2012-06-20 08:45:00

What Do Dreamers and Rodney King Have in Common?

After ten years of congressional stonewalling on the Dream Act, the President acted -- and for many of the undocumented students affected, Obama's executive order is akin to a modern-day version of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Of course, just like anything else done by the President (or his foes), it was a political move. But so, too, is the act of dehumanization: For only when people are dehumanized can they be viewed in the eyes of the law as less than human, as less deserving of their full human rights.

The death of Rodney King reminds us of this.

While seemingly unrelated, dehumanization is the common thread that runs through both the Rodney King and Dreamer narratives.

The lack of justice for King triggered an urban rebellion, unprecedented in U.S. history in its scope and rage. What could trigger such unadulterated violence?

The answer is very simple: King’s beating was not at all uncommon. People of color understood that kind of violence when the saw it play out on their TV sets. The King beating embodied a violence that has been systemic throughout history, and often utilized as a means of control. That it was videotaped is what made it unique.

Such violence can only be employed successfully if a people or population is considered less than human. In history, this was usually accomplished through the use of religious or “God-mandated” ideas; i.e., Providence and Manifest Destiny. The Doctrine of Discovery served the same purpose. Since no “human beings” (read Christians) existed on the American continent, Christians were free to violently take the land. Not being Christian was the same as not being human.

In examining history, can we honestly say that these ideas have gone away completely?

In 1992, the King trial only confirmed what men of color have been complaining about for generations – that they are constantly being beat down and treated as less than a human being, sans justice.

Like many, I am no stranger to that reality. I lived through something similar in 1979 in East Los Angeles. What made my case unique is that despite being brutally beaten and falsely arrested, I actually won my trial, not once but twice.

At the moment, we're all digesting President Obama's immigration announcement. It appears that one of the ugliest chapters in modern human history is about to end.

And yet those increasingly familiar voices, those commonly heard on AM talk radio and in the halls of power, are shouting at the top of their lungs, accusing the President of committing treason. They are determined to not only derail the President and his plan, but also to oppose any policy that treats undocumented immigrants with the dignity and respect of full human beings.

Only when dehumanization becomes normalized can inhumane policies and decisions be justified. Those opposed to the president’s announcement long ago normalized the view that undocumented immigrants are either criminals or terrorists, and certainly something less than human.

The familiar refrain of the anti-immigrant bloc has long been: “What don't you understand about the word ‘illegal’?” Apparently, their own lack of humanity blinds them to the concept. Many of these young students, who will now be able to continue on with their studies and work in 2-year increments, were brought to this country as infants or very small children. They know no country other than this one. But forget compassion; let's examine the law. To commit a crime, one needs to be conscious that one is committing a crime. A 3-month old infant cannot legally commit a crime, therefore it is impossible for that child to ever be prosecuted or branded as a criminal.

In making his announcement, the President made the mistake of pandering to the critics of immigration reform, by saying that these young people came to this country through “no fault of their own.” Implicit in his words was the idea that it is the parents who are at fault -- even though the moral lesson we learn from history is that parents attempting to better the lives of their children are not committing a crime, but rather, following the natural laws of survival.

Congress will soon have another opportunity to treat both the students and their parents as full human beings by passing the Dream Act later this year. To do anything less will be to abscond from their responsibility. The time has come for Congress to resolve the nation’s immigration issues. But human beings, not walls or the military, have to be at the center of any proposed solution. Failure to do so will simply prolong the human crisis.

Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, is the author of Justice a Question of Race and can be reached at: [email protected].

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