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What, to the undocumented immigrant, is the 4th of July?

July 1, 2019

(Graphic used is from artist Melanie Cervantes)

July 4th will be upon us in a few days and people will no doubt be gearing up to have a cook out, bring their families to a parade or watch the fireworks.

As the US gets ready to celebrate Independence Day, with all of its patriotic fervor, we have to come to terms with this country’s history, particularly for communities that have rarely ever been treated as equals.

For me, one of the best critiques that centers around the 4th of July, is a speech that was given by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1852, entitled, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? 

In that speech, Douglass examines and exposes the hypocrisy of American independence, specifically through an abolitionist lens. Douglass identifies crimes and names names in his scathing critique of how the US brutalized black people, while at the same time making massive profits off of them.

Douglass’ most indicting comments during the speech were:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

If we are to seriously take Douglass’s words to heart, it should not move us to shame, but to action. Let’s make no mistake about it, Douglass’s words are not just about the past, but the present, which is why the current momentum centered around reparations for black people is so vitally important.

However, on top of the horrendous history of how the US has treated black people, today we can see another massive injustice, specifically in how undocumented immigrants are being treated. What we have seen, particularly since September 11, 2001, is a systematic demonization and criminalization of immigrants, particularly immigrants of color.

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and its underling, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we see a major shit if the treatment of immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants. The Bush administration deported an estimated 2 million immigrants between 2001 – 2009. The Obama administration then escalated that process and deported roughly 3 million during the 8 years of his administration. 

With the Trump administration, the criminalization of immigrants has reach an all time high, both in terms of policy and how this administration has foster a white supremacist, xenophobic climate that has millions of Americans supporting the rounding up, detention and deportation of the 11 million undocumented people living in the US.

So, what is to the undocumented immigrant, the fourth of July?

It means that millions of undocumented immigrants live in constant fear of what might happen to them and their families.

It means that the number of ICE agents has increased during the past two years, in order to target more and more of the 11 million undocumented immigrants.

It means that ICE works closely with local and state law enforcement agencies to terrorize immigrant communities and to justify this treatment on the claim that “they are obligated to cooperate with federal agencies.” 

It means that the private prison/detention industry has expanded all across the US, making massive profits from detaining and holding immigrants for ICE. 

It means that the conditions of immigrants, both adults and children, who are being held in detention facilities is atrocious.

It means that people picked up by ICE have to come up with a minimum of $5,000 and up to $30,000 to be able to post bond. 

It means that those seeking asylum, particularly those that are coming at the US/Mexican border, are abused, tear gassed and detained primarily because they are fleeing political and economic violence. 

It means that the system of capitalism is happy, since it generates billions for private corporations to detain, monitor and brutalize immigrants through a wide range of services they provide in cooperation with ICE and Border Patrol. 

It means that the US will not acknowledge how their foreign policy is displacing people throughout the world, particularly in Mexico and Central America. Decades of US military intervention and trade policy is one of the main causes of people fleeing their homelands and coming to the US. Thus, the US causes their flight and then punishes them for trying to make a better living.

It means that the US political establishment only sees value in immigrants because of their labor, but in no way wants to provide them with dignity, respect and permanent protection.

It means that undocumented immigrants cannot rely on political parties to end the terror and harm directed at them.

It means that those of us who have citizenship privilege should not celebrate the 4th of July, not until all people are truly free. It means those of us with privilege must practice radical hospitality and solidarity with the undocumented community. Only then can we celebrate anything that remotely looks like freedom.

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