felony in every state until 1961. California's sodomy law lasted until 1975 and such laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, a decision the court didn't reverse until 2003. Other common state and local laws made it illegal to wear clothing not conforming to one's biological gender or even to operate a business where homosexuals gathered.

These laws, we should note, were all criminal statutes. Laws forbidding unauthorized immigration are civil laws – the legal equivalent of a traffic ticket. So let's not get all high and mighty over lawbreaking.

In plain truth, majorities have always used laws to oppress and marginalize unpopular minorities. In the recent past that meant us. Today it's unauthorized immigrants and Muslims, but in truth, none of us can be free until we're all free. As the late Nelson Mandela put it, "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

Now more than ever we must live up to the implicit challenge in Mandela's words, to live in ways that enhance not just our own freedoms, but the freedoms of those all around us – especially the unpopular and marginalized. I'm proud to say that at the Greenlining Institute we're doing as much as we can on that front, including assembling a weekly roundup of actions, events, and resources called the #ResistReport that we publish on our blog every Thursday.

Please join us.


Bruce Mirken is media relations director at the Greenlining Institute, a policy, research, organizing, and leadership development organization working for racial and economic justice. For information, visit www.greenlining.org.