One of today’s headlines: “513 people found in 2 trucks headed to U.S.” Advanced x-ray technology allowed Mexican authorities in the southern state of Chiapas to detect and stop two truckloads of illegal immigrants headed toward the U.S. The image released, intended to showcase the high-tech savvy behind this “great victory” of law enforcement, is quite striking. The shadowy silhouettes of these men and women crammed into shipping trailers bears an uncanny resemblance to another infamous image: the Atlantic slave ship of bygone centuries.
The cotton of the past gives way to the basic foodstuffs of the present. You, the everyday consumer of boneless, skinless chicken breasts! Who do you think removed the bones and the skin? You, the self-righteous connoisseur of fresh organic tomatoes! In lieu of pesticides, who do you think expended their labor to keep away the insects and weeds? Where do these heroes of discounted meats and overpriced vegetables come from? How did they get to California? Why did they come in the first place? Things were bad in El Salvador, no doubt. But the Latin American push accounts for only half of the equation, and the basic laws of physics indicate that there had to have been an equal and opposite reaction: the North American pull. Without their labor, what good is your iPad?
To be sure, slavery has ended. Nobody forced these men and women into these trucks, and, in fact, they willingly paid $7,000 each for their Passage, thereby ensuring that their servitude would not be “indentured” in the strictest sense. Also, there is nothing necessarily “Latin American” about today’s headline: Many of those found today in Mexico were from Asia. The West African coast of 1776 has become the Global Village of 2011. Slavery has been abolished; the Emancipation Proclamation did happen. But the toiling bodies remain, now transformed into waged laborers. A separate commonality, however, remains: the question of citizenship. Slaves were not U.S. citizens. Illegal immigrants are not U.S. citizens. The heritable Aristocracy of Citizenship returns under a new guise: Master and Slave gives way to Citizen and Wetback. The Emancipation Proclamation gives way to the Arizona Anti-Immigration Law. Oh, the shame!
From the Melting Pot to the Boiling Cauldron. The one timid sliver of justice in this cauldron is the principle of jus soli, as realized in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. constitution: If you were born in America, you’re American. Not to say that America is the End of History or the New Jerusalem that it claims to be: There are billions upon billions of people on this planet who do not wish to become U.S. citizens. But in jus soli our noses nevertheless pick up the faint scent of a hidden universalism yet to be actualized. Perhaps the phenomenon of the so-called “anchor baby” contains within it the seed of our complete emancipation from the chains of petty chauvinism and nationality.
And, besides, you do want free markets, don’t you?