Monday, February 18, 2008

Immigration is an "issue"

Immigration is an “issue.” I know this because politicians and pundits have continually repeated it. It’s always listed as one of the primary issues of the Presidential campaign. What are the candidates’ positions on immigration, inquiring minds want to know?

Excuse me, I mean illegal immigration. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the issue.

I can’t remember exactly when this became an issue. At some point, a bunch of people got together and decided to make it one. When the Republicans tried to pass a “tough” bill in 2006, there were huge demonstrations across the country against them. Against the Republicans, I mean. Oops, that’s not the response we expected.

All this can be kind of puzzling, because when I talk to people about politics, they never mention immigration as one of their concerns. They talk about the war, the destruction of the environment, the scary financial situation, the corruption. (Did I mention the war?) But nobody I know seems worried about illegal immigration.

It must be the crowd of people I hang out with. They’re probably too educated.

If you study the politics of Europe for any length of time (say, for an hour) you’ll notice that neo-fascist groups always start out by attacking immigrants. It stands to reason that a hate movement will target “outsider” groups in order to attract frustrated, ignorant people, expressing their powerlessness by raging against someone even more powerless than they are. It’s an extension of the old antisemitic template. There’s an insidious minority threatening your job and your family. Attack!

The immigration “issue” operates the same way in America, except that it’s not confined to fringe rightist groups—it’s the mainstream. Whenever things start to go sour for the elites—a war not turning out as planned, large-scale theft sending the economy into a spiral, etc.—immigration suddenly pops up again as an issue. While Mr. and Mrs. Average White American are getting royally screwed, the people who own the country start gesticulating towards Mexico. Those brown people are causing this! And then Mr. and Mrs. A.W.M., who are patriots and wouldn’t be caught dead protesting the war or questioning the wisdom of corporations, get all hot and bothered over illegal immigration and end up voting for the yelling, pointing, bloviating, anti-immigrant candidate.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. I’m not sure it’s working that well this time. People are still more worried about the war and the economy for some reason. And the Latino voters are getting pissed off. If you were wondering why Bush’s immigration proposals were moderate compared to the frothing of the rightists (“moderate” meaning in the current political lexicon “slightly less insane”), I can tell you it was not because Bush could give a tiny fraction of a damn about immigrants (or anything but his pathetic self and his rich handlers' checkbooks), but simply because Karl Rove wanted to claim a chunk of the Latino vote. The nativists, however, are ruled more by their hate than their desire to win elections. They would have none of Rove’s Machiavellian strategy, and the result is that the Republicans are facing the probable loss of the Latino vote, a devastating blow which, if there’s any hope in this world, will flush them down the electoral toilet.

In the meantime, contemplate the wholly artificial nature of immigration as an “issue.” The media talks about it, therefore it’s an issue. If people hear about it often enough, they start to believe that it must be an issue. The losers who listen to AM radio are told (ordered) to consider it an issue by the usual gang of insane demagogues, so of course they believe it. Lou Dobbs yammers about it every night, and I guess that’s good enough for me. Let’s build a fucking wall around our country!

The war, however, is not an issue. The war is a PR problem. People need to be convinced that the “surge” is working, and that everything’s ok. That’s the only “issue.” You see how this works? It’s really quite simple. Whatever actually affects the mass of ordinary working people in this country, whatever political, social, and economic conditions have a real impact on our lives—that is not the “issue.” The “issue” is whatever stream of empty, pretentious, distracting bullshit happens to emerge from the political-media cesspool, drowning all of our actual concerns in its putrid, miasmic, mind-deadening slop.

Happy President's Day!


fiddler said...

I would argue that xenophobia or racism is not an extension of the old antisemitic template, but that antisemitism is rather a specific instance of racism, in and of itself no better or worse than others. I don't think it's likely that antisemitism was the very first ever type of racism, after which all others were modeled.

Over here, the immigration "issue" isn't confined to the rightist fringe either. After all, the "Fortress Europe", Schengen treaty, evisceration of asylum laws and all that were created by the European political mainstream (most of which would pass as "liberals" or worse among Republicans these days).
Something comes to mind that (IIRC) former chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said: that there are probably in every modern society about 10-15% people with xenophobic or racist ideas, but usually only a small percentage speaks out openly, or even acts on them.
It is the responsibility of politicians and the media not to provide them with multipliers.

