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November 16, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with Manuel A. Vásquez

BILL MOYERS: Back in the summer it looked as if we were about to get a new immigration policy, thanks in no small part to an unlikely alliance between President Bush and leading Democrats. But the night before the vote, a tidal wave of angry phone calls swept across Capitol Hill and shut down the switchboard. The next day the bill was defeated. The country is once again polarized between immigrants and their supporters and those who would have them driven out. At times, it's been more brawl than debate.

O'REILLY: He shouldn't be allowed in here. He doesn't have a right to be in this country!

RIVERA: What, but that has nothing to do with the fact that he was a drunk! He was a drunk!

O'REILLY: Yes it does. He should have been deported!!!

POLICE OFFICER (O/C): Police, open up!

BILL MOYERS: At the peak of the debate, the government struck fear in the immigrant community with early morning raids that rounded up and deported undocumented workers. When the governor of New York proposed that illegal immigrants be issued driver's licenses for reasons of public safety, Lou Dobbs went on the attack.

LOU DOBBS: This governor is a genius. An overwhelming majority of New York voters oppose the governor, but he refuses to back down.

BILL MOYERS: Spitzer's Democratic colleagues went wobbly.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you support the New York governor's plan to give illegal immigrants a driver's license?

BILL MOYERS: Hillary Clinton's campaign, in particular, was shaken during the next debate.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you support his plan?

SEN. CLINTON: You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha. It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. We have failed, and George Bush has failed. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York, we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He's making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform.

BILL MOYERS: Just this week, Spitzer backed down. So, is it possible now even to reach any compromise on immigration? My guest says yes, if we remember who we are as a people. Manuel Vásquez teaches religion and sociology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, but he spends much of his time in the field exploring what he calls "The Politics of Encounter: What happens when new immigrants come to town?" Right now he's in the middle of a three-year project, funded by the Ford Foundation, looking at immigrants in Atlanta, Georgia. Manuel Vásquez is himself an immigrant. Born and raised in El Salvador, he received a scholarship in 1980 to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He's been here ever since. Welcome to the JOURNAL.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Thank you very much, sir.

BILL MOYERS: From El Salvador, what was the most appealing feature of America to a young man?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Precisely the capacity to ask questions, the possibilities that you could have to explore things that in El Salvador were impossible to explore. Because to be a social scientist in El Salvador was, at the time, to be a subversive.


MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Well, because asking questions about the government or asking questions about the social structures was to discover that things were unfair. And that vast numbers of people were basically exploited by a system that used them. And so-

BILL MOYERS: -Well, tell us what that government was. What was it?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Well, it was a military government. It was a military government that unfortunately was supported by our government.

BILL MOYERS: The United States.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: The United States. And so, it had, it was supporting a system where you had an accumulation of land in the hands of few. And so, the vast majority of the population, the peasants, were basically disempowered.

BILL MOYERS: You know, you just did something very interesting. You said the government of El Salvador was repressive and our government was supporting it; our government meaning the United States government.


BILL MOYERS: At what point did you cease to be an El Salvadoran and become an American?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: I think that that's where the literature and transnationalism can tell us a lot.

BILL MOYERS: Transnationalism.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Transnationalism is a concept that allows, that says basically that today's immigrants are able to have dual loyalties. That it's not one or the other, but that one can have roots in the country of settlement, but also one can still have ties with your home country.

BILL MOYERS: And that's different from when Germans came or when the Irish came. They cut their ties to the old country. They made the choice to stay here, right?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Well, I think they were to some extent forced. Or, to some extent, they were expected to assimilate. They were expected to become American and to forget about the old country, right?


MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Because the old country was, you know, was in the past. And, all of a sudden, now you need to make yourself anew in the new country. And America represented the future, the city upon a hill. And so, you needed to basically reform yourself in America. But, today, because of changes in technology, because of globalization, it is possible for immigrants to at the same time become integrated into the American system, into the American dream. To buy houses, to send your kids to school. For example, my three kids are born in the United States. I have a, you know, an American born wife who is a university professor. So, in other words, you can become integrated into the American system.

