Two stories, one common emotion

The recent bomb blasts in Boston has fixated everyone around the world and the game of speculation about “who did it,” is still on. No matter who did it, the fact that the bombs were aimed at civilians makes is worthy of condemnation and rightly so, all right thinking people have come forward to do so. Especially, the Muslim groups in the U.S have been forceful in their condemnation, given the vulnerable position that they often find themselves in; post 9/11 hysteria surrounding Muslims and extremism. Another story, of


boston_bannerequally big magnitude made headlines – that of the Immigration reform bill. While the bill has been drafted by a group of eight bipartisan senators, it still has to go through congress before it becomes law. While vastly different in scope, demographics and stakeholders, these two stories bring together one common emotion – that of fear, and our reaction to it.

                               The fear of the ‘unknown terrorist’ has always been present in the American psyche. One can go as far back as 1979 (the Iranian revolution) or may be even earlier (1950s) to look at the roots of this fear of the Islamic extremist (read terrorist) in the popular imagination. Edward Said’s Covering Islam is a good primer towards understanding this issue.  This subtle, and at times abrasive projection of our fears takes many forms. Here is one example. Amy Davison nailed it in the New Yorker, with an article about the young Saudi man, who was a victim of the bombings, but was made a “suspect” all too briefly. She points out in the article:” Why the search, the interrogation, the dogs, the bomb squad, and the injured man’s name tweeted out, attached to the word “suspect”? After the bombs went off, people were running in every direction—so was the young man. Many, like him, were hurt badly; many of them were saved by the unflinching kindness of strangers, who carried them or stopped the bleeding with their own hands and improvised tourniquets. “  Further exploring this, she asks:” What made them suspect him? He was running—so was everyone. The police reportedly thought he smelled like explosives; his wounds might have suggested why.”

            With the drafting of the Immigration reform bill, by the “group of eight” bipartisan senators, the pathway to legitimacy and eventual citizenship for the over 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S may be near. This may be more a practical measure, than one rooted in pure political calculations, as the country gains more from legitimizing this group of undocumented immigrants, than by keeping them in a limbo. I believe this is the first step in the right direction and must receive support from the Congress. This bill has the potential to lay to rest one of the most divisive political issues and reshape the conversation around employment, immigration and the domestic economy, in one blow.

As NBC Latino reported recently, the bill provides for those undocumented immigrants to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant Status (RPI), and this would them to be in this country legally, work for any employer and travel outside of the United States. “While RPI confers legal status, it does not make individuals eligible for public benefits, including healthcare, under the Affordable Care Act. The costs to apply for RPI status are a $500 fine, assessed taxes and application fees. After six years in RPI status, another $500 fee will be applicable,” it added. An RPI can apply for a green card in ten years and subsequent to that, in three years; apply for citizenship. The bill is also pragmatic, in that it ensures there are enough low-skilled workers, as well. The DREAMers will have a shorter path to residency as well. With greater opportunities to legitimately pursue education and other opportunities, the DREAMers can contribute more in taxes to the country, as this study by the College Board points out. Hopefully, the bill passes the hurdles it has to and is implemented as law. This seems almost a certainty as even conservatives such as John McCain realize that the Republicans need the Latin vote to survive as a political party. Pragmatism has trumped partisanship in this case.

In the case of Boston bombings, barring the rightwing media, most of the mainstream media have been cautious and guarded about their response to the Boston bombings, remaining cautious in terms of naming and blaming. While this is welcome, the biggest test will be when the FBI and the investigating agencies actually announce who did this. That may really determine how the media reacts and how people determine their reactions based on that. As of now, there is ambivalence, fear on all fronts – and also general confusion, apart from grief for those who have been directly impacted. In a thoughtful piece published by New York Times, titled “How not to React to Boston, “ Lawrence Downes says:” It would compound yesterday’s tragedy if the push for desperately needed immigration reform were derailed through a deadly combination of overreaction and xenophobia. The United States was close to tackling a long-overdue overhaul of its immigration laws in 2001. “

He goes onto point out that:” President George W. Bush had discussed the issue with then-President Vicente Fox of Mexico and was planning to make it a priority. Then came 9/11 and the birth of the homeland-security state. Immigration reform — except for the border fortifications, the deportation surge and the policing crackdowns — was put off indefinitely.” One can only hope that this bill in 2013 does not meet the same fate.

In a conversation I had with a Rabbi, who heads a national interfaith group a few weeks ago, she pointed out how anti-immigration sentiment is directly correlated with anti-Muslim feeling. While this is not news to many well-informed people, it should be a reminder to all of us that small mindedness, narrowness of vision, bigotry takes on many forms.

Thankfully, America seems to be reacting quite rationally with the immigration story, at least so far; and one can only hope that the same level-headedness is shown to the other story, as well.



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