President Obama has set his sights on immigration reform, and that’s a good thing. The issue has been a political lightning rod, with demagogues exploiting the issue of so-called “illegal aliens” for political gain. They conjure up the image of the Mexican worker who steals all the jobs from honest, hard-working Americans, and brings crime and disease across the border. Another popular stereotype is that of the Muslim immigrant with an Arab surname who is not to be trusted, coming to these shores to plot and spread terror.
But this is nothing new, and throughout history the U.S. has maintained a love-hate relationship with immigrants. Without question, immigrants have been vital to the growth of the nation. But many were treated like dirt when they first arrived. Ethnic whites such as Irish, Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans were regarded with disdain for their poverty, their culture and religion, and where applicable their darker skin. I.Q. tests were designed in an attempt to prove their mental inferiority. They were excluded from employment and educational opportunities, and formed their own institutions in response. Of course, these were the days when the concept of “whiteness” was far less inclusive than it is today, and some European immigrant groups were rendered the functional equivalent of people of color.
As for immigrants of color, such as Asian-Americans, there was a fear of the “yellow peril” and the “brown hordes” that fueled a racist exclusionist immigration policy, culminating in the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps on U.S. soil. And Mexican-Americans have been on this soil longer than Anglos, yet they are branded as aliens and exploited for cheap migrant labor. What an inglorious history we have to confront.
The Tea Party movement, a twenty-first-century incarnation of the angry white mob—with corporate backing no less—exploits the fear of the foreigner. They and their cohorts in the anti-immigrant movement stoke the fires of hatred and resentment, among a population hit by recession and searching for the enemy. There are those who want the U.S. to build a giant fence on the border with Mexico, not unlike the Berlin Wall or the Israeli security fence. History has shown us that this is not a good idea. Meanwhile, the more extremist elements take the law into their own hands and commit acts of anti-Latino violence, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has so capably documented. And how ironic, or fitting perhaps, that Tom Tancredo, one of the most vocal and visible spokespeople for the immigrant-hater crowd, is himself the grandson of Italian immigrants. How soon people forget!
And for the Teabaggers, President Obama’s foreign affiliations—as someone who had a Kenyan father and lived in Indonesia during his childhood—provide a bonus which allows them to express their xenophobic sentiment. Visiting other countries, understanding other cultures and speaking foreign languages are an anathema to some among us. All the talk about Obama’s birth certificate is really racist and xenophobic code language. It reflects their desire to return to a time, presumably the good ol’ days such as the fifties, when whites had it all, and people of color were invisible— except when they were serving someone food or cleaning a toilet. Meanwhile, Latinos are the largest “minority” group in America, a reality which unsettles a segment of the population.
There are 12 million undocumented immigrants, and they are not going anywhere. They are a group with third-class status, lurking in the shadows of civic life devoid of rights. Because of this, businesses are more than eager to exploit their cheap labor. And yet, though many have lived in America for years and raised their children here, they often must face deportation and separation from their family members who have U.S. citizenship. A nation that purportedly stands for “family values” cannot tolerate such a state of affairs.
Yet, the undocumented make for a good scapegoat because they are powerless. How easy it is to blame your troubles on a migrant farm worker who makes cents on the dollar, rather than the banks that robbed you and all of us blind, then were rewarded by the government for doing it? And what of the age of globalization and outsourcing, and the globetrotting transnational corporations that search for the nations with the lowest cost of labor, driving wages down in the process? Simple minds and simple people search for the easy answers, afraid to get their feelings hurt if they stumble upon the truth. So, they blame it all on the farmworker picking oranges, as if that was a job they really wanted in the first place.
Indeed, there is a moral justification for immigration reform and putting people on a path to citizenship. It is the right thing to do, so that people can live with dignity and raise their families with security. But even if you don’t care about the moral component, perhaps you wish to hear the economic reason for immigration reform.
According to the Center for American Progress, comprehensive reform would add $1.5 trillion in additional GDP over 10 years. Meanwhile, an enforcement-oriented strategy of mass deportations costs the U.S. $2.6 trillion in GDP over ten years. For a nation running out of money, continuing to pursue the current misguided policies amounts to cutting off our nose to spite our face.
So, it is good that the President is looking at immigration reform. In the meantime, let us ignore the Tea Party people and let their mentality die a natural death.
This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.