Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Looming X Factor

The United States has always had a complicated relationship with its newcomers. We honor our immigrant heritage at the same time we pass laws limiting the ability of others to enjoy the same benefits as our forebears. From the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Know Nothing Party to the Chinese Exclusion Laws to No Irish Need Apply, our history provides an unbroken thread of hostility toward those who wish to join us.

We have now reached another moment in which that periodic hostility has bubbled to the surface. Immigration from Mexico and Latin America has emerged as one of the unanticipated wedge issues of the 2008 presidential campaign. It is the driving force behind one Republican candidacy (Tom Tancredo's), it has all but destroyed another (John McCain's), and it has forced the Democratic contenders into the sort of waffling public ambivalence that cost John Kerry so dearly just four years ago.

It is relevant that the movement of people across our southern border is largely illegal, but high-minded lectures on the rule of law sometimes mask the same prejudices that have driven nativists from the Eighteenth Century forward. Concerns about the plight of U.S. workers and their depressed wages are also valid, though few native-born Americans are eager to pursue a career picking tomatoes or dismembering chickens. Immigration certainly taxes social services, particularly in the southwestern states, but it is far from clear that undocumented workers take more from government coffers than they contribute.

It is the ferocity of the debate that is most telling. If our innermost thoughts can be revealed by the pronouns we employ, then it is clear that immigration is an issue that is striking many Americans in the gut and triggering that part of the brain that separates us from them. They are taking our jobs. They are overcrowding our schools. They are refusing to learn English, bringing diseases from Latin America, visiting crime and gang violence on once-peaceful suburbs, taking over our country. Far too often, discussions of illegal immigration begin with the issue of illegality but quickly and angrily veer toward a focus on the immigrant.

This is not to suggest that the United States is simply a country of angry bigots. These are unforgiving times in which job security is an anachronism, thousands of houses foreclose daily, and real income remains stagnant. In many American cities, schools are overcrowded. Gang-related violence, while exaggerated, obviously does occur and some of it is related to immigrant groups. The immigration issue sits at the confluence of fear, anger, racism, misunderstanding, and, in some cases, legitimate grievances. We know that prejudice plays a significant role here, but it is equally true that many proponents of tighter border security are motivated by more benign factors.

Nevertheless, ours is a noisy culture and the angriest voices typically receive the greatest attention. Demagogues trump advocates of measured solutions. Lou Dobbs of CNN, in particular, has achieved national stardom by treating his audience to a daily dose of thinly veiled nativism. Although Dobbs is always careful to insist that his crusade is against illegal immigrants (or "illegal aliens", as he revealingly calls them), his subtext screams out from behind the disclaimers. Mexico is a corrupt society. Immigrants disproportionately commit crimes, and carry terrible plagues—including leprosy—across our southern frontier. Organizations that support undocumented workers are "socio-ethnocentric interest groups".

Among his sins, the greatest is that Dobbs takes decent people, struggling with their feelings about immigration, and tells them that it's all right to surrender to their darker impulses. It is, after all, the other side that is truly ethnocentric. Some read Orwell as a warning, others as a playbook. Lou Dobbs demands a seven figure salary doing the latter.

The immigration issue has already upended our normal political dichotomies. Over the past year, a conservative Republican president saw his comprehensive border reform initiative shot down by conservative Republican representatives. Politics, as the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows, but few alliances have been stranger than Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush teaming up with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, Democrats are divided over whether illegal immigrants should be issued drivers' licenses, while their union allies weigh the deleterious impact of immigration on wages against the possibility that these newcomers might be a rich source of additional membership.

Political scientists refer to these as cross-cutting cleavages, issues that divide within, as well as between, political parties. Such issues throw the political system into at least temporary turmoil and often have unanticipated results that persist well into the future, including, in rare cases, a realignment of the electoral landscape. The stakes, therefore, are enormous for both the Democrats and Republicans, particularly given the visceral nature of the debate.

Tomorrow, the implications for 2008 and beyond.

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