Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Immigrants, Part 2

My previous post on Hispanic immigrants proved prescient. As I write these words, Congress is debating sweeping new immigration legislation. The debate is tearing the Republican party apart, as it exposes two wildly contradictory wings of the party.

The first wing, which tends to call itself nativist, can be more accurately described as bigoted and racist. Led by ethically-compromised (and aspiring presidential candidate) Senator Bill Frist, these Republicans want to send Hispanic immigrants back to wherever they came from, before they move into their monochromatic neighborhoods and marry their lily-white daughters. They can make all the "we have to protect America" arguments they want, but the bottom line is that these narrow-minded, hate-filled, quasi-white supremacists hate people of color (any color), and would like to see an all-white America devoid of Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, and all other non-Western European descendants. (They probably don't like the French, either.) Frist and his intolerant ilk are the cleaned-up, pseudo-respectable, 21st century equivalent of the Klu Klux Klan. Short of lynching the Mexicans, they want to deport them.

Opposing these nativists/racists is the corporate wing of the Republican party. Led by the likes of Wal-Mart and other low-paying employers, these Republicans like Hispanic immigrants just fine. That's because the influx of Hispanic workers represent cheap labor to these bald-faced capitalists, and getting rid of them would mean they'd have to hire higher-salaried American workers in their stead. This profit-minded thinking has inspired "moderate" Republicans -- such as John McCain and Arlen Spector -- to endorse an amnesty program for those illegal aliens already here. Though the motivation may be less than pure, it's actually the best idea on the table, and has also been endorsed by the Democratic minority.

There are other Republican views on the issue, of course. President Bush tried to navigate a compromise between the two extreme wings of his party by proposing a three-year "guest worker" program, but the stupidity of the solution only served to piss everyone off. Then there are the security nuts, who think that building a big wall between the U.S. and Mexico will keep terrorists out of the heartland. (But why stop with Mexico -- how about another wall sealing off the Canadian border, and maybe stopping all incoming plane flights, as well?) These viewpoints seem to be subsidiary to the main argument, however, and don't factor much in the current debate.

It's kind of fun to see the Republicans tearing themselves apart on this issue. As noted in the new book American Theocracy, today's Republican party is a fragile coalition of competing constituencies -- much like the Democratic party has always been. But in the Republicans' case, what's good for one segment isn't always good for the others, so it's really just a matter of time before their "small tent" collapses. Social conservatives (religious or racist) can't long live with corporate fiscal conservatives, nor with power-hungry neo-conservatives. I give Bush (and Rove) credit for holding the coalition together, but it's a temporary collaboration that is now starting to fray.

On the immigration issue, here's what I think we should do. First, we need to treat our Hispanic visitors as human beings. That means offering citizenship to all who want it, and offering essential services to all who need them. Second, we need to pay these folks the going wage, so that they're not taken advantage of and so that their presence doesn't depress wages for native American workers. Third, we need to work with the Mexican government to improve living conditions (and increase wages) in our neighboring country, so fewer Mexicans are tempted to head north to better their lot.

Finally, we need to work much harder to assimilate both visiting and resident Hispanics into the American culture. Our latest immigrants are not blending into the American melting pot as previous generations of immigrants did, and that's not good for them or for our country. Our culture becomes richer when new immigrants are added to the mix, and those immigrants need to learn to live and to thrive in their chosen new society. It's not good for Hispanics to live in a parallel version of the United States; separate but equal has never been a winning strategy.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


America is a country rife with contradictions, not the least of which is the fact that we are a nation of immigrants who hate immigrants. That is, each previous generation of immigrants hates the following generation of immigrants. It was okay for our grandparents to immigrate, but it has to stop there; we don't want new folks to come in and spoil the fun.

Of course, it's much more complex than that -- although the description is apt. It doesn't matter that all of our families came from somewhere else (save for the few remaining Native Americans, of course -- but that's another story); we resent the intrusion of whomever happens to be immigrating today.

In generations past, however, immigrants eventually were assimilated into the culture. Typically not first-generation immigrants, but by the time the second generation made it to the workplace, they were firmly integrated into American culture. Germans, Polish, Irish, Russians, the country of origin didn't matter; the sons and the daughters of these immigrants became true Americans, in every sense of the word.

This second-generation assimilation doesn't necessarily seem to be happening with today's batch of immigrants, however. Instead of immigrants adapting to the existing American culture, our culture appears to be adapting to accommodate the current generation of Latino immigrants. You see it everywhere, from the growth of Spanish-language media to the de facto bilingualism in locales with large Latino populations. It may be too early to tell, but it appears that today's Hispanic immigrants are retaining their native culture and not fully integrating into the American culture; instead of adding to the melting pot, we're creating a dual culture unlike anything we've seen in the past.

