Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Prime Directive

Captain Jean-Luc Picard assimilated as Locutus of Borg

The Denver Post ran a story in its New Year’s Day edition (1/1/2012) about a book slated to be released by New York University Press. “The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden,” is written by Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naquib Pellow, professors of sociology at the University of Minnesota.

The two academics document the hardship of being an immigrant in the United States of America. Perhaps not surprisingly, the story is not about the arduous process of becoming a naturalized citizen, learning English, passing an exam, and declaring an oath of citizenship. Instead, it is the story of immigrants near Aspen, Colorado, living in squalor and disrespect.

I’m reproducing the text of the story here, and have added emphasis in the form of hotlinks and bold text.

The exclusive resort town of Aspen has an international reputation for high-end service and a stunning landscape of pristine mountains, all configured to welcome wealthy tourists.

And, like many communities in the U.S., Aspen depends upon low-wage immigrant labor to fuel its service economy. And, again, like many such communities, the Aspen City Council passed a resolution calling on the federal government to restrict immigration in order to preserve the economic and cultural integrity of the nation.

But in Aspen, environmental concerns played a central role in providing a cover for demonizing low-income immigrants from Latin America as the primary source of our national and local ills, and also for making invisible the growing inequality that grips our nation.

In December 1999, the Aspen City Council unanimously passed a resolution petitioning the U.S. Congress and the president to increase restrictions against both documented and undocumented immigration in order to save the environment. Shortly afterwards, City Council member Terry Paulson — a longtime immigration critic and self-avowed environmentalist — announced his intention to engage a statewide campaign to "promote overpopulation awareness" and declared, "If we address population and do something about it everything else will fall in line."

Aspen, located in Pitkin County, then successfully persuaded the county to follow the city's lead, and in March of 2000, the County Commission approved its own "population stabilization" resolution.

When we traveled to the area to investigate these anti-immigration measures, we found two very different Aspens. The dominant, commercial Aspen was an idyllic, post-industrial refuge with stretch Range Rover limousines, toy poodles with diamond-encrusted collars, world-class ski slopes, and film celebrities who live part of the year in multimillion-dollar, single-family homes. The other Aspen is a place where foreign-born workers from Latin America drive 60 to 140 miles roundtrip daily to work in low-status, often dangerous jobs for low wages with few benefits. Many of these workers live in deplorable housing conditions, including campers and cars, and are now being blamed for the nation's environmental crisis.

In the glossy, commercial version of Aspen, these immigrants do not exist. However, if you look in the back of any restaurant, hotel, or residential home, you will find immigrants cooking and cleaning kitchens and bathrooms, mowing lawns, and pouring concrete to build heated driveways in front of palatial estates. As in so many other communities, immigrants in Aspen are made invisible in multiple ways. Immigrants and immigrant advocates whom we spoke with highlighted the lack of affordable housing that forces many to live "down valley" in trailer parks that are hidden along the highway in dangerous flood zones, and away from the commercial center. The targeted sweeps of workplaces in the area by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and the building of an immigrant detention center in a neighboring town also forces immigrants into hiding. But perhaps the most persistent and commonplace acts of enforcing immigrant invisibility are the everyday indignities experienced at work, school and home that remind newcomers of their marginality despite their centrality within both the local and global economies.

Social scientists have documented how transnational labor migration is an integral part of the global movement of capital, goods, services and ideas. And despite continued efforts to limit the flow of migration, the establishment of global political, military and economic linkages by the U.S. contributes to large-scale emigration. In the case of Mexico, emigration is directly tied to foreign investment in export production. U.S. trade with Mexico grew by a factor of eight from 1986 to 2004. Despite this embedded connection between the movement of capital and the movement of people, our national immigration policy remains almost entirely fixated on border control. This is a pivotal flaw.

Moreover, scholars have noted repeatedly that U.S. wage levels fell and income inequality grew as a result of deindustrialization, capital flight, economic restructuring, and the dismantling of labor unions in the 1970s and '80s. However, the popular preoccupation with the U.S.-Mexico border scores political points for elected officials leading the nativist drumbeat while doing little to address these real economic concerns. Instead, we have witnessed the continuous disintegration of civil rights and the social safety net for both citizens and non-citizens in the name of border control and national security.

