Whole New World

October 1, 2005
Rudy: remapping the concept of borders

Rudy: remapping the concept of borders

Photo:Duke University Photography

North Carolina, and the Triangle in particular, has one of the highest immigration rates in the country. Kathy Rudy, noted ethicist and associate professor of women's studies, teaches a seminar in which students are paired with local Latino immigrant families. Here she discusses immigration trends, the meaning of borders, and the concept of feminism within a population working to define its place and identity.

Describe current immigration trends in the U.S.

Immigration from Latin America is increasing at an exponential level. Factories are closing down there, and there is no work, no money. The patterns of immigration are changing, too. Whereas ten years ago, most of the immigration was focused in Texas and California, Arizona, and New Mexico, now people are moving inland, and North Carolina is a huge hub. I read recently that it has the third highest growth rate of immigration.

How are those immigrants received?

This has always been a state where migrant workers worked. We've had fairly good outreach connections for social services to the migrant communities and that very quickly translated into social-service benefits to some degree--getting kids in school, things like that--for newly arrived immigrants that aren't here to pick.

Oftentimes it's the case that two or three families are sharing an apartment. One family will open their home to another. They teach them the ropes. There's a great outpouring of sharing of all resources to brand new immigrants here. Many of my students found out that the families had jobs before they got here. Someone in their extended community back home, whether it was Mexico or Guatemala, would have a job in Food Lion, and the guy at Food Lion would say, "Can you get me fifteen more workers?" And they'd send back home.

Often people talk about impoverished immigrants draining our nation's resources. What goes into that public perception, and how does it differ from what you've seen?

We're talking about people who are in poverty, no question, but we're not talking about people who are homeless and starving, that's sort of the dividing line. By and large, you don't see Mexicans homeless. You don't see them in the soup kitchen. You don't see them falling through the cracks in a way that is very visible. Two of the Duke students last semester took a bunch of the kids from their families out to Ben & Jerry's ice cream. They had never had that--there's nothing beyond the bare minimum. So we are talking poverty, but I think the immigrants' experience is buffered by the fact that, even though everyone's very poor, the ability to share allows them to have much richer lives.

Are immigrants a drain on the economy?

The activism on the borders has been mostly about keeping recent immigrants out--"we have enough, you're draining our system, we don't want you here." That seems crazy to me, because it's not clear who would take up the jobs that they're doing here. The price of everything in our lives would skyrocket if we did not have access to this very cheap labor. Our infrastructure would shut down, from nannies to domestic workers to road workers to construction.

What about government services?

In terms of Social Security and Medicaid, unless our laws change drastically in the near future, they're not even eligible. The only [government-provided] social services that they are "entitled to" are public schools. If immigrants are brought to the emergency room, the hospital will treat them. But if they can't pay the bill out of pocket, they do run the risk of being deported. Many traditional welfare sources are dried up even for U.S. citizens, but they don't even have access to any of those.

Talk about the notion of borders.

There are many different models for understanding immigration. Strangers Among Us, by Roberto Suro, describes the United States as a world of citizenship, with aliens entering it.... [Juan] Gonzalez's Harvest of Empire sees America as one big continent with nationality lines drawn and redrawn such that what counts as the United States used to be part of Mexico, not very long ago. Gonzalez argues that this is not really immigration in the older traditional sense of the Europeans coming to the new land. These are borders-crossing communities that have very little to do with people moving. It's the borders that move. We Americans act like these borders were set in stone at the time of Moses and the

Ten Commandments, and that's not true. Texas was annexed not that long ago [in 1845, nine years after winning its independence from Mexico.] Suddenly we draw a line there and say, "This is ours, you're American."

You go through some pockets of Durham, which seems so far away from the border, and Mexico has been recreated. You are an outsider there if you do not speak Spanish. That's happening all over the United States. And so the borders are being jumbled up in that way, too.

What does that mean in terms of our national identity?

Lots of academics are making arguments that the era of the nation-state is over. The idea that the national geographic borders are what drives our complete identity, our complete economic system, is not but 200 years old, and things are heading toward being organized in a very different way. The growth of the multi-national [corporation] on the border is a huge factor in this. Corporations were nationalistically organized twenty, thirty, forty years ago. If a U.S. corporation in 1970 opened a textile mill in Texas, it couldn't employ people from Mexico without proper documentation. [The owner] probably wouldn't even have wanted to. Now [the corporation] goes where it can get the cheapest labor. It has no commitments to a nation, no commitments to national tax structure, nothing. So that in and of itself is going to shift the labor flow and cash flows, profit flows, to disregard borders.

How has this course become the senior seminar for the department?

We started out kicking around the idea that no matter where our majors land after graduation, we wanted them to feel like they could be a part of the community. This course teaches students how to begin to explore their own communities. Whether they end up in Tanzania or New York City, it gives them some tools to do cultural analysis to figure out who is living next door and why.

How does it tie into women's studies and the larger concepts of feminism?

Feminism is an ever-changing project. We had a situation last semester in the class where one of the women in our project was being beaten by her husband's brother. She made the argument that this is what it meant to be a good woman, to allow this to happen. The question for us was whether that was feminism, and of course we decided no. Keeping the old ways might be considered feminism if the old ways weren't detrimental, harmful, and oppressive to women. But in this case they were. Thirty years ago or longer, you might have been able to find an African-American woman who would have said it's all right for my husband to beat me, because we need to stay together to keep the race strong. Now, you're never going to find anyone in black America arguing for domestic violence based on feminism.

This course gives us the chance to face the same issues but at an earlier stage. What is the role of women? How does gender tie into the building of a culture? When is it acceptable and when is it not to put the feminist label on things? Obviously, there are many different kinds of feminism, but we don't often get to see it manifest in the practices of daily life of a community of people. White feminism is very far evolved; black feminism has evolved in different directions for as many years. But here we're getting to sort of see a new thing emerging, and make arguments about what's good and bad about it. It's still early enough that it's not set in stone that Chicana feminists do or do not accept domestic violence for the sake of their race. It's interesting. It's like being there at the birth of a new ideology.