Thursday, January 26, 2012

Scapegoating immigrants

Last summer, I hired a locksmith for a minor problem. He was a young guy, pleasant and personable (admittedly, I think he was cheating on his taxes, because he wanted the check made out to him personally, not to the company he owned).

But just before he left, he got a phone call, which he put on speaker. It was a prospective customer, a guy with a pretty strong accent who struggled a bit with English, wanting to hire the locksmith. So this contractor just hung up on him. "Hey, if they want to hire me, they need to learn to speak English!"

Think about that. As an American, my contractor was the descendent of immigrants himself, some of whom probably didn't speak perfect English themselves. My own ancestors certainly didn't, not all of them. This is America, the land of opportunity. We're pretty much all descended from immigrants (even Native Americans, arguably).

And learning to speak a foreign language as an adult is hard. Here in Nebraska, that might be easy to forget, since we can go a thousand miles in any direction without needing to speak anything but English. But I know how I struggled just as a tourist in Europe, despite my high school Spanish and a some German, French, and Italian in college. Learning to actually use a new language is hard.

As I say, our ancestors went through all that, so if any people on Earth should be sympathetic to immigrants, it should be us Americans. I really don't understand it.

When my mother was a little girl, her great-grandmother lived with them for awhile before her death. The old woman couldn't speak English, despite living in America for most of her life. And my mother couldn't speak any German. They couldn't communicate at all, except with hugs and other gestures.

A hundred years ago, there were German-language newspapers in America, German social clubs, German-language schools. For the most part, that ended when America went to war with Germany in World War I. It wasn't considered patriotic then (and, as usual, we got a little hysterical about the enemy - in this case, even renaming sauerkraut "liberty cabbage"). But today, the descendents of those German-Americans, many of them, just hit the ceiling about using Spanish in America. Funny, isn't it?

My grandfather fought in Germany (for our side, I assure you) in World War I, suffering poison gas damage which affected his lungs for the rest of his life. He was an American citizen, but all of his grandparents had come from Germany. They came here for the reason all immigrants come to America, to make a better life for themselves.

But these days, we're not even willing to grant permanent residence to soldiers who fight and sometimes die for us, if they were brought to America illegally as children. How crazy is that? We won't even reward the very best of them who struggle against overwhelming odds to get a college degree. Yeah, we don't want no furriners here, do we? It's absolutely insane!

When my Irish ancestors arrived in America, there were riots against them in some American towns. I used to hear stories about the discrimination they faced. But their descendants, many of them, are all too eager to discriminate against immigrants now. P. J. O'Rourke once said, "We are, after all, a country full of people who came to America to get away from foreigners." Maybe that's it.

Sure, the right-wing claims that they're only against illegal immigrants. Is it their fault that you can't tell a legal brown person from an illegal brown person? Besides, they're all just "Mexicans," right? We all know how lazy they are...

Yeah, here in Nebraska, at least, it's all about the "Mexicans." Wonder how that  happened? When I was a kid, Iowa Beef Processors built a big packing plant just outside my hometown. There were a lot of problems with the plant (including a horrible stench when the wind was from the north), but at least it was a union plant and the jobs paid pretty well.

Unfortunately, IBP found a way to make more money. They sent buses to the Mexican border to find workers desperate enough to work for peanuts, then used them to break the union. Nearby towns saw a huge influx of poor Spanish-speaking people, which cost taxpayers more in school and social services costs. Meanwhile, those well-paying jobs had disappeared, so the taxes from them did, too.

And who do the locals blame? Those wealthy executives at IBP who made out like bandits? Not hardly. Most blame the Spanish-speaking workers who were simply desperate for work. Well, it's easy to scapegoat people who seem different from you, isn't it? Those executives were white and spoke perfect English. And we all know how the "job creators" deserve everything they get, right?

Generally speaking, the real hysteria about immigration, here in Nebraska and nationally, focuses on the "Mexicans." But discrimination hardly stops there. That guy on the other end of the cell phone sounded like he had a Pakistani or Indian accent, as far as I could tell from the speaker. But it was enough that he spoke English with an accent. Obviously, he was just another no-good foreigner, huh?

The fact that all of us, pretty much, are descended from "no-good foreigners" ourselves doesn't seem to matter to these people. Well, bigotry is alive and well even in good economic times. When times are bad, that's when you really see the hysteria. And the average middle class American has seen his standard of living decline since the late 1970s (funny, that coincides exactly with the start of "trickle down" economic policies favoring the wealthy).

It's especially bad in the GOP, of course, since the Republican Party has been deliberately wooing racists with their "Southern strategy" for decades. Politically, that was a huge success, since they succeeded in taking the South from the Democrats. But now, the racists are the Republican base. And you know? When you take most of the crazies from one political party and combine them with all of the crazies from your own, you get a lot of crazy.

Now, all of the Republican candidates for president must try to appeal to those people. Mitt Romney, mostly because of his flip-flopping, has to be especially vigorous. And, although Newt Gingrich is holding his own when it comes to implicit racism, Romney is setting a whole new standard for crazy when it comes to immigration.
Mitt Romney unveiled a novel solution for illegal immigration during Tuesday night's GOP debate, saying that he'd rely on "self-deportation" to reduce the number of unauthorized immigrants in the US. ...

This is the right-wing's answer to the question of how you deport 11 million unauthorized immigrants: You don't. You force them to "deport themselves." Although immigration reform advocates would prefer a solution that involves a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already here, Romney and his top immigration advisers believe they can remove millions of people through heavy-handed enforcement that makes life for unauthorized immigrants intolerable. This approach is notable for its complete lack of discretion and flexibility. Unauthorized immigrant parents with citizen children who need to go to school? Americans who are married to an undocumented immigrant who needs medical treatment? "Self-deportation" hits them all with the same mailed fist.

We can see how this concept has been applied in states like Arizona and Alabama, where local authorities have been empowered to act as enforcers of immigration law. Alabama takes the choke point theory even more seriously than Arizona—everything from enrolling in school to seeking health treatment has been turned into a so-called choke point. The moral, social, and economic consequences of the strategy are secondary to inflicting enough suffering on unauthorized immigrants in order to force them out of the country. ...

Alabama's immigration law has actually been such a disaster that the state is trying to figure out a way to repeal parts of the law. But make no mistake, when Romney is discussing "self-deportation," he's talking about creating a United States where parents are afraid to register their kids for school or get them immunized because they might be asked for proof of citizenship. He's talking about the type of country where local police can demand your immigration status based on mere suspicion that you don't belong around here. "Self-deportation" is just a cleaner, less cruel-sounding way of endorsing harsh, coercive government polices in order to make life for unauthorized immigrants so unbearable that they have no choice but to find some way to leave. The human cost of such an approach, let alone what it might do to American society, is viewed as a price worth paying.

Brilliant, isn't it? We're going to make America such a hell-hole that no one will want to live here! Wow! Why didn't we progressives think of that?

And if you're enjoying the "war on terror," then you'll really be in for a treat. We're going to make sure that American kids - children legally American, but born here of illegal immigrant parents - are going to hate America with a passion. Well, at least future terrorist groups won't have to worry about recruiting American citizens, huh? They'll be lining up to attack us.

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