The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Immigration Boogeyman

Democrats are awaiting the Republican's Rovian divisive pitch in 2006 with all the uncertainty of a batter in the box facing Mariano Rivera. You know they only know how to throw one pitch and by now it's clear that the Right will be targeting immigration. The first hints were there in the Colorado campaign over C&D when opponent Caldara trotted out, three weeks out from Election Day, when things looked bleak, the weak line that cutting benefits for immigrants could save more money than C would raise. In 2006 the Right will have an anti-immigrant initiative on the ballot. And while Bush is tacking left with his guest worker program, he has left room to tack right should he need to and start bashing illegal immigrants. Peggy Noonan recently raised the colors of the flag in a WSJ opinion piece so shot through with holes and shoddy intellectual parsings it would simply be an embarrassment if not for the potency of her anti-elitist rhetoric.

WSJ - OpinionJournal - Peggy Noonan

Here is what is true of my immigrants and of the immigrants of America's past:

They fought for citizenship. They earned it. They waited in line. They passed the tests. They had to get permission to come. They got money that was hard-earned and bought a ticket. They had to get through Ellis Island or the port of Boston or Philadelphia, get questioned and eyeballed by a bureaucrat with a badge, and get the nod to take their first step on American soil. Then they had to find the A&S.

They knew citizenship was not something cheaply held but something bestowed by a great nation.

Did the fact that they had to earn it make joining America even more precious?

Yes. Of course.

We all know it is so often so different now. Perhaps a million illegal immigrants come into the United States each year, joining the 10 million or 20 million already here--nobody seems to know the number. Our borders are less borders than lines you cross if you want to. When you watch videotape of some of the illegal border crossings on a show like Lou Dobbs's--who is not a senator or congressman but a media star and probably the premier anti-illegal-immigration voice in the country--what you absorb is a sense of anarchy, an utter collapse of authority.

It's not good. It does not bode well.

The questions I bring to the subject are not about the flow of capital, the imminence of globalism, or the implications of uncontrolled immigration on the size and cost of the welfare state. They just have to do with what it is to be human.

What does it mean that your first act on entering a country--your first act on that soil--is the breaking of that country's laws? What does it suggest to you when that country does nothing about your lawbreaking because it cannot, or chooses not to? What does that tell you? Will that make you a better future citizen, or worse? More respecting of the rule of law in your new home, or less?

If you assume or come to believe that that nation will not enforce its own laws for reasons that are essentially cynical, that have to do with the needs of big business or the needs of politicians, will that assumption or belief make you more or less likely to be moved by that country, proud of that country, eager to ally yourself with it emotionally, psychologically and spiritually?

When you don't earn something or suffer to get it, do you value it less highly? If you value it less highly, will you bother to know it, understand it, study it? Will you bother truly to become part of it? When you are allowed to join a nation for free, as it were, and without the commitment of years of above-board effort, do you experience your joining that country as a blessing or as a successful con? If the latter, what was the first lesson America taught you?

These are questions that I think are behind a lot of the more passionate opposition to illegal immigration.

There are people who want to return to the old ways and rescue some of the old attitudes. There are groups that seek to restore border integrity. But they are denigrated by many, even the president, who has called them vigilantes. The New Yorker this week carries a mildly snotty piece by a writer named Daniel Kurtz-Phelan in which he interviews members of a group of would-be Minutemen who seek to watch the borders with Mexico and Canada. They are "running freelance patrols"; they are xenophobic; they dismiss critics as "communists" and "child molesters."

How nice to be patronized by young men whose place is so secure they have two last names. How nice to be looked down on for caring.

And they do care, that's the thing. And pay a price for caring. They worry in part that what is happening on our borders can damage our country by eroding the sense of won citizenship that leads to the mutual investment and mutual respect--the togetherness, if that isn't too corny--that all nations need to operate in the world, and that our nation will especially need in the coming world.

This is what I fear about our elites in government and media, who will decide our immigration policy. It is that they will ignore the human questions and focus instead, as they have in the past, only on economic questions (we need the workers) and political ones (we need the Latino vote). They think that's the big picture. It's not. What goes on in the human heart is the big picture.

Again: What does it mean when your first act is to break the laws of your new country? What does it mean when you know you are implicitly supported in lawbreaking by that nation's ruling elite? What does it mean when you know your new country doesn't even enforce its own laws? What does it mean when you don't even have to become an American once you join America?

Our elites are lucky people. They were born in a suburb, went to Yale, and run the world from a desk. Which means this great question, immigration, is going to be decided by people who don't know what it is to sleep on a bench. Who don't know what it is to earn your space, your place. Who don't know what it is to grieve the old country and embrace the new country. Who don't know what it is to feel you're a little on the outside and have to earn your way in to the inside. Who think it was without a cost, because it was without cost for them.
The problem with our elites as they make our immigration policy is not that they have compassion and open-mindedness. It is that they are unknowing and empty-headed. They don't know, most of them, what others had to earn, and how much they, and their descendents, prize it and want to protect it.

You just have to marvel at this piece of troglodytism masquerading as intelligent populism. Noonan gives voices to the erroneous notion that the immigrants of our parents' and grandparents’ generations all earned their citizenship, got here legally, and have some halo of sanctity for their struggles while today's immigrants waltz across the border in Mercedes. She promenades the notion that today, unlike our glorious past, immigrants have no allegiance to the US and come and go as they please. That they have it so easy.

