Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What has brown done to you? (part, the first)

It's time for Lou Dobbs--when did you stop talking about the market, Lou?--and other talking heads and pundits to admit that at least a little of what has them so incensed about "broken" immigration is that the people immigrating to the United States, whether legally or illegally are brown. Because, until they do, it's impossible to take anything that they say very seriously. And their other objections to the way that immigration fails to work just don't hold enough water to show that this is a particularly serious problem now. I'm not saying that there isn't a problem with immigration, but almost none of the problems are new, so unless it's the demographic shift in the US, the one that means that whites are having fewer children while latinos and African-Americans continued to grow as percentages of the population, that has people so upset, the crisis just doesn't make that much sense.
So let's consider some of the huge difficulties with immigration:
1) Granting amnesty is unamerican and would be tantamount to telling people that it is okay to break the law. This may be true. But, if a pundit wants to make this claim, s/he is required by justice to call Ronald Reagan, that demigod of cultural, social and fiscal (though God knows why) conservatives unamerican for the amnesty that his administration granted in 1986. Now, of course, his amnesty, like those proposed now, would not be a free and uncomplicated pathway either to permanent residence status or to citizenship, but it did regularize the status of many people who were in the US illegally.
2) People here illegally are criminals and should be treated as such. There is a difference in legal terms between breakers of different sorts of laws. For instance, if I park illegally, while I have broken the law, I have not violated the criminal code; hence, I am not a criminal. Currently, immigration law is not a part of the Federal Criminal Code, so those who enter the country illegally, assuming that they don't violate sections of the Criminal Code, are not criminals. Now, many undocumented immigrants may have forged documents, for instance. If they have done so, they may then be criminals. But the mere fact of being in the country illegally doesn't make one ipso facto a criminal.
3) An unsecured border is a threat to national security; and, in this age of a war on terror, it must be fortified and/or militarized. It's true that not knowing who is in the country is a threat to national security. However, first, there is a difference between some border porosity and the border being totally open. It isn't fully open; there are merely chinks in the armor. And, second, though people don't like to admit this, in determining even security policy, we always engage in a cost/benefit analysis: Would the amount of additional security provided by a totally fortified and militarized border be worth the cost in financial, moral, political, world-standing and resource terms? When we can't even get airline security down, haven't secured ports and our intelligence services are still in what, quite frankly, is a cluster-fuck, is this the best way to spend our resources and time?
Thirdly, if we are going to militarize or fortify a border, it will not do to ignore the other border. That would be equivalent to ordering the best security locks for your front door, while leaving your back door open. This is especially a bad idea when it's the back door--i.e., the Canadian border--that we know to have been crossed by those with terrorist designs in the past. If national security is our concern, it can't matter that one of our borders is with a poorer country than the other.
4) Mexican, Central American and Latin American immigrants don't become a part of our culture. I suppose that the evidence for this claim has to do with the fact that many immigrants continue to speak Spanish (or, in some cases, native languages like Mixtec, Mayan, etc.) as home and community languages. This is why, for instance, Lou Dobbs appears to get so excited--I think it would be unwise for him to stand up at these times--when he talks of government agencies offering assistance in Spanish.
What language someone speaks at home, or when worshipping or among one's friends is wholly irrelevant to the degree to which one sees himself as a member of the American culture. A bit of personal history might be relevant here. My family came to the United States in roughly four groups: One part were early British (Scots and Welsh, thank you very much) settlers, who arrived and settled in various parts of Appalachia before the Revolutions; another part were Pennsylvania Dutch, who arrived sometime between the 1680s and the mid 1700s (presumably they spoke German at home, but there was not yet a US, so we will leave them out of it); the other two groups were German Catholics who emigrated from Swabia in 1830 to Indiana; and, German Lutherans who emigrated from Europe at about the same time. The last two groups, though thinking of themselves as Americans, voting, sending sons to war, participating in patriotic holidays, etc., continued to speak German as a home language until about 1930. So, they spoke a foreign language for at least a hundred years after they came to the United States. They lived in communities where everyone spoke German, they worshipped in Latin and German or German alone, they had school textbooks (in their parochial schools) in German and English side by side, but they were wholly integrated and assimilated as Americans. Now, for what it's worth, the current waves of immigrants keep Spanish as a home language for about one generation, quickly devolving into Spanglish and then English only, for their children and grandchildren, partly thanks to the omnipresence of television and other media. But, if speaking a home language didn't keep my family from being American, if Yiddish language newspapers and theater in New York, if Polish and Czech and Hungarian-language papers in New York and Chicago, if German-language publications throughout the Midwest, if various Asian-language publications and communities on both coasts, didn't keep all of those people from being American, how will Spanish-speaking and telenovelas keep this wave of immigrants from being American? You either have to adopt the good old Know Nothing arguments against all of these groups, or you lose this as an argument against Latin American immigration.

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