“Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.”
Continuing our discussion from last week on illegal immigration. When most of us hear the term “illegal alien,” we automatically envision someone who snuck across the southwestern border from Mexico. However, according to statistics from 1996 (the most recent I could find, and bearing in mind that the illegal population was roughly half as large back then), only 54% of illegal immigrants come from Mexico. A total of 80% come from countries in the Western Hemisphere, but that only makes sense from a logistical standpoint. Forty-one percent, though, were “nonimmigrant overstays,” meaning people who came to America legally on a student or work visa and then stayed on after it expired. Building a Great Wall of Texas won’t do anything to keep this group out. Speaking of myths, I hope we can all dismiss out of hand the fear-mongering, race-baiting ravings of some Ultra Right Wing commentators like John Gibson and Michelle Malkin, who claim that Hispanics (not even differentiating between those here legally and those here illegally) have some nefarious plot to detach the Southwestern United States from the Union. These comments are as insulting as they are moronic, and echo the bile spewed by neo-Nazis.
Digressing back to the point, we can also (along with GOP Senator Lindsay Graham and Conservative talking head George Will) dismiss the asinine notion of deporting all illegals (which might cost as much as $40 billion a year, if it could even be done at all) or making illegal immigration a felony. The US prison population hit two million in 2002, at a cost of $57 billion per year. So, imagine multiplying those figures by a factor of six; because there’s no point in making something a felony if you aren’t going to lock people up for it, right? So, if we toss out the ludicrous, what’s left? The debate seems to mostly center on the dreaded “A” word: amnesty. The main thrust of the Senate Bill offered by Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy is that illegal aliens who have been here five years, speak English, been continually employed, and pay some fines and back taxes, can then apply for naturalization. Senator Majority “Leader” (and I use the term very loosely) Bill Frist and the House are pushing a bill that makes illegal aliens and anyone who helps them felons and would build a really, really big wall. This is just more proof that Frist has about as much control over the US Senate these days as I do, and is being openly dissed like a substitute teacher by his own GOP colleagues.
I have to concede, though, that the critics of the McCain-Kennedy Bill make some valid points. Amnesty has, in fact, been tried before, in 1986, and illegal immigration continued to increase dramatically. Then, it was amnesty for about 2.7 million people; this time, it will be 11-12 million. Will we be having this same debate again in 2026? Moreover, amnesty, by definition, rewards or at least excuses people for breaking the law. The operative word in “illegal immigration” is, after all, “illegal.” There is also a valid argument to be made that amnesty is unfair to the 26 million legal immigrants currently residing in the United States, and the millions more waiting to make it through the process. It is interesting to note, though, that 68% of these newest Americans support the McCain-Kennedy Bill.
There has been heated debate over whether new immigrants (legal or otherwise) are “assimilating” like immigrants in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Putting aside the definition of “assimilation” that seems synonymous in some circles to “acting white,” let’s instead define “melting pot” for what it really is and always has been: immigrants are changed by exposure to American culture (for good and for ill) and American culture is changed by immigrant culture, and often in some unexpected ways. For example, some culturally conservative Latin American immigrants resist “assimilation” because they see the dominant American culture as greedy and immoral. Hispanic immigration is even transforming Cleburne. When I was in school here (millions of years ago, when men were men and giants walked the Earth), you could count the number of Hispanics on the fingers of one hand; now, Hispanics outnumber African-Americans more than four to one. The “American Culture” of today is not the same as in 1900 or 1800 and the “American Culture” of 2100 will look even more different. Still, as I mentioned in last week’s column, I haven’t heard any arguments about the current crop of immigrants that weren’t also used a century or more ago about the Irish, Polish, Italians, Czechs and so forth. And I expect that in the long run, the results will be the same, and the grandchildren of today’s migrants will be arguing about the “dilution of American culture” in the future.
As for the protests or rallies, or whatever we want to call them, it’s a little hypocritical for the same folks who used to blast today’s youth for being apathetic to be up in arms when the kids finally find an issue that motivates them to get off their over-fed, under-exercised rear-ends, put down the video games, and start marching in the streets. Yes, from a public-relations standpoint, waving a bunch of Mexican flags was a dumb idea, but these were kids, not slick political operatives. They’ll learn. They’re already learning. In fact, if you want proof of assimilation, this is it. They know that in America, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It’s possible, just possible, that these mass protests (made possible by technology that still befuddles old fogies like me) signal the start of a new Hispanic political awareness, where a population that has never exercised political power proportionate to its numbers finally finds its’ voice.
So, to sum up, if we decide to try amnesty again (and there seems to be no realistic alternative), it absolutely must be combined with increased border security (not walls; they went out with the Maginot Line) and a concerted effort to raise the standards of living in Latin America so that more of their people will want to stay there. The so-called “Free Trade” mantra pushed by Presidents from George H.W. Bush, to Bill Clinton, to George W. Bush has only worked to further impoverish already depressed regions in Central and South America, leading to additional pressures on the poor and landless to come to El Norte, the land of opportunity. Americans traditionally are opposed to foreign aid, and usually imagine that we spend way more on it than we really do (it’s actually less than 1% of the total budget, or about a tenth of what we’ve spent on Iraq and Afghanistan), but wouldn’t that be a wiser investment than either mass deportations, mass arrests, or an amnesty crisis every twenty years?