On April 23rd Governor Brewer of Arizona signed the most stringent anti-immigration bill to date, aimed at identifying, prosecuting, and deporting illegal immigrants. President Obama has voiced strong criticisms and called it misguided, and protests have sprung up across the country representing the faction of Americans who consider it to be racist and bigoted policy. SB1070 "prohibits the harboring of illegal aliens and makes it a state crime for an alien to commit certain federal immigration crimes. It also requires police officers who, in the course of a traffic stop or other law-enforcement action, come to a 'reasonable suspicion' that a person is an illegal alien verify the person's immigration status with the federal government" (NY Times).
Immigration is of particular interest for me as a semi-permanent expat in the European Union and resident of America's melting pot, New York City. In Europe, the debate is multi-faceted, due in part to the geography of the region. The migration of various groups of people across distinct national-cultural boundaries spurs the collective European body politic into a debate fueled by considerations of culture, identity, and the preservation of tradition. I don't mean to romanticize the European situation; it is certainly fraught with its own variety of ignorance. Yet, in America, the immigration debate is more polarized than in Europe, and since the passage of SB1070, both sides have been talking past each other.
There are two mainstream positions. Those against the new law call it mean-spirited and racist. Those in favor, or at least not completely against it, claim that we must have immigrations laws to deal with illegal immigration, a thriving problem. In a twist of words and meaning, the latter claim that to be against illegality is not to be "anti-immigrant,"as if accepting this point would ease tensions and fix the problem. There are glimmers of truth in both sides' arguments, but neither makes a proper case, and neither offers a viable solution. To make the situation worse, people who sympathize with right wing extremists like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and fighters for the "American Way," tend to make the Arizona situation more about their limiting brand of Americanism, their fear and disdain for outsiders, and their virile hatred for the President than anything else. Limbaugh stated that Obama is probably against the new law because he doesn't have "papers" himself, and Glenn Beck has followed him down that enlightening path on several occasions.
While immigration is a complex issue, I would like to focus on two points that might help clarify the debate. First, illegal immigration is only a problem because we haven't made immigration itself legal enough. Dan Griswold of The Cato Institute aptly states, "Illegal immigration is the Prohibition debate of our day. By essentially barring the legal entry of low-skilled immigrant workers, our own government has created the conditions for an underground labor market, complete with smuggling and day-labor operations. As long as the government maintains this prohibition, illegal immigration will be widespread, and the cost of reducing it, in tax dollars and compromised civil liberties, will be enormous."
And why hasn't immigration been made more legal or legal altogether? That's the topic of the second point. Swathes of Americans are apprehensive about letting foreigners in. Take Russell Pierce who sponsored the Arizona law as an example: "Russell Pierce is the quintessential Arizona Republican. He wears stars-and-stripes shirts and has clips of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan on his website. He loves guns, his family, his Mormon faith, his country and the law, which he enforced for many years as Deputy Sheriff of Maricopa County. He jokes that being Republican, and thus not having a heart, saved his life when he got shot in the chest once. But his main passion is illegal immigrants, whom he calls 'invaders.' He loathed them even before his son Sean, also a Sheriff's Deputy, got shot by one. But now it is personal."
And still, "The angry right and its apologists also keep insisting that race has nothing to do with their political passions. Thus Sarah Palin explained that it's Obama and the 'lamestream media' that are responsible for 'perpetuating this myth that racial profiling is a part' of Arizona's law. So how does that profiling work without race or ethnicity, exactly? Brian Bilbray, a Republican Congressman from California and another supporter of the law, rode to the rescue by suggesting 'they will look at the kind of dress you wear.' Wise Latinas better start shopping at Talbots!" (NY Times).
We're battling on two fronts: against inept laws that fail to target the root of the problem, and against nationalists and nativists on the other. Luckily, stark problems often have obvious solutions. For those concerned with problems of illegality, make legal immigration possible and facile instead of growing an underground system that breeds myriad problems. "If we want to 'get control' of our border with Mexico, the smartest thing we could do would be to allow more workers to enter the United States legally under the umbrella of comprehensive immigration reform. Then we could focus on our enforcement resources on a much smaller number of people who for whatever reason are still operating outside the law" (Cato).
He gives solid support for his argument, "We know from experience that expanding opportunities for legal immigration can dramatically reduce incentives for illegal immigration. In the 1950s, the federal government faced widespread illegal immigration across the Mexican border. In response, the government simultaneously beefed up enforcement while greatly expanding the number of workers allowed in the country through the Bracero guest-worker program. The result: apprehensions at the border dropped by 95 percent"(NFAP). On the other hand, obvious solutions are often the last to be implemented.
As for the second issue, I don't know what one can do about defenders of one close-minded version of the American way. In such cases, reason doesn't hold sway. We could start by reminding them that America is supposed to be a land of opportunity, that we are a nation of immigrants, and that most arguments they make against immigrants and immigration are mythical. Also, that unlike some immigrant communities in Europe, our immigrants from south of the border almost always integrate. They want to be American. So what's the problem?
Let the people come.