The United States is “America” to most people. But that word refers to the continent, and when applied to the US is better spelled with a “k,” as in “swastika”.
It’s the country most Filipinos want to visit. But if you’ve ever been involved in any group or activity faintly progressive; if you have relatives or friends who have been; or you’re from a country the US says harbors “terrorist groups”, it’s tempting fate to go. No matter how vague or past your involvement, it can earn you a strip search, an interrogation session with the FBI or immigration, summary deportation, or even indefinite detention.
Retired Philippine Army general Raymundo Jarque and his wife Xenia found this out last week when they landed in Dallas. Singled out for interrogation, the Jarques, at 67 years old just the right age for terrorists, were also denied food while awaiting deportation, and jailed in their underwear. The charge: possible terrorist links because Jarque was a National Democratic Front consultant in peace talks in the 1990s.
The Jarques went to the US to visit relatives. Like many Filipinos, they’re linked by blood to that country through sons and daughters, cousins and uncles, nieces or nephews who live there.
The US is not a nice place for non-whites and dollar-poor people to visit even in the best of times. You don’t really want to live there–not if you think there’s more to life than McDonald’s, a gas-guzzling car, Mickey Mouse prancing around Disneyland, and indulging one’s earthly appetites at the cost of one’s dignity and self-respect. But I confess: I’ve visited the US several times to see relatives, and even briefly lived there during arguably better times.
In 1978 Jimmy Carter was US president. Carter had inherited the US policy, in place since the Johnson administration, of supporting dictatorships. But the US tolerated opponents of dictatorship within its borders. Many Filipino exiles opposed to the Marcos regime were there in the late 1970s, and they could lobby Congress, publish anti-dictatorship tracts, and hold public discussions without fear.
But while dissenters were tolerated, the US government continued to support Marcos with economic and military aid. The conflict was between the US’ supposed adherence to democratic rights and the demands of its imperial interests. Those interests the architects of its foreign policy sought to defend and advance at all costs, including mass murder.
Since the Reagan presidency the contradiction has been resolved in favor of repression at home and naked aggression abroad. As well as self-determination among nations, the Republican gang of George W. Bush has also savaged due process and other individual rights on the excuse that it’s necessary to defeat “international terrorism”.
If Nixon bombed Vietnam and Cambodia, and George W. Bush Iraq, the Democrats’ Bill Clinton did the same to the Sudan and the former Yugoslavia. It’s in the policies at home, not abroad, where the Republicans and the Democrats differ. At least at home minority and immigrant rights as well as those of visitors were to some extent respected by Democratic administrations.
US immigration treats every visitor from a poor country as a potential overstaying alien whatever party is in power. But nowadays if you’re Asian, or just look different, you’re likely to be regarded as a possible terrorist as well. The worst thing to be is Muslim and/or Arab, which makes Indonesians, Malaysians, some Filipinos, but especially Middle Eastern folk likely victims of racial profiling at US immigration counters.
There are enough horror stories on the treatment of “terrorists” to fill a hefty volume, among other reasons because the US Patriot Act permits the summary deportation or indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without the benefit of lawyers and visits by relatives.
But the scramble to visit and live in the United States continues because the poverty rampant in the US world order (800 million people go to bed hungry daily) drives millions from their countries to look for opportunities abroad– especially in the US.
And yet poverty is no stranger to millions of US residents. Some 37 million are poor, and millions of US children often go hungry. Also an extremely violent place, some 30,000 people are shot dead every year in the US, and 65,000 more injured. School shootings by students have been described as “an epidemic.” Assaults, rapes and armed robberies are common, with one violent crime for every 47 US residents occurring yearly. Two million people are in US prisons, in the construction of which it excels as it does in war and mayhem.
Racism is as common as grass in the US, where everything’s right if you’re white, but everything can be wrong if you’re not. And they start them young. Grade school children blithely hurl such racial epithets as “Nigger”, “Spic”, “Chink” etc. at each other when they quarrel. It’s a habit of thought that stays with them all their lives, whether on the job, in school or on the street– where your being a “Slope” (Asian) or a homosexual can earn you a beating by racist gangs.
“America” isn’t in the heart. It’s in the colonial mind, “Amerika” being the reality. You don’t really want to live there, and visiting it is like visiting Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Except that today you don’t have to be Jewish, just different.
(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer and INQ7, September 30, 2005)