Growing up in Austin, Texas, Diez y Seis — Mexican Independence Day — always seemed to hold an official, albeit minor, status in the state capitol. This was not a holiday that we observed in my family in any formal capacity. Much like Cinco de Mayo we might find ourselves at a Mexican restaurant that night just by happenstance. After all we ate Mexican all the time! As we waited for our enchiladas I would proclaim, “Today is Deiz y Seis,” as if realizing that the Longhorns were on TV. Unlike the Fourth of July, it never warranted parades of children on decorated bicycles and riding lawnmowers. More than likely it would be a human interest story at the end of the local nightly news.
While a student, and at the encouragement of my mother, I recruited my grandmother to help me collect ghost stories from her oldest sister, Julia, the most renowned storyteller and tamale maker in my family. In addition to learning a little bit about linguistics and a lot about transcribing interviews I also heard for the first time the tale of how her family came to Texas from Torreón, Coahuila. In honor of Diez y Seis and with all due respect to the still precarious status of immigrants and refugees in the United States I am retelling it to you today.
Special thanks are due to my mom Janis, Grandma Pauline, and Aunt Julia who guided me to that kitchen in south central Austin, January 1997, where I first heard this tale. I had to exercise a little poetic license to weave that conversation into a single narrative but its really Julia’s story. Believe me, when its family holding you to account you’re going to do your best to tell the tale right!
By: Nadia El-Shaarawi
As a volunteer legal advocate working with refugees who were seeking resettlement, I learned to ask detailed questions about persecution. These were the kind of questions you would never ask in polite conversation: Who kidnapped your best friend? Were they wearing uniforms? What did those uniforms look like? Where did they hit you? Did you pay a ransom for her release? How did you identify her body? Questions like these, which refugees are asked over and over as part of the already extreme vetting that they undergo to be granted asylum and resettlement, are personal, intimate, painful. They demand a precise and consistent command of autobiographical detail and the strength to revisit events that one might otherwise want to forget. They try to get to the heart of what happened to a person, what forced them to leave everything behind.
On a more cynical level, these questions try to catch a person in a lie, to identify those who are not “deserving” of refuge. The answers are checked and cross-checked, asked again and again across multiple agencies and organizations. In separate interviews, family members are asked the same questions. Do the answers match up? Do the dates and places make sense? Were you a victim of persecution? Are you who you say you are? While these questions and their answers shape the narrative of an individual resettlement case, there is a way in which they don’t get to the heart of what happened to a person, why someone was forced to flee, cross at least one border to enter another state, and is now seeking resettlement in a third country.
Vetting, extreme or otherwise, is about inclusion and exclusion. But before someone even gets to the arduous, opaque process of being considered for resettlement in the United States, decisions are made at the executive level about who to include in a broader sense. While the Refugee Convention provides protection for any person with a “well-founded fear of persecution” on specific grounds, this has never been the full story of the US refugee program, where a presidential determination each year decides how many refugees will be resettled, and from where. Some die-hard advocates and detractors aside, refugee resettlement has historically had bipartisan support and mostly stays under the radar of public attention, except, it seems, in moments where it becomes a reflection of broader anxieties and struggles over belonging and exclusion. Continue reading
By: Catherine Besteman, Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, Tricia Redeker Hepner, Carole McGranahan, Nomi Stone, and Marnie Thomson
The Racist Gift of Immigration and Citizenship Bans, Again
How can we understand Donald Trump’s executive order banning the entry of immigrants from Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Iraq, as well as all refugees? As an act of national security, the ban makes no sense. Rather, I read them as a racist gift to the white Christian alt-right that formed President Trump’s initial core base. The United States has a history of bans and color bars to entry and citizenship, about which we are rightfully embarrassed in hindsight. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to only white immigrants, a law that remained on the books until 1952. Entry to the US remained open to anyone, however, until the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and then the Johnson Reed Act of 1924, which imposed the first comprehensive control over immigration. The Act placed a cap on the number of people to be admitted, set national origins quotas based on the 1890 census for entry, and barred anyone ineligible for citizenship from entry. By using the 1890 census, the national origins quotas intentionally favored immigrants from northern Europe and restricted Jewish immigrants because of anti-Semitism and fears of Communist influence.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court declared ineligible for citizenship everyone from Japan to Afghanistan, with the exception of the Philippines, then a US territory, thus creating a new racial category of “Asian” to be universally banned. When comprehensive immigration reform in 1965 removed national origins quotas and bans, it was heralded as a rejection of racist barriers to entry and a victory for American values of justice, human rights, and fairness. A dog whistle to those lusting for white Christian hegemony, the bans are an initial step to return America to a time when Muslims were barred from entry and immigration to the US was controlled by and for whites only. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Catherine Besteman as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Catherine is Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. She is author of numerous books and articles, including Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), Transforming Cape Town (University of California Press, 2008), and co-edited with Hugh Gusterson, Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back (University of California Press, 2005) and The Insure American (University of California Press, 2009). Her most recent book Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine is forthcoming from Duke University Press.)
What if I told you to write what you don’t know?
I ask this because I find the oft-offered advice to “write what you know” both alarming and silencing. Isn’t ethnography at least partially about unknowability? If we acknowledge that textual recording is a form of fixing knowledge, how does one write what one doesn’t know? How can our writing play on the edge between knowing and not knowing, refusing to fix the unknown by writing it into existence? Exploring this playful and vexing tension in ethnographic writing is my current preoccupation.
A story might help illuminate my query. Continue reading