This influx of Hispanic immigrants who are not adapting to the American culture frightens many people. There are many reasons for this -- some justified, some not.

On one level, opposition to Mexican immigration is simple racism -- we don't want those stinking Mexicans living in our neighborhoods. There has always been prejudice against people not like exactly us, people of a (slightly) different color, people who come from a different place, people who speak a different language. Many ignorant citizens are afraid of and therefore irrationally hate Mexicans; they think Mexicans are racially inferior, and a danger to our "American way of life." This argument, of course, is despicable -- but unfortunately widespread. It should come as no surprise that many opponents of Mexican immigration, no matter what arguments they make publicly, are private racists.

On another level, opposition to Mexican immigration is a somewhat rational concern over the allocation of increasingly scarce public resources -- why should we let those freeloading foreigners live off the public dole? The argument doesn't have to be that crass; how we disperse our public funds is a legitimate point of discussion, especially when the Republicans-in-charge keep cutting the budget for essential public services. With class size increasing and extracurricular activities being cut, can we really afford to educate the children of illegal immigrants alongside our native-born children? Of course, this argument tends to ignore the fact that even illegal immigrants make positive contributions to our economy and our society, including contributing to our tax base. I haven't done the math, but it could be argued that the financial impact of today's illegal immigrants is a net positive -- that is, they contribute more to the economy than they take out. This will become increasingly so as the baby boomer generation retires and ages; we'll need as many Mexican immigrants as possible not just to care for the aging boomers, but also to take their place in the job market.

On yet another level, opposition to Mexican immigration is a justified argument against America's increasing racial and cultural bifurcation. In previous generations, we didn't require bilingual accommodation for the immigrant population; we had one unofficial American language, and immigrants were expected to learn it. Yes, the American way of life changed (and, in fact, became richer) due to the injection of immigrant culture, but we didn't expect the existing culture to change completely to accommodate the immigrants; the immigrants were expected to adapt to the prevailing culture, not the other way around. Can America as we know it continue to exist if it adopts too much of the immigrants' Hispanic culture -- or will America become a kind of Mexico North, losing its historical identity? Do we really want a polarized America, with one side composed of affluent Caucasians of European descent and the other composed of poor Hispanics, each side speaking their own language and living in their own isolated cultural cocoon? If we go this route, the ideal of the American melting pot will devolve into separate but unequal societies, separated by an insurmountable cultural divide. This is not the America of our forefathers, but it may be the America we bequeath to our grandchildren.

The answer to the growing immigration problem, alas, is not to put a halt to future immigration. For one thing, we can't stop the tide. Previous generations of immigrants were constrained by how many people could fit into a limited number of boats to cross the ocean to our shores. Today's generation of immigrants have no such constraint; immigrating, legally or illegally, is as simple as walking across our huge and porous physical border. Some politicians advocate building an unimaginably long fence from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, but this is not only impractical but also easily surmounted; there isn't enough fence in America, nor enough border control guards, to protect every linear foot of our border and prevent determined immigrants from scaling or tunneling under such a barrier. No matter what measures we enact, the immigrants will continue to come -- until, that is, there is no benefit for them to do so.

The solution to the influx of Mexican immigrants isn't an American one, it's a Mexican one. To stem the tide of immigrants from Mexico, we must remove the benefits of immigrating. That doesn't mean making things worse for these hard-working immigrants here in America; it means making things better for them in their homeland. If we can work with our neighboring country to improve the conditions for average Mexicans, there will be less reason for them to cross the border to find employment in America. Water always finds its own level, and the reason so many Mexicans are immigrating to the United States is that their economic fortunes are better here. Improve their lot at home, and they won't need to travel north for work; the water level will be equalized.

Until this happens, we have to deal with reality. That doesn't mean deporting illegals who are already here, nor depriving them of basic rights and public services. Give them medical care, give them schooling, give them driver's licenses; treat them like the residents -- legal or not -- that they are. But resist the urge to redefine American culture in their image. It's not racist to insist that newcomers adjust to the existing culture; it's not culturally insensitive to expect visitors to speak our language and adapt to our way of life. If I immigrated to Mexico (or France or China or Germany), I wouldn't expect the citizens of that country to speak my language or change their culture to accomodate me; I'd expect to learn their language and ways. The same should apply here in the United States. We should be gracious hosts, and we should expect our newest vistors to be gracious guests. We can -- and must -- learn to live together.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.