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Monday, July 17, 2006

Two views: transgender and immigrant

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an interesting take on the debate raging within academia about women's aptitude, role, participation and success within scientific fields of study.
Neurobiologist Ben Barres has a unique perspective on former Harvard president Lawrence Summers' assertion that innate differences between the sexes might explain why many fewer women than men reach the highest echelons of science.

That's because Barres used to be a woman himself.
As the debate on women in science heats up again, Barres took the opportunity to share the perspective on the issue that his unique status as transgendered affords him. Many of his observations translate, as would be expected, far beyond the world of science.
After he undertook a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."

And as a female undergraduate at MIT, Barres once solved a difficult math problem that stumped many male classmates only to be told by a professor: "Your boyfriend must have solved it for you."

"By far," he wrote, "the main difference I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect" than when he was a woman. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."

Barres said the switch had given him access to conversations that would have excluded him previously: "I had a conversation with a male surgeon and he told me he had never met a woman surgeon who was as good as a man."
The article continues:
Barres said he has realized from personal experience that many men are not conscious of the privileges that come with being male, which leaves them unable to countenance talk of glass ceilings and discrimination.

In an interview, Nancy Andreasen, a well-known psychiatrist at the University of Iowa, agreed with Barres. She said it took her a long time to convince her husband that he actually got more respect when he approached an airline ticket counter than she did. When she stopped sending out research articles under her full name and used the initials N.C. Andreasen instead, she said, the acceptance rate for her publications soared.
That such attitudes within science prevail should come as no surprise, given the sexist nature of society as a whole, but it sure ought to give us pause the next time we hear some scientist - male or female - lecture us about the infallible and self-correcting nature of science. Science, it turns out, is just as open to manipulation and the influence of personal and social biases, discriminations and hierarchies as anything else.

Meanwhile, Northeastern Pennsylvania's Times Leader online reports on the concerns of one Latino resident of Hazleton, which just passed a strict anti-immigration law. According to an article posted on the Muslim American Society's webpage,
The city council of Hazleton, a former coal-mining town of some 31,000 people, late on Thursday passed a measure that will deny a business permit to anyone hiring illegal immigrants.

It also imposes a $1,000 fine on any landlord who rents to illegal immigrants, and establishes English as the town's official language.

The ordinance states that illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, imposes a financial burden on hospitals and reduces the quality of other public services in the town.

Hazleton boomed under a wave of Eastern European immigrants in the late 1800s, and has experienced a surge of Hispanic immigration in recent years.

The townspeople are suffering from "the debilitating effects on their economic and social well being imposed by the influx of illegal aliens," the regulation says, and the city has the authority to punish those who aid illegal aliens.
In the Times Leader article, Rudy Espinal, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic asks the question that the anti-immigration folks hate to answer.
“I’m legal, but how will the cashier know I’m legal? Do I look legal? Should she ask for my green card? Should people start carrying their green cards in their wallet? What about people who are American citizens and don’t have green cards? How are they going to prove that they’re citizens?”
In the United States, stretching back from slavery and the Chinese Exclusion Act until today, citizenship has always been code for "white." No white people were stopped under the Fugitive Slave Act and forced to defend their citizenship, but even free Blacks in the North routinely had to prove their free status or risk deportation South. In fact, catching and returning escaped slaves was one of the main roles of early police forces in the North. Thus, the enforcement of rights based on citizenship is defacto a defense of white privilege and an attack on people of color.

Espinal continues,
Some illegal immigrants have children born in Hazleton. Will families split up if those parents want their children to stay here, both because it’s the only home the children know and because the children might have more opportunities here in the long run? If so, will the children go to foster care?

What if illegal immigrants evade detection? Will a business that employs or does business with them have to shut down? Espinal sees a scenario in which other legal workers, including non-Latinos, could be out of work as a result of an employer’s licensing penalty.

If the city, trying to avoid such situations, makes concessions and exceptions, it will open up accusations of special treatment and raise questions about the purpose of the ordinance itself, he said.

Officials in surrounding Hazle Township, which houses numerous industrial plants and warehouses, followed Hazleton’s lead by approving an ordinance that denies a business occupancy permit or contractor’s license – or renewals for at least two years – to companies that hire illegal immigrants.

“I don’t know how this will be implemented, but I hope a big plant won’t get shut down because of this because we all suffer when 500 people have to go on unemployment at one time, including the people who were born here.”

He also wonders about people who are only an appointment away from securing legal residency. Will they be treated the same?

“Some would say it’s black and white. The illegal is a criminal and that’s it. We should hang him. But what if someone has been here 10 years and has accomplished a way of life, trying to do good things in the community? Maybe that’s not so bad.”
Another Pennsylvania newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, reported on the enforcement of the measure, signed into law just this week by the town's mayor, Lou Barletta.
The city's Code Enforcement Department will implement the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, a law passed by the City Council on Thursday that fines landlords $1,000 per day for each illegal immigrant living on their properties. It takes effect in two months.

"Do I have confidence that employees of the city of Hazleton will be able to implement this policy in a way that makes sense? Absolutely not," said Lee Llambelis, legal director of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Llambelis said her organization will file a lawsuit that will claim the ordinance violates the federal government's jurisdiction over immigration.

"We very much expect there to be similar cookie-cutter ordinances popping up all over the country," she said. "We will start in Hazleton but are prepared to litigate them nationally."
In fact, as we have seen here in Arizona, states, counties and cities are stepping into the vacuum created by inaction on immigration at the national level, and it is at the local level where white supremacist anti-immigration movements have strongest influence. The one thing keeping national immigration legislation in check at the Federal level is the split within the capitalist class around the usefulness of cheap labor and the danger of a populist white supremacist revolt from their own ranks below. The spread of these ordinances at the local level is more evidence that this white supremacist, populist movement is gaining strength.
"It's looking like we're going to see a tidal wave of local governments stepping up to the plate on handling illegal immigration on the local level," said Joseph Turner, who proposed an ordinance similar to Hazleton's in San Bernardino, Calif. "And I believe it's going to put enormous pressure on the federal government to finally act."

Arizona, Colorado and California are among the states that have acted unilaterally to control undocumented immigration, said Gabriel Escobar. He co-authored a national survey of Hispanics released Thursday that found most believe the national immigration-policy debate has increased discrimination.

"What people are realizing, and what Hazleton and other communities like Hazleton are a sign of, is that even though this is entirely a federal responsibility, the effects of immigration are felt most acutely on the local level," said Escobar, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

The vote in Hazleton will alienate the influx of thousands of Hispanic residents whose arrival has revitalized the town, said Lazaro Fuentes, board chairman of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of the Lehigh Valley, an organization of about 200 businesses 35 miles southeast of Hazleton.

"This is politicization of a hot topic right now, and enforcing it is about as enforceable as the fact that you leave your house without $2 in your pocket and you can be arrested for vagrancy," he said.
Time will tell whether such laws are enforceable or not, but American history has seen mass deportations and internments before - and, of course, the prison system currently houses more than two million mostly people of color already - so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that we will see such policies return or expand. More likely, however, the issue will continue to fuel the growth of the reactionary, white supremacist right - movements that have frequently proven themselves quick and dangerous when it comes to taking action in defense white skin privilege. With the American system rooted in white supremacy, it will surely respond sympathetically to their demands, if only to placate them and preserve elite power.


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