Centering the Immigrant in the Inter/National Imagination (Part III): Aoki, Rawls, and Immigration

Robert S. Chang


Fifteen years ago, Keith Aoki and I published "Centering the Immigrant in the Inter/National Imagination" in an early LatCrit symposium. The core idea animating that article is encapsulated in its opening sentence: "How a nation treats the immigrant speaks volumes about the nation." Our notion was that the immigrant, though invoked in phrases such as "We are a nation of immigrants," was more typically placed at the periphery rather than the center. We sought, in that article, to place the immigrant at the center of the analysis. We thought we were at a critical juncture with regard to U.S immigration law and policy, and we felt there was a great need for a critical examination of the "project of national self-definition. . . . [which] includes not only deciding whom to admit and expel, but also providing for each alien's transition from outsider to citizen." We found it odd that "borders [had] become increasingly porous to flows of information and capital" but were "constricting when it [came] to the movement of certain persons." Our article was an attempt to draw attention to this phenomenon and to examine the ways that immigrant identities, immigrant communities, and the nation are constituted. Fifteen years after "Centering the Immigrant," we find ourselves wrestling with the same questions. We find our nation at another key juncture with regard to the issue of immigration, the rights of immigrants, and what is to be our national self-conception. Instead of books like Arthur M. Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society or Peter Brimelow's Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster from the 1990s, we have Patrick Buchanan's State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and the Conquest of America and J.D. Hayworth's Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security, and the War on Terror. Instead of Proposition 187 in California, we have Arizona's SB 1070 and similar laws in Utah, Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. One of the things that Keith and I talked about fifteen years ago was the role that political theory might play in helping to think through what appeared to be an intractable political problem. He suggested that I apply our methodology of centering the immigrant to political theory. We had several conversations about social contract theory and how that would apply to immigrants. I started an article, and though Keith encouraged me to complete it, I never did. I will use the occasion of this Symposium to revisit those conversations with Keith about centering the immigrant in political theory. What follows is a sketch that shows how centering the immigrant exposes the inattention paid to the immigrant and the issue of immigration in social contract theory. It focuses on how the immigrant might be brought into the conversation within John Rawls's notion of the original position and the veil of ignorance. This Essay does not seek to determine the content of the conversation nor what principles might be agreed upon by those in the original position.