Friday, June 04, 2010

An Immigrating Experience...

For the second time in five years, it seems the issue of immigration has been brought, if not forced, front and center in the national arena.  Competing for coverage with an oil spill and palace intrigue at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, immigration has become one of the hot political issues and one that will invariably leave an impact on this year's midterm elections.

Although immigration never really went away after the last major Congressional effort went down in flames during Bush's term (the former president actually supported a semi-progressive reform plan), it exploded onto the scene once again when Arizona passed its latest anti-illegal immigration effort.  Lurking in the shadows, the immigration issue remained on federal radar before this when Bush sent more border patrol and personnel to the border and urged then-newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon clamp down on border violence fueled by the drug trade.  On the US side, at least initially, the increase was all Bush could do short of Congressional action to staunch the illegal flow.  However, as the drug war heated up and Calderon, unlike some of his predecessors, never let up, the US effort became as much, if not more so about the drug violence, which lapped up in American border cities.  President Obama largely continued these efforts once he was sworn in.

The situation remains poor at the border, however.  Although some violence and criminal activity has always (if not quite accurately) been placed on the shoulders of illegals, the current situation remains centered at the, ahem, Mexican standoff between drug cartels and the American and Mexican governments.  Without a doubt, illegal immigration and the drug trade are related at the very least because the border remains porous.  Still, at the same time, illegal immigration has fallen as the economy soured, many Latin Americans opting to forgo the treacherous journey with job prospects so poor.

Nonetheless, states like Arizona and New Mexico in particular find themselves dealing with residual effects of all of the border's problems.  This led to Arizona's controversial bill that empowers state authorities to enforce federal law and perhaps more controversially hold somebody until they can prove their legal status.  It is impossible that a majority of both Houses of the Arizona legislature in Phoenix and the governor passed this bill purely or even mostly due to racism.  Those against the bill are quick to condemn all of the lawmakers for it without understanding the situation they and their constituents face.  Indeed, the bill itself is not the problem.  Rather, it is the environment into which it is being introduced.  Most Americans, particularly those for the bill, fail to realize that Arizona does not have a good record with regard to Hispanic race relations.  Supposedly, the Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, whose jurisdiction includes Phoenix, has a particularly bad reputation for hassling those with, well, darker complexion.  Introduce this power into the mix and the state is just begging for a damaging lawsuit and Maricopa County is not alone.  More than than likely, if an abuse does occur, it will be on an American and not a legal or illegal immigrant.

The politics in Washington, however, make any meaningful change unlikely in the immediate future.  Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, to his discredit, suddenly made immigration a pressing issue sacrificing a critical climate change bill in the process (although the climate change bill would have had problems anyway since April's Gulf Coast oil spill.).  Reid, who is facing a tough reelection fight, hoped to energize the Hispanic base in his home state.  However, that base, much of which is either union organized or otherwise Democrat-leaning, was unlikely to abandon him had he opted to wait.

The politics of immigration have been colored (no pun intended) by the demographic shifts overtaking this country.  Already, Hispanics are a larger minority group than African-Americans.  Nationwide, they will represent a majority within this century, assuming trends continue.  In some states in the South and West, this will happen much sooner and many major US cities have Hispanic populations that will represent at least a large plurality by that point.  So for both Democrats and Republicans, the race is on to see who can rope them into their corral first.

This strategy, to some extent encouraged by some within Hispanic groups who are trying to advance an agenda that is one of self-interest, serves neither the interests of Hispanics nor the nation.  Against a polarized political backdrop, a bipartisan effort will only split the difference along the divide the Hispanic community shares with Americans as a whole.  A more divisive effort could rope in Hispanics who feel tied to whichever party delivered to them a more advantageous proposal.  However, that would be far worse because it is inherently manipulative and significantly unpredictable for whichever party wins.  The bipartisan solution is best, but it is hampered by nativist reactionaries.

Many Republicans, former president George W. Bush and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham support reform.  However, any reform must, if because the alternative is unrealistic, include a path to citizenship and/or legal status.  More anti-illegal arguments rest on the fact that they broke the law, a valid point.  However, the idea of rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants is simply untenable.  Possible, but largely ineffective without a broad-based reform, is strengthening the border itself.  The drive that brings immigrants across the US-Mexican border despite many dangers (like swimming the Rio Grande or trekking across desert) assures that neither a full-length hundred story fence nor a legion of border guards per mile would stop the flow. 

The only conservative action that has merit is a crackdown on employers, but that too must be carefully executed.  Cracking down on employers, particularly where new hires are concerned, will drain some illegals away as many only come to the United States for only a few years at a time.  Although rare, many stories exist of companies put out of business because they are unable to locate legal workers to replace illegal ones.  This is where a guest worker plan could be most helpful outside of seasonal agriculture jobs.  Even if a path to citizenship or legal resident status has to wait, a guest worker plan implemented along with an employer crackdown could retain the workers the economy must have while discouraging new illegal immigrants from coming at all.  Quick note on the employers, however.  Any deterrent must be financial.  Punishing employers--big and small--with jail time is a fiscal burden the nation can ill-afford and contributes to the ever growing social malaise inherent in our prison system.

There are wider problems within the immigration debate, too.  Many of the more racially troubling outbursts come from places relatively removed from the gravest problems at the border or come laced with hypocrisy.  For example, a significant number of illegal immigrants in Massachusetts are in fact not Hispanic.  Indeed these immigrants are white.  They are not just white, but they are from the Emerald Isle itself.  In Massachusetts, with its enormous population of Americans of Irish extraction, many find it acceptable to let illegals from Ireland alone while condemning browner immigrants for their illicit transit, residence, and employment.  No doubt it is fear of illegal Latino immigration and not Hibernian, nor any Caucasian ethnicity (except maybe Arab) that drove residents to flood the legislature with calls to bar illegal immigrants from public benefits more thoroughly.  Colorblind crackdowns have begun, in the Bay State, however.

