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Sunday, November 27, 2005


It's clear that Bush is going to try to change the subject with a big push on the immigration issue. This article in TIME discusses the various pressures on both parties.

Having spent a good part of my almost 50 years in California, I have observed that the immigration issue is usually a sign of a weak economy or some other form of discontent. It's been around forever and rears its head every once in a while as people perceive a "crisis" and then it goes underground again.

It is not a partisan issue; many Democrats are very exercised about Mexican immigrants overrunning the borders and allegedly taking away jobs from Americans or at least holding wages below what they would otherwise be. On the other side are liberals who see a subtle and no so subtle racism in the border debate and feel that all this talk of cultural dissonence is a false construct. There are conflicting values of economics and human rights involved and it's confusing.

The Republican have a different set of divisive issues. TIME characterizes Bush's dilemma this way:

So far, he has not been able to bridge his party's business leaders, who need a steady supply of workers willing to do hard labor, and its cultural conservatives, who fear that something essential about the American character is vanishing under the crosscurrents of multilingualism and demographic change and ethnic pluralism.

This is clearly going to be an issue. Even up in Ohio, which I didn't know until recently has been a mexican migrant crop picking destination forever, is having a fit about illegal immigration and all the alleged problems associated with it.

My feeling is that this time we are dealing with displaced fear and frustrating impotence. The terrorist boogeyman has been fully internalized and people are afraid. But it is an ephemeral and distant enemy. Another brown hoarde is conveniently available. I think my theory is borne out by the right's increasing emphasis on the Mexican border being a national security threat and the sudden seriousness of Pat Buchanan's "fence" concept:

This latest fence proposal comes from an organization called Let Freedom Ring, and its WeNeedaFence.com project. It's funded by Dr. John Templeton, a generous supporter of a range of conservative causes.

Colin Hanna, the group's president, says we shouldn't be messing around with the flimsy and partial fences we've built so far. What's needed is a serious border fence, one modeled after what the Israelis are building on the West Bank.

What Hanna has in mind is a barrier consisting of a "pyramid" of rolls of barbed wire piled 6 to 8 feet high. Alongside it would run a deep ditch, followed by a fence, a security road, another fence, another ditch, and then another wire pyramid. Cameras and motion detectors would monitor the fence to create a formidable barrier 40 to 50 yards wide. The cost: $2 million to $4 million a mile, or $4 billion to $8 billion in total.

Hanna says his proposal is entirely consistent with President Bush's emerging proposal to legalize some illegal immigrants through a temporary guest-worker program. In fact, he says, it will complement it. Unless more illegal migrants can be kept out after Bush's guest-worker program is established, more will keep coming in. ''The fence is the sine qua non of immigration reform," Hanna argues. "If you don't have a secure border, all the rest is whistling in the wind.''

To promote his ideas, his group has lobbied on Capitol Hill and aired two television spots in the Washington area. One cites statistics of North Koreans and Iraqis crossing the Mexican border, and includes a clip of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

I'm also hearing a lot about rapes, animal mutilation and kidnapping along the border.

I understand the strong negative feelings that many Democratic populists have about illegal immigration. Disdaining the cheap immigrant labor the wealthy thrive on is an understandable populist impulse. I do hope, however, that Democrats give some long and serious thought to the underlying racist implications of some of this on the right ---- and understand the dangers of getting into bed with people whose real agenda has nothing to do with economics:

...the great migration north continues. Some 1.5 million are apprehended every year on our southern border breaking into the United States. Of the perhaps 500,000 who make it, one-third head for Mexifornia, where their claims on Medicaid, schools, courts, prisons, and welfare have tipped the Golden State toward bankruptcy and induced millions of native-born Americans to flee in the great exodus to Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, and Colorado. Ten years after NAFTA, Mexico's leading export to America is still--Mexicans. America is becoming Mexamerica.

Source: Where The Right Went Wrong, by Pat Buchanan, p.166 Sep 1, 2004

Mexifornia? How silly. The word "California" is spanish. So are "Los Angeles" and "San Francisco" and "Las Vegas" and "Santa Fe" and "San Antonio." This country has always been Mexamerica. Perhaps Pat doesn't know this being from Washington DC, but those of us from the border states don't find this "alien culture" alien at all. It's always been here. And, yes, there are plenty of people who have always hated it --- the same way that some white southerners are intimately familiar with black culture and hate it at the same time. But contrary to what Pat and some of the other "American culture" hysterics are trying to promote, this isn't new. It's been literally going on for centuries. And we've been having these panics about it every so often for centuries too.

We can argue about the degree of the immigration problem and about solutions. But we should remember that populism isn't only a leftwing ideology. It swings both ways as Pat Buchanan's racist right wing populism shows. Sadly, it's been most successful when it combined both elements. I hope that liberals don't find it "useful" to subtly play to some of these sentiments no matter how tempting it might be. We should be very thoughtful about this.

Update: Kevin Drum discusses the policy implications of the immigration debate. Sadly, I don't think this debate is really about policy. It's about the boogeyman.