Interview: Writer José Orduña on the U.S.’ inconsistent immigration policies, Trump rhetoric and the scapegoating of migrants

José Orduña reading

Prairie Lights — Thursday, Apr. 21 at 7 p.m.

Illustration by Nathan Wilson
José Orduña — illustration by Nathan Wilson
In José Orduña’s recently published debut, The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration, he explores his path through the naturalization process, from his early life as a “removable alien” in Chicago, to becoming a United States citizen during his time in Iowa City.

Orduña is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and currently teaches at the Frank N. Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing. Next year, he will be the Joseph M. Russo Endowed Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico. Orduña will read at Prairie Lights on Apr. 21.

Your book starts with your childhood in Chicago and follows the naturalization process you undertook to obtain citizenship. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience?

It is at once a fairly straightforward process if you are eligible and if you [aren’t] then it is a completely inaccessible and very non-linear process. One of the things I’ve tried to capture in the book is that it begins before it begins and it doesn’t end when it ends.

The notion of citizenship and how one goes about acquiring citizenship in the U.S. is constantly changing. The attorneys I consulted about immigration law say that it is one of the most complicated bodies in law outside of tax law because it is always shifting. People who dedicate their life to immigration law find themselves always needing to catch up with all of the changes. Lots of arbitrary dates, small provisions, amendments and stuff like that.

The process of naturalization is one that doesn’t take into account the history of relations between the United States and Mexico or the history of U.S.-Latin American relations at all — not in the rhetoric of the national discourse, but more importantly not in the actual policy making. It is at once, you know, very on the surface, very simple, but once you scratch that surface a tiny bit, you’ll see it is in fact very complex and quite an enigma.

Does our immigration law in the U.S. treat people from different countries differently?

Absolutely. Where your citizenship is [held] affects how you move through the process. There are caps, numbers and special provisions that apply differently to people depending on their country of origin. But more important than your country of origin is how much money you have. If you are a wealthy person then it doesn’t matter where you are from. You are a global citizen, you can travel wherever you want and usually you are a couple of steps away from having citizenship wherever you want.

For example, in the United States there is a special thing called an “investor visa.” If you invest over a certain amount of money in the United States or you start a business that employs more than a certain number of U.S. citizens, then you automatically qualify for this visa which is a pathway toward permanent citizenship.

Do we prioritize the naturalization process for people we perceive as being an integral part of the economy?

Yes, and it’s very important that you say “perceive.” There is a big difference between people who are perceived to be low skill versus high skill. So-called low skilled laborers absolutely grow the economy. Think about it logically: People who come to live here, work here, they buy homes, cars, clothing and food and they pay taxes. They participate in the economy and all of those different forms of revenue consumption grow the economy.

There are certain cities in the U.S. whose local economies are almost completely sustained by an influx of migrants from different places. So there is the perceived relationship between unskilled and low skilled and there is the reality: Unskilled, highly skilled, undocumented and documented immigrants have an overall positive effect on the U.S. economy.

The overwhelming majority of agricultural employees in the U.S. are people from Mexico. Do they have the same rights as other workers?

No, they don’t. One of the key things to migrant labor is that people are vulnerable. In general, undocumented laborers are so desirable because they are so exploitable.

There is a wonderful anthropologist, Linda Green, who calls this “structural vulnerability.” As an undocumented laborer, you are inscribed with a structural vulnerability that is exploited by whoever is employing you. You can’t organize or make demands in terms of labor. Your labor is more malleable compared to someone who has full rights.

Your book is called The Weight of Shadows. There is a lot of frustration in this book; it is not the Mickey Mouse Club. Can you say anything about what people experience, all of these people who have no rights? What is the “weight of shadows?”

The title is a reference to an extended metaphor of a shadow from the painting “Fenómeno” by Remedios Varo. I try to complicate the idea of people as shadows or of people coming into the light. Some of the activism surrounding immigration in this country has the simplistic paradigm of coming into the light and exposing oneself and I don’t know if that is the best strategy for immigration activism, because it makes those people who identify themselves vulnerable.

There is some rage in this book. I was just talking to a friend yesterday, an artist who is undocumented. He read the book and one of the things that he was most surprised by was this tenor that runs throughout the book, this anger, this rage. He pointed to the chapter “Ceremony,” which actually deals with the naturalization ceremony. He thought it was going to go a different way, that it was going to be this Mickey Mouse Club idea of the hopeful happy and grateful immigrant. He was really happy with the way that that chapter is written because these feelings and sentiments are part of the picture, part of the story.

I am sure that many immigrants are happy and grateful when they received their naturalization, but the question is, why are they happy and what is the specific nature of this happiness? It is not an uncomplicated happiness, it is more of a sense of relief. It is important to depict this anger and this rage in a way that is honest.