Deeper still is the problematic experience of Hispanic immigrants many Americans have.  Partly fueling the divide in Massachusetts particularly and the Northeast more generally is the experiences many in this area have with Hispanics.  However, that experience is markedly different than in much of the rest of the country.  While immigrants of every Latin American origin populate every Northeastern state (albeit in extremely small numbers in Northern New England States), Puerto Ricans represent a significant proportion, if not a majority of Hispanics.  Elsewhere in the United States, despite the presence of Puerto Ricans, again nationwide, this is not the case.  Mexicans dominate Hispanic groups along the border and up through the Pacific rim and Rockies.  Cubans are particularly visible in Florida.  Dominicans are starting to appear in significant numbers across the country.

Less informed whites (and to some extent black and Asian Americans) tend to lump all Hispanics together much to the consternation of individual Hispanic ethnic groups.  Indeed, although to non-Hispanic eyes, the differences are like the differences between Italians from Rome and Italians from Sicily, among Hispanic ethnic groups many cultural and perhaps more importantly historical differences exist.  A tying bind, that both Hispanic and not overlook, is the way colonial powers and later America itself behaved toward these Spanish-speaking countries.  Nevertheless, New Englanders, for example, may equate Mexican immigrants desperate for work with Puerto Ricans whom are often stereotyped as opportunistic welfare recipients playing on their American citizenship distorting not only the truth, but any hope for a fair and honest debate.  The experience of Americans of Puerto Rican ancestry and the troubled history of Puerto Rico and America's stewardship of is too complicated to explore at this time.

Perhaps partly due to non-Hispanic monolithic grouping of Hispanics, but also due to the nature of the illegal immigrants entering the United States, there is developing a parallel America composed almost entirely of Hispanics and almost exclusively Spanish speaking.  In many of these communities, most common in the Southwest where numbers are sizeable enough to establish such enclaves, everything from television to newspapers to business deals are done completely in Spanish.  Immigrants, both legal and illegal, effectively wall themselves off except possibly when they go to work, from anything in the Anglo world.  Although this phenomenon happened with previous waves of Asian and European immigration, it has been more successful at continuing generation after generation, particularly in the last twenty to forty years.  This is strange as many families of Mexican extraction in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, whose ancestors emigrated from Mexico before many Ellis Island-era immigrants ever did, are so far removed that they do not speak any Spanish.

The reason for this may be in that "nature" mentioned above.  Although many Europeans that came through Ellis Island (and the other processing stations before it) were dirt poor and devoid of a trade, many more had some experience or skill.  Some even had half-way decent education.  As a result, they were able to find a niche in society and ensure their ethnic communities success.  Even if they had no success numerous low-skill jobs that paid well (not so much by today's standards though) were available in the booming industrial and manufacturing sectors.  With the post-industrial economy leaving low to no-skill jobs withering save for custodial and food-service employment, opportunities for the dirt-poor immigrant are scant.  As a result, after securing what jobs they can find, combined with a sense that their disposition is temporary if protracted, these immigrants end up Balkanizing themselves and not integrating as other immigrant groups ultimately did.  Truly, a history of Hispanic racism in the Southwest did not help, but as well-integrated fifth-plus generation Americans of Mexican extraction can attest, it was not impossible and at times could be no worse than the ridicule and hate Southern and Eastern Europeans faced elsewhere.

In any event, as already stated, both sides need to take everything down a notch.  Overzealous attempts to erect barriers, scrap the citizenship of the children or illegal immigrants or give illegals the boot will do nothing to solve the problem while stoking the embers of our less than flattering racial history.  Meanwhile, over impassioned appeals to emotion whether it is over reuniting families or decrying the application of "illegal" to a human beings ignores the real plight of the nation and the material well-being of immigrants themselves.  There is no plot for a "recoquista" of America or its West, but the growth of the Hispanic population in the US is inevitable.  It could bring disaster, however, not because of who is immigrating, but how they are integrating.  Americans'  failure to welcome and encourage newcomers coupled with (mostly Hispanic) immigrants' insistence to maintain a bunker mentality will only harm the nation in the long run.  All parties must change their attitude to avert this fate.

Finally, there is one other, but far more difficult factor to tackle.  If Americans want to stabilize, though not stop, immigrations of any legal kind, our diplomatic, trade, and economy policies toward the US's Southern neighbors must also change.  As catastrophic as NAFTA was for American manufacturing employees, it was far worse for Mexicans agricultural workers.  With America's bloated farming industry now able to access Mexican markets tariff-free, it put Mexican farmers out of business.  Yes, unlike the industrial sector, America's vast bounty (and misappropriated farming subsidies) out-competed even low standard-of-living Mexico.  Meanwhile, although some Mexicans could find jobs in the new manufacturing sector along the border, thousands, if not millions more could not.  Additionally, Mexico's pathetic environmental standards, the refuse of which often washes up on American shores anyway, leave residents who do not flee north to live in conditions reminiscent of America's worst industrial disasters.

Although America has had a less-than-perfect history of influencing its neighbors, an effort to bring up the standard of living in Mexico and other Central American countries satisfies not only a social responsibility, but could solve a myriad of problems at home.

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