BILL MOYERS: You'd be a stranger in El Salvador.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Exactly. When I go back, you know, "oh, he's changed. He's very different. He thinks very differently from us." Right? But also, here in the United States, I'm still, you know, a Salvadoran.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, yes.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: So that is the kind of dual sort of identity. Some people use the term bifocality to talk about that. That is that in the bifocals, you are, you have in the same lens, you have an integrated dual vision that allows you to see near and to see far at the same time and to function in both situations. And perhaps that's one of the things that threatens some of the people who are restrictionist, that they see some of these immigrants maintaining loyalty: maintaining their language, maintaining their culture to some extent. And, for them, this is a threatening situation because they think of sovereignty very much in an exclusivist way.

BILL MOYERS: But yet the debate about immigration today is framed in terms of illegal immigrants and amnesty.


BILL MOYERS: What does that do to the conversation?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: It closes the conversation. And I think the term illegal really forecloses any kind of discussion. And I've asked myself, why is it that the term is being used? And so, my answer is that I think America is going right now through a very tough period. You know, we have all sorts of moral questions, you know, whether this is torture, whether this is not torture. Should we have gone to Iraq? Should we not have gone to Iraq? In a certain sense, we want moral certainty. I mean, these are moral uncertain times for America. We, you know, we're under attack from the outside. We perceive ourselves under attack. Our economy is not doing as well as it was doing ten years ago, right? And so, we have all sorts of pressures. And I think the population, the native population is feeling this.

The average worker in Peoria, Illinois, is, I think, feeling all these pressures and feeling the pressures of globalization. And so, I think when you use the term illegality, you have a certain moral, you have a moral certainty that I think provides a, almost like a sense of satisfaction, right? You know, for once, I can say that this is a black and white situation. So, trading on moral absolutes I think at a time of uncertainty is a, it pays off. And that's why I think a lot of these politicians are having a lot of traction with the term "illegal."

BILL MOYERS: But the paradox is that affluent Americans - their homes are cleaned by immigrants. Their children are cared for by immigrants.


BILL MOYERS: The lawns are tended by immigrants.


BILL MOYERS: And yet, they feel uncomfortable and uneasy. How do you explain that?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Yeah. It's fascinating. Because what we're doing is we're welcoming immigrants to our most intimate spaces. Basically, we depend for our every day life, the fabric of life is basically held together by these immigrants who are doing this invisible work. And it's this ambivalence. We want them there to do the work, but we don't want them there after they do the work, right?

And I see the same thing in our churches. We've had cases where we've interviewed native Anglo Americans who basically say, well, you know, in the church, we're all part of the body of Christ, right? A single church. Christianity is universal. There are no divisions, right? And so, I can welcome anyone. Anyone can come to my church. I don't ask anything about their legal status. But when I cross that threshold outside, right, and I go into the streets, that's America. That's our nation. And we're a nation of laws. And, as a result, there, out there, I don't want them to be, you know, standing around in corners. I don't want all these single men to be hanging out there because they're a sore spot in my neighborhood. And so, this tension is a tension that's very much part of the situation. But we're not talking about it.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. When some people, when some people hear the term illegal immigrants, they think criminals.


BILL MOYERS: And some people hear a code word of racism and hatred.


BILL MOYERS: I mean, they're - we're - polarized.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: We're polarized.

BILL MOYERS: In 1965, I was a young assistant to President Johnson at the White House. I flew in a helicopter to the Statue of Liberty right here in New York Harbor where he signed the immigration act of 1965.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: A very progressive - a very progressive piece of legislation.

BILL MOYERS: We had no idea--

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: --You were changing American history.

BILL MOYERS: But, we didn't know. We just thought we were changing a law.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: You were changing American history. You were introducing a new regime of immigration.


MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Because for a while after, after 1924, when we basically shut the door on immigration, right? Because we had the depression. We had the first world war. We shut the door. And for a while, that door was pretty much closed. And we had very tight limits on who could be admitted. And of course, before that, we had the Asian-


MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: --The yellow peril, right? The Chinese exclusion act. But then, '65 opens up once again the doors to immigration. At a critical time when America is going into this period of expansion, of economic expansion, right? And so, and it sort of feeds into the civil rights movement. So, the legislation reflects that civil rights angle where you don't have specific groups of people. We don't want just Europeans. We want Latin Americans. We want diversity, right? And so that's where we get immigration from Latin America, from Asia-


MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: --And from Africa. And they're changing the cultural and religious landscape of America by bringing traditions, religions, that are beyond the Judeo-Christian canons that we have in this country, right?

BILL MOYERS: You are a scholar of religion. And I've greatly enjoyed reading some of your work on this. And you say that almost the first thing that these immigrants do, particularly in the south, where you are living, when they get here is to join a church.


BILL MOYERS: Why is that? Is that cultural? Is it religious?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Yes. I think, I think it has to do with both. A lot of the debate about illegality has to do with that these immigrants can not be assimilated, right? For example, Professor Sam Hun-Samuel Huntington-

BILL MOYERS: Harvard University scholar.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Clash of civilizations, that we have an internal clash of civilizations. Hispanics are bringing cultural values that are different, including the language. They're refusing to give up Spanish. They're refusing to give up some of their, some of their values. And, as a result, we're going to be changing the Anglo-Saxon values of this country. For me, they're no different than the Pilgrims, than the Puritans. Because the first thing they do is to form churches. And, in many ways, these churches are incubators of American citizen, citizenship and sort of liberal values. And they point already to the fact that these immigrants are seeking assimilation. Now, it is true that some of these churches become ethnic enclaves. And that's a penchant that we're seeing in Atlanta.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the work you're doing right now in Atlanta. You are looking at what you call the politics of encounter.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Politics of encounter refers to what happens when you have immigrants coming in, changing the racial dynamics of a particular place, especially a new destination. Because the, part of the reality of immigration today is that immigration is not just impacting or affecting New York-


MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: --And Los Angeles and Miami, the traditional so-called gateway places where immigrants come in. But now, we have immigrants in Siler City. We have immigrants in, you know, Dalton, Georgia. We have immigrants all over the place. And I think that's part of where the conflict is emerging: that we have immigrants coming into communities that are not used to seeing difference. People speaking a different language; the smells of the food are different. People have different ways of carrying their body. You know, hanging out on porches in ways that, that some of the natives get offended.

And so, part of the idea is to see what happens when you have this influx. What happens? Do people hunker down as Professor Putnam, Robert Putnam from Harvard University, says, that diversity initially makes people hunker down, right? They protect their turf because there's difference. And automatically, you want to say, well, they're not like me. They're different. They're them. We're us, right? And there is no communication.

BILL MOYERS: I think of Atlanta, most Americans think of Atlanta, as a place of tension and conflict between blacks and whites.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Blacks and whites.

BILL MOYERS: What are these encounters with brown people doing now in Atlanta?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: What's happening is that African Americans and Latinos for the most part don't know each other. We're not, we don't know each other. And I think we're ignorant about, you know, the complexities of our communities. And as a result, we tend to function with the frames that are given to us by the mainstream media, which tend to be simplistic and tend to be polarized. So if you ask African-Americans what they think about Latinos, they say, "oh, I know they're around. I know that they're around but a lot of them are illegals." So, they might use that language. So, part of our study is to get African-Americans and Latinos to talk to each other, so that they learn to see the humanity of each other, right? And, because the Latino community has a lot of racist elements also, bring some preconceptions from Latin America-


MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: --About African-Americans. And so, for us, it's also an education opportunity for Latinos to get to know their African-American brothers. And-

BILL MOYERS: You think that. But is it happening?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: I think they're beginning to talk about that. That the whole example I gave you of the person who's saying, "well, you know, he is my brother in Christ, right? Even though I don't know whether he's illegal or not, but he's my brother in Christ." And, then, going out there. You know, there's this kind of cognitive dissonance that I think is already beginning to filter. And there are examples, very interesting examples, in Atlanta already of multi-cultural churches. Conscious attempts by Anglo churches to invite immigrants (Koreans, Brazilians, Latinos, Mexicans) to form part of their congregations. Because, you see, immigrants are bringing a new vitality to many of these congregations, especially mainline congregations.

