Monday, March 16, 2009

The Big Picture: Immigration - Who REALLY threatens America?

In a time of economic crisis, when Americans are seeing their wealth and their jobs and their security vanish, when the competition for scarce resources and opportunities intensifies, we should be on our guard for a backlash against immigrants. Legal and illegal, immigrants from around the world - and those who were born here but "look like" immigrants - will be scapegoated. Scared and anxious people will be looking for people to blame for their troubles, and they will be spurred on by demagogues practicing the time-honored art of accumulating political power by finding easy answers and recognizable villains. This crisis is extraordinarily complex, and in some ways we are all implicated; in more important ways, elites in the government, business, and the media are directly responsible, but no single person, interest group, institution, policy, or even ideology is solely responsible. These murky, almost incomprehensible lines of accountability for very real, life-altering problems make anxious, confused, and angry people even more anxious, confused, and angry. Demagogues - from Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity on cable TV to thousands of national, state and local politicians - are already well-versed in preying on the anxiety of the white middle and working classes, affixing blame on the most marginal, least powerful group in America - immigrants, especially Arabs and Lations. These demagogues are now aided in their efforts to spur the backlash by two events: the economic crisis, and the election of Barack Obama, who is still seen as the un-American, anti-American Other by a disturbingly large minority of Americans. These events feed the fears of whites who see their vision of America, their very understanding of reality, falling apart all around them. Demagogues find it easier and easier to rehash that old claim: America's problems are entirely the fault of all these shadowy, darker-skinned immigrants, including, by implication, the President himself. I think that most of the appeal of these "socialist" attacks is rooted in racial, not ideological, anxieties: they want him to fail because his success would mean the end of an America run of, by, and for whites of a "traditionally American" background.

A few examples from my supposedly liberal, tolerant New York provide anecdotal evidence. Four young white guys have been arrested for an Election-Day rampage in which, they have confessed, they were fueled by fury at the election of a black man as President that they drove through the city trying to hurt and kill any black man they could find. The one man they did succeed in killing was actually white, but they thought he was black. On Long Island, the Suffolk Country Executive rose to power in an area experiencing economic turbulence by promising to be the toughest, harshest foe of illegal immigration. Most likely inspired by the screeds of this executive in the newspapers on their doorstep, by the anti-immigrant harangues of Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly on their TV sets, and by the prejudiced, scapegoating words they heard from their parents and other adults, every weekend a group of teenage boys set out to "beat up Mexicans", targeting any Latino man they could find. They injured and brutalized many, and finally a few months ago a star athlete stabbed an immigrant from Ecuador to death. In Brooklyn, two "native New Yorkers" murdered an Ecuadorean man walking arm in arm with his brother in a vicious expression of anti-immigrant and anti-gay prejudice. And yet, the politicians and the TV hosts continue to ramp up their hate-filled message of scapegoating: "Be very afraid: America is under attack from illegal immigrants and this black man with the un-American name and background!"

What is particularly galling about this scapegoating of immigrants is the overwhelming evidence that they are a) the last people responsible for this economic crisis, and b) the ones most hurt by it. Last time I checked, there weren't too many immigrants running banks and hedge funds, strolling the halls of Congress or occupying the regulatory agencies. It is evil to scapegoat whole groups of people for the sins of a few, but if we've gotta to do it, let's denounce and deport middle-aged white men in expensive suits. And it is Latinos who are bearing the worst the crisis: unemployment has skyrocketed at a sickening pace as the construction industry, where such a high percentage of Latino men are employed, has ground to a halt and as the service industries that employ so many Latino women suffer. The home foreclosure crisis has disproportionately punished so many first-time buyers in California, Arizona, and Florida, families who were easy prey for the demonic deceptions of the bloodsucking lenders. Most fundamentally, immigrants almost by definition have the lowest level of security - savings, family members who can help out, alumnae networks - to help them weather the storm. It adds grievous insult to injury for these rich white men to rake in the viewers, the cash, and the votes by scapegoating the very people who are suffering the most.

It is dead wrong and egregiously insulting when, in a Virginia suburb with a growing number of immigrants, the chairman of the all-white Republican Board of Supervisors to say to the New York Times, "We wanted to address issues involving problems in housing, in hospitals, in schools, and with crime ... illegal immigration was driving a lot of the problems." And it almost makes me throw up to read the blatant racism of the American-born students in the local high school who explained their lack of immigrant friends by "mentioning a worker who did not finish a job their parents had paid for, or a line of pregnant women at the clinic where their mother works." With a smug elitism that brings shame on people like me who once held her position, the editor of the student newspaper categorically dismissed being friends with people from a different class: "My friends' parents are not cashiers or people who wash dishes."

But it isn't just incorrect, mean-spirited, and racist to call these people a threat to America, it's fundamentally un-American. In fact, these anti-immigrant forces are anti-American, because they virulently oppose the very essence of America: no one race, no one religion, no one background makes anyone American, only a shared commitment, in words and in deeds, to democracy, to making the most of your life and to helping your fellow citizen make the most of his. Immigrants like my girlfriend the Picturette, who came here with her family from Russia when she was 10, are a hell of a lot more American than predatory mortgage lenders. A family from Mexico who work impossibly long hours building houses and making hotel beds to make a better future for their are a hell of a lot more American than upper middle class homeowners who fear their presence will "ruin the neighborhood". Immigrant janitors who organize in unions to to achieve better wages, basic job security, a measure of power over their lives preserve and indeed strengthen America's democracy. They strengthen our economy too, because with better and more stable wages, they will have more money to spend and invest, crucial to turning around an economy with, paradoxically but ominously, dangerously low aggregate demand and savings rates.

Contrary to the smug self-righteous pronouncements of the Dobbs and the O'Reillys, our immigrants are our only shot at turning America around. The only thing that makes America different from every other country - the fact that has more than made up for our other shortcomings and failures - is that old cliche: America is a nation of immigrants. We get the people from around the world like the Picturette's family, who are the most ambitious and the most committed to working hard to achieve the American Dream. When they live in America, immigrants become the most thankful for its unique opportunity, and then the most committed to preserving and strengthening equal opportunity and broadly shared prosperity. In short, immigrants are the most patriotic Americans. Their opponents are unpatriotic.

Immigrants provide the answer to so much of what we need. We need people who work harder: no one has a stronger work ethic than immigrants. We need people who are efficient and not profligate, who know the worth of a dollar: and immigrants who have worked for everything they've got, who know what it feels like to be lacking the basic necessities, have a proven track record of being savers and not wasters. As a society we have a deficit of community bonds, of neighbors looking after neighbors, and immigrant communities in America have always been based upon strong community networks, keeping up moral and economic support, holding society together. To prosper and thrive we need more innovation, more creativity - and throughout American history the key factor in our unprecedented prosperity has been the unpredictable commingling of immigrants from everywhere, their ideas bouncing off of each other and coming together into new inventions and new ways of thinking. The opponents of immigration want America to sink into economic and social stagnation. They seek to deny our history, cripple our future, and take away the very thing that makes us most American.

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