Chris Dashiell said...

I wasn't saying that racism comes from an antisemitic template. I was talking about the practice of scapegoating a minority in order to divide and conquer. That has a long European history that precedes the colonization of Africa, Asia, and America.
As always, I appreciate your comments, fiddler.

Mauigirl said...

Dashiell, excellent post as always. You are so right that this is an "issue" only among those who want it to be. While in a perfect world, all immigration would be legal, Mexicans coming to this country illegally is hardly a threat to our nation. The thing that is so insidious is that people like Lou Dobbs get even people who are generally liberal-minded stirred up because of his constant haranguing about this. My own mother, an FDR Democrat from way back, expressed concern about illegal immigration recently and said there seem to be "too many" people coming here from south of the border. I told her she was a victim of propaganda (she listens to Lou Dobbs all the time). If my own liberal mother can be affected by this hateful rhetoric, imagine the effect it has on those who really get fired up by it! You are right that this is an obvious tactic by the right wing and I hope this time the public just isn't buying it.

no_slappz said...

dashiell, you wrote:

"It’s an extension of the old antisemitic template."

As fiddler said, no it isn't.

YOu should read one of the leading studies on this topic -- The Nature of Prejudice, by Gordon Allport.

The first problem with your reasoning is that it implies all immigrants are the same. Second, that there is no downside to immigration, and third, that critics of immigration policies are wrong.

As a resident of Brooklyn, NY I see immigrants and the impact of immigration every day. I also see immigrants from more countries than most people can name.

It is an absolute fact that immigrants bring along much of their culture. Some of that is good, but a lot of it is bad. It's bad when it means disdain or rejection of education and an acceptance of crime.

I see it every day. Brooklyn is a borough of fatherless black kids. It is also a borough of an extraordinary number of high school drop-outs. Blacks and hispanics have a poor record of finishing. Immigrants, especially hispanic immigrants, legal or illegal, fare worse due to their common language barrier. They may speak Spanish, but without learning English, they won't graduate from high school.

I don't know if you know anything about the NY City public school system. So, the public school system includes some schools that are competitive. That is, to get in, a student must pass a test.

Stuyvesant High School is considered the best school in the system. Its student body is 50% asian, 42% white, and 8% everybody else. The "everybody else" category includes blacks and hispanics.

But in the entire public school system, blacks and hispanics account for almost 75% of all students.

True to the stereotype, asian students are at the top. Even recently arrived asian immigrants. Why are asian students -- many come from poor families -- as good as they are? And why are black and hispanic students -- immigrants -- as weak as they are?

Meanwhile, Russians and others from former Soviet Union republics are moving here as fast as possible. Their kids are also good students. Those recent arrivals are jumping into the US economy with both feet. There is a large Russian community in Brooklyn, and the increasing prosperity of the community is evident. It takes only a walk through the streets of Brighton Beach to see how fast these recent arrivals are improving their lots.

But other groups fare less well. Blacks, hispanics and muslims, mainly. Though blacks and hispanics have shown the least advance over time.

There's a track record to consider. They arrive from countries that place little value on education and they live with that mindset here. The results speak for themselves. It is not racism or prejudice that holds these people back.

Of course their problems are compounded if they are here illegally.

In fact, if we wanted to end the illegal problem, we should institute a guest-worker program AND eliminate the minimum wage. Meanwhile, we should vastly expand the H1-B visa program. That's the program bringing in engineers and technical people. Better to have them working and taxed in the US than working in India and telecommuting to the US.

No matter what you believe, some immigrants are more desireable that others.

Lastly, Jews weren't immigrants in Germany when Hitler rose to power. Moreover, they were the source of much of the country's prosperity. Envy drove some portion of anti-Semitism. Current concerns involve people who unquestionably become liabilities to the US.

fiddler said...

no_slappz, I'm not sure if it is Chris who thinks all immigrants were the same or rather those leading the populist charge against them. Chris can no doubt speak for himself.

I don't quite see why you single out Hispanic immigrants regarding the language barrier - wouldn't that be the same for, e.g., people from the former French colonies in Africa, or most of Asia?

