Papers, Please

Something that seems to get overlooked in all this sturm und drang over immigration is the visceral reaction those of us who oppose current policy experience over seemingly innocuous terms. “Undocumented” being chief among them. This one causes a chill to run down my spine almost every time I hear it. And it does not stop with illegal immigrants but goes directly to such things as voter registration and ID requirements. The idea that someone who has been living in a community all their life and simply lacks this month’s card can be denied a fundamental right appalls me.

While I understand the perfectly reasonable rationale behind much of this, I am, as an American, opposed to it on principle.

It took me a little while to figure out why. I grew up with the Hollywood and television state villain who, at some point in all such melodramas, walked up to someone and snaps “Papers!” I had it drilled into me that this was a tool of oppression. That having or not having “proper” documents could get you killed. That, in fact, your entire identity and therefore the safety of you and your family hung on the possession of the appropriate documents. Most of these villains wore a particular uniform, but it was clear that all totalitarian states used this as a means of controlling their populations. And that losing your papers meant losing any legitimacy in the eyes of the state.

And we all know where that leads.

This is not an entirely rational reaction on my part, but it nevertheless connects well with certain principles. As an American I reserve the right to be secure in my person without having to prove to some apparatchit that I “belong” here.  It’s up to you to accommodate me.

Of course, in my case that’s relatively easy. I’m the right color, I speak without an accent (mostly), and I have history.

Undocumented is a term that I react to with the same loathing as I would to Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann, Stalin, Mao, Pinochet, Stroessner, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Un. It suggests that you are not a person without state-sanctioned proof, and I grew up believing that was not American.

It’s difficult to walk that line between necessary documentation—for credit, for benefits, for licenses to operate specific things—and a card asserting you have a right to Be. It makes it too easy to strip away everything by simply losing or having stolen from you that bit of identification, that seal of approval.

We need to rethink where we’re heading with this. We have, collectively, a too-easy tendency to indulge our tribal affiliations by sorting people into categories. When the state is indifferent or benevolent, such things don’t become toxic. But a change in the weather, and what may have been a convenience last year is now a threat. I do not appreciate the idea that we will be the ones walking into a room snapping “Papers!” as if that alone represented the totality of what it means to be a person.  That’s not who we used to be.  That’s not who I want us to be.

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