James Baldwin’s book Notes of the Native Son has always been a guide for me in terms of how to retain rage and anger in literature in a way that is fruitful, complex and doesn’t necessarily just push the reader away but invites them to consider why there is an anger or rage.

A lot of people are upset about the anger and rage that they see at rallies for Donald Trump. A significant part of Trump’s platform revolves around Mexican immigration. What does it mean when people on either side are expressing the same emotions as the people they oppose?

For me, a person like Trump is just a clown, but a phenomenon like Trump’s inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric is more of a symptom than a root cause. Look at Obama, who is a Democratic president. He has essentially done what Trump is talking about doing. Obama has record-breaking exportation numbers. Without building a wall, he has enacted that racism far more efficiently and effectively.

The Republicans aren’t alone. When you look at the history of Democrats, they have done a huge amount of damage to immigrants. For example, NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] was not introduced by a republican. NAFTA was signed into law by Bill Clinton and NAFTA is one of the more recent trade deals that, by all measures, has decimated sectors of the Mexican economy. The most vulnerable people in Mexico, subsistence farmers — NAFTA absolutely decimated the [ability] of subsistence farmers to subsist. So people either moved to a city or came to the U.S.

Trump is horrible. Trump’s rhetoric is horrible, but we have Obama, we have Clinton. All of those figures that have enacted those things already.

When you use the word “symptom,” are you saying the anger that we are seeing is already a part of the United States?

All of the racists that we see at Donald Trump rallies were not created by Trump. They were simply mobilized by Trump. And, yeah, this kind of anger, violence … racist xenophobia has always been an essential part of the American experience.

But this violence isn’t something that is ahistorical. It isn’t something that is as a result of basic human nature. All of these things have specific historical contexts and antecedents. In the book, I compare our current political moment, post-2008, to the moment directly after the great depression, during a period that is not really widely known by many people in the United States called the Repatriation. If one looks to history then it is very easy to see that whenever there is an economic downturn in the United States, there is also an uptick of xenophobia and racism.

How has the illegality of drugs in the United States affected immigration policy and the landscape of what happens in the U.S. along the border?

This is something that is incredibly misunderstood. Most of the drugs that come into this country are not brought in backpacks on migrants that are crossing on foot. Most of the drugs are shipped in shipping containers, in semis and arrive at aquatic shipping ports and all of those avenues through which legal goods come into the country. This fact is not at all present in the public discourse because nobody wants to affect the free flow of goods into and out of the United States. There is so much traffic at shipping ports that every minute of delay costs an exorbitant amount of money and nobody wants to tamper with that by trying to make it secure, even though those are the actual avenues through which most drugs enter the U.S.

So what do you do? You scapegoat migrants and you use the idea that migrants are bringing drugs into this country as a way to drum up this foaming-at-the-mouth nativist fervor, but anyone who actually looks at how drugs come into this country would see that this is not the primary way that drugs come into this country.

By consuming drugs are you inadvertently supporting criminal activity in other countries?

I think the issue is more complicated than saying, “Stop doing drugs.” The incredible demand for drugs is not going away. People are suffering from addictions and telling someone that this is morally wrong is not going to stop someone from doing drugs. Even if you tell some that there are legal criminal consequences for doing drugs, people are not going to stop doing drugs. We need to put pressure on public officials in order to change the so-called drug war. It is never going to be resolved through victim blaming and victim punishment.

So these are all big ideas. If I didn’t ask you what these things mean to you — because they mean nothing to me — then what can a nice Iowa City boy like me do?

I think that people have to become more sophisticated about where they look to for possibilities of intervention in this internecine struggle … There is the example of produce: You might say, “What can I do? I need to eat vegetables, I don’t want to simply not buy vegetables from an industry that exploits migrant workers.” You could buy produce from local farms, but we really need to look beyond the vegetables and ask what are the root causes of migration and why is migration bad for migrants. Migration doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. Supporting leaders in politics who know this, people who have a sophisticated understanding of immigration is a good start.

But also politicians who are against intervention in Latin America. A large portion of the Latin American migration to the United States today is due to military intervention by the United States throughout Latin American during the 1980s. I think labor organizing is very important, but organizing in the broader, more internationalist tradition has a bigger impact than the nationalist labor movements, because [if] you don’t look beyond the boundaries of the nation then you again fall into this trap of blaming immigrant labor for undercutting American labor — which is part of what creates the anger and rage that we have been discussing.

Benjamin Kuperman lives and works in Iowa City. His hobbies include baking, comfortable sweaters and long walks in Hickory Hill. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 197.

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