Disdain or rejection of education or an acceptance of crime are bad in any part of a population; it seems a bit of a cop-out to me to hang that on external markers like immigration status or citizenship. (Personally, I do or don't get along with people depending on their behaviour and attitudes, never on their ethnic or geographic background, and I never blame the former on the latter.)

IMO a big part of the problem is ghettoisation of some groups of immigrants. It's quite understandable that new arrivals in a very foreign country and culture associate with their countrymen already there (wouldn't you?). OTOH, if this goes too far it leads to growing, self-propagating alienation between both sides with all the well-known problems.

You're correct to point out that Jews weren't immigrants here in the 1920s, and that antisemitism was in part envy-driven. That however long predated the rise of the Nazis. What the German Jews of those years and today's immigrants have in common is that both are perceived by some to be the "other", alien and hostile, a fifth column. That both were/are in massive supply makes them ideal scapegoats, regardless of which real grievances may also exist.

no_slappz said...

fiddler, the US is truly a nation of immigrants and Brooklyn, NY is where millions of them met each other. For the most part, things work out rather well.

But, the crime problem is absolutely and unquestionably centered in the black and hispanic communities. The NY City Police Department statistics show that over 90% of violent crime is committed by blacks and hispanics.

As for language issues, there are many immigrants who arrive with limited English skills. That's okay. But there's too much reluctance to learn English. Thus, many immigrants limit themselves.

But the immigrants who are most reluctant to learn English are those from nations and cultures that place little value on education. Hence, blacks and hispanics.

The children of immigrants from asia, and the middle east become proficient without any obstacles arising at home. Though a lot of muslims are advancing slowly on the economic scale, their English is generally good.

Anyway, it seems to me that there are many muslims, Turks, who have formed a permanent underclass in Germany. The same has happened elsewhere in Europe.

However, from here it looks as though Europe is bending to the immigrants rather than demanding that immigrants assimilate.

Germany has tougher citizenship laws than the US -- the US should take a lesson from Germany on this.

But that means the non-citizen immigrants are permanently segregated.

You mentioned ghetto-ization. Yes, people of similar backgrounds live in the same neighborhoods. The Russians go to Brighton Beach. It's become a very attractive area.

Many of the newer Russian arrivals land in government-supplied housing where they meet American blacks who have spent a few generations in this public housing.

In the inevitable turf battles, it looks as though the Russians are winning. They are driving out the criminals.

However, other black neighborhoods have seen an influx of white home-buyers. The whites are reclaiming sections of NY City that had been disastrous crime zones 15 years ago. The returning whites are replacing undesirables, and, it should be no surprise that crime rates are going down in neighborhoods where the white population is increasing.

fiddler said...

Turks have become the largest ethnic minority here, and they're repeating a pattern we saw with previous waves of immigration from Poland, Italy, Spain, Greece and so on. The first generation will inevitably associate with their kinsmen, but these bonds will lessen with each passing generation. Today there are many people in the Ruhrgebiet especially who are as German as anyone else, except for their Polish surnames. Integration of the Turks hasn't indeed been as successful so far. There certainly have been lapses on both sides, including the lack of demand for integration (to demand assimilation goes too far IMO).
We are blessed here with violent crime rates by orders of magnitude lower than in the (urban) US, and we simply don't have virtual no-go-areas for anyone from outside the neighbourhood, and a big part of the reason might be the far smaller class differences here, for which the state is largely responsible.

Do I remember correctly that Brighton Beach was once considered one of the very problem neighbourhoods you mention, being for the Russian mafia what Little Italy was for the Sicilians and Chinatown for the Triades? If so, what has changed, assuming Russian immigrants have not?

You speak of nations and cultures that "place little value on education". Are these perhaps those that have for centuries served the West as sources of cheap labour and natural resources, either as colonies in the formal sense or economically exploited by corporations, with despotic regimes propped up by the benefitting Western countries? That would be a classic case of chickens coming home to roost, wouldn't it? A number of post-colonial, mostly left-leaning governments, especially in Latin America, are having spectacular success with education programs, for which they certainly deserve our support instead of being reviled as evil socialists.
So I think we shouldn't complain too loudly about a problem that is partly, if indirectly, home-made.