Dispatches from the Borderlands: “They Came at Night, Trying to Kill Us!”

They came during the night shouting: “”Who are you?” “Where are you from?””. For several days in May of this year, South Africa witnessed scenes of horror, violent rage against recent immigrants. When the rampaging mobs set upon immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, or Somalia, they would ransack houses, steal meager belongings, and maybe even drag them out into the street to beat them up, stab them and set them on fire—in the very same way that informants were “necklaced,” burned alive, during apartheid. The trouble began in the historic black township of Alexandra, but spread rapidly to other areas of Johannesburg and eventually to Cape Town and Durban. All in all, at least fifty people were killed, while tens of thousands of immigrants were left homeless, cowering in police stations, churches, or overcrowded refugee camps.

Just a week or so before these attacks, I had visited some of these areas, as part of a project entitled “The Religious Lives of Migrant Minorities,” based at the Social Science Research Council. The tension was palpable, particular in Alexandra, as our van made its way down narrow roads lined with young men. With an unemployment rate hovering close to forty percent for young black South Africans, it was not surprising to see so many them restlessly roaming the streets. Our research team was headed to an open-air religious service led by Susan, a charismatic Kenyan pastor who has made it her mission to “minister to the lowest of the low.” Surrounded by the local dump and the cemetery, she managed to move her congregation with songs and a sermon that stressed redemption and renewal in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. At least for that afternoon, this congregation became a safe space, a space of hope, in the midst of a harsh poverty in which African immigrants are at the margins of the margins of South African society.

Lauren Landau, a member of our team who has been studying migration in South Africa for many years, believes that immigrants have become scapegoats for the failure of the post-apartheid democratic government to address “the high unemployment, acute housing shortages, and appallingly high crime rate” faced by many poor South Africans. Certainly, the fact that the anti-immigrant violence started in Alexandra, a place created by the segregationist policies of apartheid, points to difficulties of overcoming the legacy of past injustices and disenfranchisement, even as South Africa becomes increasingly globalized. In fact, the accumulation of wealth that accompanies globalization has made the fledgling experiment in multi-racial democracy in South Africa very attractive to other Africans who face civil wars, authoritarian regimes, widespread corruption, and economic turmoil in their home countries. They have come in large numbers, many of them undocumented, settling among poor South Africans who often resent their presence.

While the situation confronting immigrants and poor natives in the United States is not as dire, there are clear signs of simmering tensions around the issue of undocumented immigration, particularly in poor rural communities and around towns that witnessed factory shutdowns. In the most visible example, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is investigating the murder of an undocumented Mexican immigrant by four local teenagers in a Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains, which has experienced tough times as its coal-based economy has collapsed. Into this post-industrial marginal space, immigrants, oftentimes fleeing economic dislocation and political upheaval in Latin America, have come to work in agriculture and the emerging new factories. This sudden influx has fueled tensions with a native population that has not seen significant immigration since the turn of the 20th century. The reasons behind the killing in Shenandoah are complex. Nevertheless, Gladys Limón, a staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund who has been following the case, thinks that “the inflammatory rhetoric in the immigration debate does have a correlation with increased violence against Latinos.”

Indeed, journalist Roberto Lovato has documented a spike in anti-immigrant violence following the huge marches of April and March 2007 in support of immigration reform. The cases range from increased activity by the Ku Klux Klan to the recent arrest and indictment of six members of the Alabama Free Militia who were preparing to attack Mexican immigrants near Birmingham, Ala. with grenades and semi-automatic weapons to the burning of a community center in Maryland.

Despite clear differences of degree and historical context, the cases of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa and the United States demonstrate the urgency of tackling the issue of unauthorized immigration. Particularly in this climate of economic uncertainty, failure to do so only heightens the potential for destructive episodes of violence that may result in the loss of human life and tear the democratic fiber of our society. There may be those who think that anti-immigrant violence of the scale recently seen in South Africa is not possible in America. However, the widespread violence perpetrated at the end of the 19th century against Chinese immigrants as reaction to the “yellow peril” and the Zoot Suit riots in the early 1940s give us plenty of reasons not to be overly complacent.

Cases of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa and the US also show that, while the effects of undocumented immigration may be national and local, it is a global issue. Immigration is a contentious issue not only in the United States, but throughout Europe and the Gulf Region, as well as in countries such as Malaysia. The unregulated movement of people across national borders is a human response to old processes, such as colonialism and imperialism, as well as new ones, including the widening and deepening of capitalism, which increasingly link us together in a common predicament and make our nation-based laws and moral maps unable to deal with the emerging complexity.

As we seek solutions to the problem of undocumented immigration, we must resist the temptation of thinking only from the perspective of the nation-state. We must see how our own nation has been implicated in some of the dynamics that have actively encouraged undocumented immigration. After all, we have led and benefited from a global economic and political system which relies heavily on the transnational availability of abundant, cheap and pliant labor.

The task, then, is to design an immigration policy that addresses the demographic, ecological, economic and cultural needs and limits of this community we call America. This community has historically been guided by the values of inclusiveness, egalitarianism, and pluralism, even if it has not always lived up to these high ideals. A new immigration law should reflect these core values. At the same time, we must recognize our historical responsibilities and global obligations. This cosmopolitan recognition can help prevent the anti-immigrant violence that is, sadly, becoming more common not only in other parts of the world but here at home.

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