Immigration And American Values

One of the black holes in our national discourse is the right’s revival of old-style nativism in its approach to the current immigration debate — replete with its scapegoating, demonization, and conspiracy theories, all in the pursuit of an eliminationist policy of deportation. In sucking all the oxygen out of the debate, the right has obscured some of the real issues surrounding our dysfunctional immigration system, thereby preventing us from finding effective solutions.

It’s become difficult, for instance, to talk about the effects of immigration on labor and wages, or the challenges to the cultural assimilation that has been part of the historic American immigration model posed by mass illegal immigration, without finding oneself placed in the nativist camp.

After all, they are among the first to raise these issues — but in a way that inflames stereotypes and encourages scapegoating, and almost consistently on the basis of false and distorted information. Compounding the situation is the “journalism” practiced by media figures like Lou Dobbs of CNN, who in attempting to make the populist case that illegal immigration is harming the middle class, consistently reverts to reporting bogus information from racist-right sources – and then complains that it’s his critics who keep raising the specter of racism.

Anyone who can see the nature of the larger issues – which really are about the nation’s competitive economic future, which is only hampered by the persistence of irrational xenophobia – wants nothing to do with such discussions.

But there are real problems surrounding our malfunctioning immigration system, and some of them have a great deal to do with these cultural, labor, and economic issues. And in the long run, it will behoove progressives and people who favor comprehensive immigration reform to begin talking about them — because it’s essential to how we shape our solutions, and indeed is part of the rationale for implementing the reform in the first place.

These issues often manifest themselves in the reluctance of many Democrats and progressives to take a stand on immigration, in large part because they are skeptical about how the system is working. Often you’ll hear legal immigrants — whose own experiences lend them to oppose xenophobia — voicing resentment about “amnesty” proposals for illegal immigrants.

I got into a discussion about this recently on a listserv with a legal immigrant I know, a fellow blogger and all-around thoughtful person. He put it this way:

There are people of good faith who don’t have any personal resentment towards these workers, but who feel frustrated or angered by a system that allows companies to exploit undocumented workers by skirting the law and continues to encourage more such workers to come to the United States in a manner that preserves the worst aspects of the current system. I know legal immigrants who have taken the trouble to follow all legal requirements to stay and work in this country who question why a parallel universe or economy is allowed within the country where the laws that they followed – sometimes overly elaborate and complex — don’t seem to count. I am sure there are some American citizens who also feel the same.

I’m sympathetic to this frustration. I hear it from a lot of legal immigrants, as well as many well-meaning progressives. And there is something basically unfair and unjust about this aspect of the situation. Sometimes you hear this in cruder form, as in: “I went through all these hassles — why shouldn’t they have to?”

What we’re seeing here is the result of right-wing wedge politics, by devolving immigration into a debate among various rival ethnic and economic factions, driving apart people whose long-term interests and deeper values are the same. The malfunctioning system creates an economic and cultural milieu in which it’s easy to blame one’s fellow victims.

I have always wondered if the frustration of legal immigrants isn’t somewhat misplaced. Shouldn’t they be asking why they have to endure so many enormous obstacles to citizenship in the first place? And aren’t those hassles the very reason so many millions of people, frustrated and desperate, are skipping in through the back door in the first place?

I try to remind people that the foundation of our current immigration law, in many regards, is the Immigration Act of 1924, which first created the concept of the “illegal alien” in its drive to exclude all immigration from Asia, as well as other targeted “undesirable” nationalities. The overtly racist elements of the law have been largely stripped out over the years, but it’s important to understand that the underlying intent – the preservation of the status-quo white privilege, riddled with a xenophobic mistrust of “alien” cultures – has never fully gone away. As Wikipedia notes, the law “was structured to maintain the cultural and ethnic traditions of the United States” — that is, the existing system of white privilege.

Yet America is looking at a 21st-century global paradigm where immigration has obviously come to play a more important role as a source of labor — a point underlined by the fact that even having absorbed 12 million illegal immigrants, there’s little indication that they are in fact “taking away American jobs.” Indeed, the economy has not only grown under their inclusion, it’s become clear that maintaining a healthy immigrant workforce is going to be an essential component of America’s competitive economic future.

