She asks if I’m an alien. For a moment, I am rendered silent. We are looking at a legal form, so the question has a context. Still, it is not a question that one is asked regularly. I mention that it is a strange question, and she replies that she was once an alien.
She prefers alien to (non)immigrant.
Within a few sentences, I glean that immigrant connotes criminality for her. Immigrants are a cluster of associations, none of which she wants to claim. Proximity is contagious, and categories leak.
This is also a conversation about constructing whiteness, and about an invitation extended to me to ally myself with whiteness against the racialized, criminalized (because racialized) immigrants.
I wonder, and will not pursue this thought here, how the ongoing discourse on immigration over the past many years has shaped forms and practices of identification. It seems strange to me that one should prefer “alien” to immigrant.
Alien. Immigrant. Foreigner.
We talk long enough for me to know that she is politically conservative. Lou Dobbs flashes across my mind. He has provided a language and framework that joins whiteness to anti-immigration sentiments, and urges white immigrants to distance themselves from brown immigrants, in her case to embrace alien over immigrant.
This distaste for immigrant now can live comfortably with the patriotic sentiment that America is a nation of immigrants. Because, back then, immigrants “looked like us.” Angel Island has yet to become as famous or recognized as Ellis Island, after all.
I remain struck by the claim “I was once an alien,” and what it suggests about citizenship and belonging, about assimilating and being assimilated, about passing—isn’t it striking how white illegal immigrants are “put on the road to citizenship” on tv? How whiteness enables aliens to become unalienated. Not immigrant. White.