The goal for Aspen is to be a "City beautiful," a beacon of sustainability. Unfortunately, the path to that goal is paved with nativism and exclusion. In Councilman Paulson's opening remarks supporting the anti-immigrant measure, he stated that population control was the single most important problem and that anyone denying this would be committing a "hate crime against future generations ... ." Similarly, the countywide resolution contained the following statement: "Immigration is the leading cause of population growth in the Unites States. Population is the leading cause of environmental degradation." Following this logic, immigration becomes the major cause of our ecological crisis.

Both resolutions reflect the longstanding link between nativism and environmentalism in the United States.

As Aspen Council member Tom McCabe cautioned, "The planet's a finite resource. ... We can't indefinitely welcome people and expect to maintain our quality of life."

And this is precisely the point: Many Aspenites and others in similarly privileged communities across the U.S. want to protect their quality of life, which requires resources and wealth derived from ecosystems and labor from around the world. The fact that the same City Council can allow the construction of yet another rarely inhabited vacation home constructed with materials sourced from around the globe that requires year-round maintenance and energy usage should give us pause. Who is actually causing environmental harm?

For more than three decades, scholars have presented evidence that low-income and minority communities face greater threats from pollution and industrial hazards than other groups. While these studies reveal the hardships and crimes associated with environmental inequality, fewer studies consider the flip side of that reality: environmental privilege. Environmental privilege results from the exercise of economic, political, and cultural power that some groups enjoy, which enables them near exclusive access to coveted environmental amenities such as parks, mountains, and open lands.

In spite of the Aspen City Council and Pitkin County Commission resolutions, we also witnessed the power of community building and cooperation. We spoke with everyday citizen-activists and immigrant residents in Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley who were committed to social and environmental advocacy and articulated their hopes and dreams for the community. In the end, we came away from that beautiful place with an alternate vision of environmentalism that embraces the equitable care of both ecosystems and humankind. Perhaps most importantly, the conflicts in Aspen provide important lessons for understanding sites of privilege as sources of poverty.

If you follow the link at the top of the story, it takes you to the online article where you will find comments that focus (mundanely) on whether or not the immigrant homes are in a flood plain and who needs to be blamed.

I think we should be looking at the cultural issue: Why did The Denver Post feel the need to publish this story? The events happened over a decade ago. What is the point of rehashing them now?

Notice the societal ideas presented. We have immigrants who are suffering, nativists who are making resolutions, and details of “important lessons for understanding sites of privilege as sources of poverty.”

What exactly does The Denver Post want from us? What is it trying to teach us?

My bias immediately questions the appropriateness of avoiding that hobgoblin of a term, “illegal immigrant.” What is to be gained in an article by avoiding a distinction between those immigrants who become naturalized citizens and those who don’t? Does it enlighten or obscure our understanding of the issue?

I think the conflation of the legal/illegal immigration status alerts the reader to an agenda-driven article that contains many unanswered questions. Are there any legal immigrants living in those trailer parks “hidden along the highway in dangerous flood zones?” If so, how did these American citizens with immigrant backgrounds come to be involved in this situation? What is their point of view?

What about those nativists? Aspen voters overwhelmingly align with the Democratic Party. Those who unanimously voted for the city council resolution over ten years ago might still be around. What convocations do they attend? What books do they read? What informs the Aspen nativist?

OK, that last rhetorical question was sarcastic.

The Denver Post is simply displaying an affirmation of our anti-Republican culture. It is publishing this story as a way of establishing credentials. It knows that nativism and racism are not descriptors of the Democratic Party base. They are code words used to characterize Republicans. By publishing the story, The Denver Post lets the Democratic Party know that it is in touch with The Base. It has their back.

If you analyze your personal impression of the article, you will find that you are either drawn to it or disagree with it based on your political party affiliation. The Denver Post is acutely aware of that aspect of its readership.

The Denver Post readership might also have some Star Trek fans who are wondering what this post has to do with “The Prime Directive.” I invite you to go back to some of the old Star Trek themes, and then reflect on the mindset of those institutions and individuals who promote our anti-Republican culture. They hold to a single, unifying credo:

We are the power and authority.

Don’t you think that has a bit of “The Other” in it? Maybe (Resistance is futile!) even Borg-like (Resistance is futile!) …

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