The anxieties which surround Latino immigration have been on brilliant display over the past few weeks. As many as two million immigrant workers and their families and allies have taken to the streets to protest a version of “immigration reform” currently up for debate in Washington. Under some proposed measures, illegal entry into the United States would be felony, and aiding immigrants by providing food, water or medical supplies to those crossing the desert frontier between the United States and Mexico would be a criminal act. More ominously, local police and law enforcement officials would be made responsible for enforcing immigration laws, making policing of immigrant communities even more difficult. Who will report crimes of domestic violence theft or even murder if officers are required to report and deport anyone they come in contact with?
The debate in Washington is somewhat surreal, constrained as it is by the realities of the contemporary American economy and the increasing electoral clout of working-class Latinos. Overwhelming majorities of Anglo and black Americans favor harsh regulation of the borders and a crackdown on undocumented workers and their employers. The Republican back bench, as well as many local conservative activists and opinion-makers are biting at the bit to capitalize on the insecurity and xenophobia conjured up by discussion of immigration. Populist Democrats and some in the labor movement see restricting immigration as a way to boost wages and employment. They are likely to be frustrated. American capital needs immigrant labor just as much as it needs cheap oil- and so demands to move the Berlin Wall to the Texas border is not very realistic.
On the state and local level, however, it is likely that more of the “punish the poor” strategies which take rights, benefits or small comforts away from undocumented workers will continue to proliferate. Just as conservatives seem to think that denying condoms to young people keeps them chaste, people seem to think that denying drivers’ licenses, health care or education to undocumented workers and their families will stop people from crossing our border in search of jobs.
This leaves a “strange bedfellows” coalition of immigrant-rights advocates, unions who represent heavily Latino and Asian-immigrant industries, and corporate-oriented conservatives to hammer out a compromise. I expect that the upshot will be a bill which allows employers to hire “guest workers” at very low wages, but that also offers some windy and treacherous path to permanent status or citizenship. In order to get such a bill past conservatives, however, some of the more draconian measures of border enforcement and criminalization will also be part of the mix.
One of the things that keeps us as a country from being able to discuss immigration in a rational, let alone compassionate way is the perennial wave of nativism which greets any wave of immigration. The same theories are trotted out each time: the new group of immigrants refuse to assimilate, their religion is anathema, they won’t learn our language or our culture, they are disloyal, subversive. In the United States, this pattern is made all the more ridiculous by our own policultural history- and so each new claim must be distinguished from the xenophobia of the past generation. And so Samuel Huntington and Pat Buchanan must explain why these new immigrants are qualitatively worse than the Polish, Irish, German, Jewish, Norwegian or Chinese families who were accused of destroying America a century ago.
Layered onto this anxiousness is the rumor/talking point among both Anglo and black public opinion that there is a deliberate, calculated plan on the part of the Mexican government and infiltrators in the United States to “re-conquer”
the American Southwest. As “Proof” of these fantasies, immigration opponents point to expressions of Mexican and Chicano nationalism at Marches and rallies and on streets and businesses in Lationo neighborhoods. Michelle Malkin
, a syndicated columnist and major exponent of the “reconquista” myth has waxed hysterical in recent columns and on her website about the “brown power” and “this land was stolen” banners held at last week’s marches. She goes so far as to complain that “brown is beautiful” is a racist slogan, and that any white person with such a banner would be attacked.
I don’t know what feelings of harassment would lead a person to march under the banner of “white is beautiful” given that Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the U.S. Senate all seem to agree with such sentiments. Furthermore, if waving Mexican flags is such a dangerous sin, why was President Bush praised for doing just such a thing at a parade in Texas in today’s L.A. Times? The incident was used to illustrate the fact that the President is “at ease” with Mexican-Americans. However, when it’s waved in the context of one million immigrants marching in the streets of Los Angeles and demanding more rights, immigration opponents go ape. Sometimes I wonder if these people hide in their houses in fear during Saint Patricks Day parades, when another immigrant group plots the destruction of America. "Why should I kiss you just because you are Irish, you racist!"
The point here is that Malkin and others are working hard to prove to us that we are in a unique historical moment. Just as their predecessors, and their compatriots in Europe, they are conjuring up an image of dangerous, subversive immigrant population. They are joined by those who argue that population growth itself mandates stopping migration across the border (though these people usually seem less concerned about the density of Mexico City or Guatemala City). Then there is the pseudo-feminist argument that Latino immigrants, unlike regular Americans, are sexist and have lots of babies under the enslavement of the Catholic Church. All of this is nonsense. America is strong enough to handle cultural diversity. And, while radical nationalist slogans stoke irrational fear of a “reconquista”, Anglos in the West do need to wake up and realize that the cultural landscape of our entire region has always been heavily Latino. Talking about the “Latinoization” of America is like talking about the “Americanization” of Canada- it’s really hard to figure out what is invasion and what is co-evolution. Spanish has always been spoken here. Or do people think that “Los Angeles” is a Dutch name?
It's an American tradition: get here, then complain about whoever comes next. Just ask Michelle Malkin, who, like 99% of America, is descended from either an immigrant or a slave.
Taken altogether, this immigration anxiety could become one of the defining issues of the next decade. If so, we can expect to see the breakdown of some important political alliances. Like Civil Rights, it will present the Democrats with a tough choice to make, between new and old loyalties, between votes in the suburbs and the cities. Republicans, too, will have to chose between corporate money and the xenophobia of their base. That’s why a lot of the political elite on both sides of the aisle want the whole thing to just go away.
It won't, of course. Immigration (and fear of immigration) are as American as a taco salad.