BILL MOYERS: Which are, which have been dwindling in numbers.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Dwindling in numbers.

BILL MOYERS: I would look upon them as new recruits.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Exactly. Immigrants come in with this new force, this new vitality. They are, they bring this new charismatic Christianity that is very much a zealous Christianity, a Christianity that has force, that has conviction. And a lot of these Anglo old-timers look at Latinos and say, "wow." You know, these are, this is powerful stuff. But, it's threatening, because we, these are not the ways that the Anglicans or Presbyterians do things. They're doing it differently. And they are going to change our churches. So there is ambivalence. On the one hand, you welcome them because they're revitalizing the churches and they're bringing resources. In the case of Koreans, they're bringing economic resources that are sort of lifting churches, lifting congregations that were in financial crises. And all of a sudden, now they're in, you know, in good economic health.

BILL MOYERS: You know, back to Samuel Huntington Harvard scholar.


BILL MOYERS: Wrote the Clash of Civilizations, as you say, sees a new clash of civilizations within America.


BILL MOYERS: He sees America being subverted.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Under siege.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, under siege. And changed totally by this re-conquest.


BILL MOYERS: By the Hispanics.


BILL MOYERS: Who were here before the Europeans came.


BILL MOYERS: What would you say to Samuel Huntington if he were sitting right here with you?

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: I would say that Samuel Huntington is taking the rhetoric of the extremists, of the Latino power movement. But when you go and interview actual immigrants, when you talk to them, they're not interested in the re-conquest. They're-conquest doesn't figure, I never heard that rhetoric of their re-conquest. What I hear is that they want a piece of the American dream - they are seduced, they are incorporated into the American dream.

Let me give you an example of a church member that, in a Catholic parish in Atlanta, where he is undocumented, where he's unauthorized, which I think is a term that perhaps is better in this case. He's unauthorized. He came in fourteen years ago, right? And he's very hard working, right? He has gone to take classes, English classes, at night, while working very hard. Now, he's made it up the - he was in the construction industry. He made it up, all the way up, to become a supervisor. So, he's now making, shall we say, a middle-class salary. He bought a house, right? He has children here who are US citizens. The children now go to school. They win citizenship awards because they're model citizens - while he is undocumented. And, now, the mother is really afraid of taking the kids to school because she might get caught under the new law that they have in Georgia that is a very punitive law against illegal immigrants. And so, what happens if we deport these people under the draconian laws that we have?


MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Basically, we're damaging, you know, a generation, a second generation. And it's a generation of American citizens. We're doing them harm. And so, that's why this whole concept of illegality again is really problematic: because it really doesn't go to the complexities of the situation. We, you know, we already are sort of opening ourselves up to these immigrants. And I think that's a shining example for us of the possibilities that the immigrant debate can go beyond this whole question of illegality. That it is a non-starter from the beginning.

BILL MOYERS: The dilemma is that we fear being colonized by immigrants whose labor we desperately need.

MANUEL VÁSQUEZ: Yes, the dilemma is that we tell ourselves about, you know, immigration, that we are an immigrant nation. That America is unique because America is not like Europe which - or Japan where you have a high homogeneity. These are nations that have opted to maintain tight homogeneity. America is always, we always present ourselves to the world as a nation of multiple origins. And that our strength is this diversity, right? And so, we have it in our mythos, we have a, you know, the idea that we are an immigrant nation. And some of the stuff on illegal immigration, some of the rhetoric on illegal immigration, is really going at the heart of this narrative that we tell ourselves about America. So, we need to resolve that tension.

BILL MOYERS: Manuel á, thank you very much for joining.


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