So we truly are at a crossroads where we now need genuinely comprehensive immigration-law reform. Progressives really need to seize the opportunity to rethink the underlying values of immigration law, basing them not on an irrational xenophobia but a rational assessment of immigration’s place in our economic competitiveness. This is why forging a path to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the country is an essential component of any effective reform — it’s time to return to the effective rule of law by making our laws actually effective.

This was the ultimate point my immigrant colleague wanted to make as well. As he put it later:

The issue of undocumented workers is very complex – far from black and white. There is no doubt that these workers are by and large coming to this country to find a way to survive, help their families and find a better life for their children. It takes enormous courage to take the kind of risks they are taking and subject themselves, often times, to the whims of employers who treat them like dirt. To make matters worse, there are demagogues on the Right who — either through thinly veiled or overt racism — have made it their number one goal in life to use these workers as a scapegoat to exploit the fears of everyday Americans. This type of race-baiting and discrimination needs to stop.

… Let me be very clear and point out that this is not to say that undocumented workers are “criminals”. They are not. The issue is a system that is broken where legal immigration has a high bar – one that needs to be lowered or adjusted appropriately. I don’t think the workers themselves are the target of the frustration as much as the system that lets an undesirable situation continue.

What we need is comprehensive reform that encourages a more legal immigration, more transparency and better checks and balances so that we move away from the current system which encourages an underground economy that depresses wages for everyone, allows sub-standard living conditions for undocumented workers, raises the fear of lost jobs for Americans, reduces the level of accountability for the corporations that hire undocumented workers and creates an atmosphere where racist demagogues can exploit this mix to irrationally drive up fear amongst well meaning Americans. We need to move to a model where all workers are on a legal path that has transparency and accountability for everyone concerned. To move in that direction requires all of us to acknowledge all the genuine concerns of Americans, filter out the irrational fears, hatred and racism, and develop a solution where the genuine concerns are adequately addressed. I think this is quite possible if we get together people of good faith who have different viewpoints to work this out.

This approach to immigration stands in stark contrast to the xenophobia favored by conservatives — which so far has dominated the national discourse on the issue. This has prevented us from having a rational discussion of the real core values of what it means to be American as an essential component of immigration — because when we talk about “assimilation,” that’s what we should be talking about. It isn’t about white privilege or maintaining the status quo, it’s about absorbing the values that bind us as a nation — values well beyond race and ethnicity.

I’m probably not the person to say authoritatively what those values are, but we should be talking about them. As starting points, we can probably all agree that individual freedom, a respect for the rights and freedoms of others, and a respect for the democratic process are good mutual starting points; progressives, centrists and even conservatives might agree further that equality of opportunity, tolerance of opposing views, and an unshakable opposition to scapegoating, violence, thuggery, and threats are also some of our core values. Perhaps others would like to chime in — the point being that we need to have this discussion.

Moreover, the fact that so many of the new immigrants are coming in through the back door — instead of being handled legal through a rational legal system — has eroded our ability to ensure the transmission and absorption of core American values, which is yet another reason to find a way to return immigration to the effective rule of law. I believe that this degradation of the “assimilation” process is fuel not only for the resentment of legal immigrants, but of the larger populace as well.

I’m thinking, for instance, of the young Eastern European immigrants who are filling the ranks of the virulently anti-gay hate group the Watchmen on the Walls; some of these young people are in fact committing gay-bashing hate crimes that make you shake your head at how poorly they’ve absorbed the basic lessons of cross-cultural tolerance that are essential to the modern American fabric. And having traveled a bit in Latin America, I have to admit to frankly hoping that Latino immigrants leave behind their own kind of xenophobia and racism and macho when they come to the United States. I’m not so sure that’s happening.

The approach of immigration authorities so far to the whole values question — and reflective, I think, of the xenophobia underlying so much current law — has been to erect as many obstacles as possible to citizenship, as though the act of clearing those hurdles somehow proves your worthiness to be an American. But that’s really irrational at its base. Rather than making it tougher for people to become Americans, we ought mostly to be working to ensure that those core, democratic American values are being transmitted to the people who do want to become American.

When progressives do start having that conversation, they’ll be making real progress in forging a coalition of broad support — one that sweeps out the old ethnic and economic divisions and makes the debate focus on the things that bind us together. That’s not just good for progressives, it’s good for the country.

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