All of this glosses over the regular stories of individuals who die in the desert from heat and thirst trying to make it here, of families bundled into the back of baking semis. It ignores that families are often separated as they try for better lives for themselves. That some travel up through Central America by foot, plodding towards the modern version of freedom’s shores. Would Noonan’s beloved, law-abiding Irish ancestors have waited patiently in Ireland had they not been separated from the US by 3000 miles of ocean? I think not. Previous generations haven’t immigrated illegally because of a thing called distance, geography and technology. In 1900 it was pretty hard to sneak into New York Harbor in a boat. This notion that those who came before valued it more highly while today Mexicans come and go with impunity and little allegiance or interest in America is simply fasle. In fact, as John Whiteclay Chambers showed in a 1992 book, immigrants 100 years ago often made the return trip home within 5 years of arriving here and came only for short term work. It’s nice to think that everyone who came here fell in love with the place and never intended to go back but large proportions of them did go home.

Noonan implies that we are so together now. That they are, by contrast, so different. In other words, they are so Latino. Noonan ignores those illegal immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe. If this isn’t a not so subtle way of playing the race card I don’t know how much clearer she would have to be. Maybe she should shout “Hey they are brown non English speakers don’t forget. Note how she claims to not be interested in economics or facts or statistics. Rather she is concerned “with what it is to be human.” The baldness of the prejudice quite takes your breath away doesn’t it? Could she have more explicitly suggested that these waves of illegal immigrants are somewhat less than human and therefore exempt from our humane consideration?

Oh yes, things are so different now, as Noonan says. But are they? Only if you note that the difference lies in the origin of these people. Otherwise things aren’t different at all. There is little evidence to suggest that Hispanic immigrants have endured less hardships, have had it easier, have been more indifferent to civic obligation, have been less American than previous generations of immigrants. My grandfather spoke little English and spent most of his life speaking in Yiddish. Maybe Noonan would throw him in the less than human category too since he wasn’t a native English speaker. I don’t know. But the ridicule she heaps on a New Yorker reporter for having two last names pretty much lets you in on what she is up to.

Noonan is playing on the worst kinds or prejudice against all of the enemies of the white working class. She is tapping the economic resentments of the so-called Reagan Democrats -- the less educated working class people who have seen a diminishment in their standard of living (in part due to globalization rather than immigration) and who struggle now to make ends meet and sustain the lifestyles and cultural dominance they enjoyed after the Second World War. These are the folks who feel the prosperity of the 90s passed them by or has long since left them. The poor New Yorker reporter may have a hyphenated name for a lot of reasons but Noonan goes out of her way to draw lines between us and all the thems out there – those effete liberal snobs with two names and an education sufficient to insulate them from the vagaries of the global economy or to actually improve their lot. Those poor dust covered brown folk who stumble across a desert trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. Yes, they may be breaking our laws but at least have the decency to recognize the sacrifices they are making, the hardships they endure, and their hope for a better life, which they happen to share with all of us.
Republicans know that there is a large swath of their base simmering in resentment at their lot in life. At the rise of homosexuals in prominence in American society. At the rise of previously unseen and unheard from minority groups. At the decline of the white male and the rise of the female in the work force. At the deterioration in economic opportunity, political, and social influence that has attended all of these changes for a large segment of Americans. At the same time that their economic prospects have eroded they have watched other groups rise in the social strata. The immigration question taps that resentiment (yes I meant to spell it that way) and suggests that you have a solution to those problems. That you are on their side.

But their problems have little to do with immigration and a lot to do with global integration – which we as a nation and the Republican Party in particular have been championing for some time now. And few Republican policies are aimed at doing anything to redress the economic plight of this voting block. The Democratic failure to articulate an agenda that these people could believe might help them has left them open to choosing the candidates that best tap their current resentments and anger. Clinton in ’92. Bush in ’04.Immigration is a serious and complex issue, but we aren't going to make good policy if we rely on cheap arguments and error filled (and often misleading) claims to advocate for one side or another. Those like Noonan, Congressman Tom Tancredo and, in our state legislature, Representative Welker are the ones who would like you to think this issue is an easy one. But for the nation to make progress on the policy side we need to do a number of things.

First we need to be honest about who wins and loses because of illegal immigration and have an honest accounting of the public and social costs and benefits. This means we will have to decide if we want to pay more for our agricultural produce in order to achieve reduced immigration. More to get houses built and sidewalks paved. Then we need to decide if we want a wall between us and Mexico. Yes an actual wall which one proposal on the table and is not unprecedented in history nor an ineffective solution. We will also need to decide if we want to spend more on enforcement and if we will be willing to raise taxes to do that. Finally, we need to dedicate ourselves to greater social and economic justice throughout Latin America and Asia. Unless those people enjoy freedom, freedom to start businesses, to bargain collectively, to stand up to the oligarchic powers which control their societies, oppress and exploit them and their poverty, there will always be millions willing to come to America. And we will have an immigration issue.


Odd that you push for extortion based, monopolistic labor practices in one post, and then later say that the wages of low earners need to be watered down further to keep stuff cheaper for society.

By Blogger Evil Sandmich, at 8:47 AM  

If you note, I don't actually say that we need immigration to keep wages cheap. I merely say that if we want to keep immigration low we need to be honest about the costs. For myself, I would be willing to pay a higher price for a little less globalization right now. I just don't think labor markets are as flexible as global capital markets and because of this, more globalization places great social stress that labor markets cannot alleviate. Easily.

By Blogger Dr Kwanda, at 11:08 AM  

Not quite a Republican conspiracy BTW, both parties have factions which break both ways, which will probably keep the issue in limbo for some time to come...,2808,DRMN_24736_4364313,00.html

By Blogger Evil Sandmich, at 12:54 PM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger Evil Sandmich, at 12:55 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:


<< Home