The Senate Judiciary Committee approved an immigration reform bill last week that would gradually make citizenship possible for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants. The bill is widely described as sweeping in scope. In fact, it is not quite sweeping enough, as it leaves the plight of another group of would-be Americans unaddressed.
Although by birthright, children born out of wedlock to an American father and a foreign mother are entitled to United States citizenship, they must file paternity certifications no later than their 18th birthday to get it. But since the military bases in the Philippines have been closed for over 20 years, virtually all Filipino “Amerasians” — a term coined by the author and activist Pearl S. Buck to describe children of American servicemen and Asian mothers — have passed that age.
Amerasians in the Philippines substantially outnumber those living in neighboring countries, with recent estimates as high as 250,000.
The large numbers are explained by our military’s 94 years in the Philippines, from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to its withdrawal in 1992. During the cold war, the United States leased military installations throughout the archipelago, including Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, the United States’ two largest overseas bases at the time.
Around them emerged bars and clubs, where servicemen were encouraged to find “rest and relaxation.” While some Amerasians were conceived through prostitution, many were born out of committed relationships. Soldiers’ limited tours of duty — and, later, the abrupt closures of the bases — tore couples apart.
The closures dealt a serious economic blow to many Amerasians. A 1999 study commissioned by the nongovernmental organization Pearl S. Buck International showed that Amerasians had disproportionately suffered from underemployment, poverty, domestic violence and sexual abuse.
They also face relentless discrimination. In a Catholic society that stigmatizes illegitimate children, Filipinos deploy an arsenal of slurs against Amerasians: iniwan ng barko (“left by the ship”) and babay sa daddy (“goodbye to Daddy”) among them. Black Amerasians are often called “charcoal,” or worse.
For these reasons, most Filipino Amerasians dream of coming here for a better life. But despite their American blood, it is very difficult if not impossible for them to immigrate legally and eventually become naturalized citizens.
Some members of Congress have tried to rectify the omission of the Philippines. On several occasions between 1997 and 2001, Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who died last year, introduced a bill to extend the Amerasian Act to the Philippines and Japan. But the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected it, claiming that Filipino Amerasians were not victims of discrimination, that they were conceived from illegal prostitution, and that, unlike Amerasians in South Korea and Vietnam, they were born during peacetime. But none of these are conscionable grounds for selectively preventing Filipino Amerasians from coming to this country.
At the tail end of 2012 and of their careers, retiring Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) introduced the ACHIEVE Act, which would provide legal status to a narrow group of undocumented youth. However, this proposal does nothing to appeal to Latin@s because it provides no real path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Whereas the DREAM Act provides undocumented youth with legal permanent residence and then citizenship, the ACHIEVE Act offers a W-1 visa, which leads to a W-2, and then a W-3, with no direct path to citizenship.
Although Hutchison calls this proposal her version of the DREAM Act, it is not. The core purpose of the DREAM Act, first proposed in 2001, is to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youth, who are Americans in all ways but one–legal citizenship rights.
The ACHIEVE Act had no chance of passing in the lame-duck session, yet Hutchison and Kyl hope their successors, Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), will take it on when the new Senate convenes. They want this bill–not the DREAM Act–to be the basis for negotiations, with “no citizenship” as their bottom line.
This isn’t going to work. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 86 percent of Latinos in the United States believe that migrants to this country–even unauthorized ones–deserve a chance to become citizens. This belief is shared by 72 percent of all Americans. It is the core of true immigration reform; the rest is just bells and whistles.
A path to citizenship is the politically astute route; it is also the only route that is not morally bankrupt.
From Indigenous genocides to women’s implication in the reproduction of patriarchy, it is important to examine not only historical events that codify violence as their strategy of citizen making. Also, we need to think about how violence is deployed in discourse and laws as systematic means of exclusion. Nowhere are we seeing more of this quotidian means of exclusion than in debates about the role of Latino/a children. Their precarity carries into ideas about Dora the Explorer’s privileged social mobility, which created quite a stir after the State of Arizona adopted SB1070. Passed on April 24th 2010, SB1070 “Requires officials and agencies to reasonably attempt to determine the immigration status of a person involved in a lawful contact where reasonable suspicion exists regarding the immigration status of the person, except if the determination may hinder or obstruct an investigation.”
Right at the moment this policy emerged, Latino/a social mobility as a crime was galvanized via the Arizona law. So even though Dora, as a figure, manifests a particular amount of privilege (social, class, and economic) that is most closely associated with whiteness rather than black or indigenous identities, conscious projections of her as a Latina/o after SB1070 constructs Dora as a universal Latina subject and potential illegal.
Immigration activists flipped the script with these images, seeing Dora as a means of expressing the absurdity and irony of suggesting that all Latina/os are like Dora and thus are all the same. They took America’s and the Nickelodeon Network’s goldmine of childhood innocence and turned Dora into a potential threat representative of what the Right would like us to believe are the invading brown hordes. The people who created these images draw on the fact that Dora’s creators purposefully did not specify her ethnic background, “preferring that she have a pan-Latino appeal.” (iii)
By doing so, those photoshop wizards play upon the fact that there is a common assumption about what Latinos “look like” which is both specific (the majority have brown eyes) and vague (brown eyes are a genetically dominant trait). They also play on xenophobic fears about brown bodies and immigration, suggesting that even a brown, 7-year old cartoon character might be illegal. In the case of Dora’s deployment in the anti-SB1070 and pro-immigrant reform movement, Dora is “the” representation of the universal Latina/o subject that I discussed in my earlier article. Yet despite these problematic constructions, U.S. Latinas/os and Latin Americans identify with Dora on a different plane, not just as consumers but now in ethnic and political solidarity as she represents version of their identities, cultures, in a new re-appropriated political role model for immigration activists.
In this poignant political moment, we see how Dora the Explorer intercedes not only into children’s self-identities, but those of adults in the immigration reform movement. In other words, people who identify with Dora as criminalized Latino/a or rather questioning illegality explicitly engage with the concepts of nation-space and citizenship when they use her image. Major news outlets including CBS picked up the story dramatizing what many of us already knew: Doctored pictures of Dora the Explorer are being widely circulated online and through text messages. As the caption states, “Dora the Explorer’s alleged crime? “Illegal Border Crossing Resisting Arrest.” (iv)