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Najera GS: Immigration policy as a caste system

Last fall, the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented students, was defeated by Congress despite the appeal of students from across the country, including some from the Brown community. It seems fruitful, therefore, to explore the legal structure in which these DREAMers exist.

Today, citizenship in the United States, as in other countries, is part of a legal framework that establishes privileges and responsibilities for people. There is no application process — individuals are born into citizenship. From the onset, the core of American citizenship has been the set of political rights it confers on the holder, namely the right to vote and to own property. Intent on protecting the integrity of citizenship, Congress has found ways to classify and limit the privileges and responsibilities of non-citizens. Insofar as it is a state-sanctioned classification of people, it resembles the casta — Spanish for caste — system of colonial Latin America. The fundamental difference is that the colonial casta system was based on race, while the contemporary conception of citizenship is based on physical boundaries. Nevertheless, race and jurisdiction are both human constructs used to include and exclude people from formal society.

In colonial Latin America, the Spanish and Portuguese established the casta system, which institutionalized the accepted social hierarchy of the times. In the Spanish colonies, the structure attempted to limit and categorize the mixture between the three main races — Spaniards, indigenous people and blacks. At the top were Spaniards, and within this group, the peninsulares — Spaniards born in the Iberian Peninsula — were above the criollos — Spaniards born in the Americas. In descending order were indigenous people and blacks. Intermixing among these led to the creation of other racial classes, such as mestizos, castizos, mulattoes and cholos. These classifications could easily become intricate. Here is an example: Mixture between indigenous and black yields a "wolf," mixture between "wolf" and black yields a "chino," mixture between "chino" and indigenous yields a "cambujo," mixture between "cambujo" and indigenous yields a "tente en el aire," and so on.  

To be clear, these distinctions were not absolute, especially regarding the lowest classes. A person may at one time claim to be indigenous to receive special consideration from the courts, while at another time, this same person could claim to be mestizo to avoid a certain tax. The bottom line, however, is the fact that the hierarchical classification was sanctioned by the state. The highest offices were reserved for peninsulares. In courts, the testimony of blacks was devalued because of their race. As R. Douglas Cope notes, the right to bear arms was a mark of status — one that was denied to non-Spaniards. The list goes on.

The caste system today is similarly supported by laws and traditions. Admittance to the highest tier is determined by jurisdiction instead of race. Of course, a casual review of American history reveals that for a long time, jurisdiction did not automatically confer property or voting rights to women, blacks or Native Americans. As in colonial Latin America, however, there are several legal classes of people. At the top are citizens, whose rights are irrevocable and who are eligible for the highest office in the country — the presidency. Under citizens are Lawful Permanent Residents, which may include entrepreneurs, specialists and refugees. Although this group enjoys most rights, they cannot vote. In addition, although they can become citizens, they are not considered "natural-born citizens" and are thus ineligible for the presidency. Under Lawful Permanent Residents are temporary residents, such as tourists and students. Below these are illegals, which may include farm workers, cooks and servants. It is possible to move up these castes, but connections to a current citizen matter. Aside from refugees, the closer a person is to a citizen — preferably an offspring — the better his chances. And, of course, a sizable bank account is indispensable for engaging with the increasingly costly American legal system.

There is something perverse about the ability to wield force. A parent slapping a child, a muscled man hitting a small woman or a policeman immobilizing a protester — when one party has superior age or muscle, or a gun, the force they wield can be overwhelming. As Ayn Rand observed, the state by definition has a monopoly of force within a determined territory. So when it comes to enforcing caste systems, the state has guns at its disposal.  Force keeps caste systems in place.

This is where DREAMers find themselves — at the bottom of a carefully established modern caste system. In the eyes of the state, it does not matter if an illegal alien is an inmate at Rikers Island or a student at Brown — by virtue of lacking citizenship, he is undesirable and must be expelled from this society. Granted, he retains very limited rights during the process of expulsion. Nevertheless, Chinese exclusion, the repatriation of Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression and the 2006 "Operation Return to Sender" are examples of the state's commitment to enforcing the caste system. The question, understandably complex, is whether a society committed to the pursuit of equality can rest upon this modern-day caste system called "immigration policy."




Hector Najera GS is a graduate student focusing in education.


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