Friday, March 31, 2006

Anti-Immigrant racism

I haven't written about the immigration issue because frankly, I don't feel that strongly. Yes, people living here without the sanction of law is bad. And it probably drives down wages, and I don't entirely buy the claim that no citizen would take those jobs, though I expect that paying adequate wages would be a prerequisite of solving that little tangle. I also don't think it's practical to deport 12 million people, and I don't want to wall off or militarize the border. The problem is one of supply and demand, and the smart solution is not to penalize impoverished economic refugees, but to exert stronger control of the market. Enhance penalties for hiring undocumented workers, implement programs to strengthen the national economies of the countries those workers come from, and increase enforcement actions against employers. That will increase supply in the native markets and decrease it here.

That's a long-term solution, and in the short-term, we need to deal with a serious chunk of people who are here, who have families, friends, and are parts of the community. Some sort of earned citizenship process for those people and some rejiggering of legal immigration levels are necessary to resolve the short-term problem (not guest worker programs, that's indentured servitude). Ultimately though, I don't see illegal immigration undermining the country, and I think it's a problem somewhere between the rash of highway speeding and the use of marijuana. It's bad, but not bad enough that the Senate and wonkosphere should be spending weeks messing with it. There are simply more urgent problems.

But fixing those problems doesn't give a good opportunity to demonize people.

Dave Neiwert quotes from the Nation's story on the motivations behind the anti-immigrant movement's leaders (note that, like the Reconstructionist movement, the supporters of particular policies may not themselves share these motives. I'm not saying that all anti-immigrant feeling is racist).:
Back in those good old times, in 1982, explaining the Klan's anti-immigrant advocacy, [famed Klan member David] Duke said, "Every new immigrant adds to our crime problems, our welfare rolls and unemployment of American citizens.... We are being invaded in the southwest as if a foreign army were coming over the border.... They're going to take more and more hard-earned money from the productive middle class in the form of taxes and social programs." And Duke called for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants and harsh penalties for businesses that employ them. "I'd make the Mexican-American border almost like a Maginot line," he said, referring to the militarized barrier France constructed between itself, Italy and Germany after World War I.

At the time, Duke was widely dismissed as little more than a turbo-charged version of the paranoid style--"the Klan's answer to Robert Redford," as reporter Patty Sims described him in 1978. But today his anti-immigration rhetoric sounds not so remote from one of top-rated CNN host Lou Dobbs's fulminations during his daily "Broken Borders" segment. Duke's Klan Border Watch, meanwhile, served as the forerunner and inspiration of the Dobbs-touted Minutemen groups that have proliferated from the Mexico border to Herndon, Virginia, the city that hosted the American Renaissance conference, where disgruntled locals hold regular protests outside a day-labor center. Under pressure from Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, chair of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, and with sponsorship from House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner (tough-talking heir to the Kotex fortune), the Republican-dominated House has approved a bill that makes it a felony to be in the United States illegally, mandates punishment for providing aid or shelter to undocumented immigrants and allocates millions for the construction of an iron wall between the United States and Mexico. Duke may have fallen short on the national stage, but his old notions have gained a new life through new political figures.

"Tancredo, he's pretty good. I would probably vote for him for President," Duke told me.
Talk about a Mexican "reconquista" plot has moved from the racist fringe to a routine talking point on the right. Mexican immigrants are demonized by mainstream Republicans in ways that make my skin crawl. Most of us probably have a family story of some ancestor who lied about his age or fudged some vital piece of information to get through the line at Ellis Island, and they did it for the same reason Mexicans are coming here illegally now: America is a great nation, a bastion of liberty, freedom, and economic happiness. The solution isn't to wall that off, nor to create a permanent underclass of guest laborers, but to set immigration levels and policies so that we preserve those features of our country and promote them abroad. Criminalizing Good Samaritans isn't the answer, neither is a "guest worker program."

Let's drop the lines racists have contribute and look for real answers, not demons to fight.