The Great Immigration Swindle

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News came a few days ago that Eliot Spitzer has failed in his effort to allow long-incarcerated felons some measure of freedom, freedom denied them so far by the Parole Board's categorical refusal to grant parole to inmates convicted of certain crimes.  Reading this story got me thinking.  Spitzer started his term popular and ambitious but then something happened.  That something is known collectively in some circles as the flying monkeys of immigration restrictionism. 

Here is the key passage in Sam Roberts' NY Times article for my purposes today:

With Mr. Spitzer's political capital depleted and the governor hardly eager to embark on another unpopular crusade

By "unpopular crusade," I'm speculating that Roberts primarily means Spitzer's attempt to fulfill a campaign promise to reinstate New York's previous policy of permitting undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. 

Hillary Clinton's recent dip in the polls ahead of the primaries has also been attributed by many to her "gaffe" on the same subject in a debate a couple months ago.

Political capital is ineffable and notoriously volatile.  Much of a politician's room to maneuver depends on which narrative our media gatekeepers decide is suitable for consumption by the masses.  Those gatekeepers are often easily misled as to the prevailing temper of the public--witness the "Village's" continuing support for the War in Iraq when all available evidence indicates a large majority of Americans oppose the war. 

This ongoing disjunction between reality and media narrative has not arisen organically--it has several causes, among them: fear of being labeled soft on national security, fear of being caught by surprise again after 9/11, ignorance of the substantive details of the issues at hand, weariness of being tagged with the now-pejorative "liberal" label, coziness with power brokers in government and business who profit from the machinery of war, and simple groupthink. 

I propose that savvy conservative activists have perpetuated a similar con on the gatekeepers: the Great Immigration Swindle.  Through a decades-long coordinated effort,  groups calling for more restrictive immigration policies, or "restrictionists" for short, have positioned a media narrative once considered racist and extreme as fully mainstream.

Here are the component parts of the Swindle: 

The Con: There is a groundswell of popular public sentiment oozing up through the grassroots (someone should alert the EPA) demanding stricter border enforcement, lower numbers of immigrant visas issued each year, construction of a massive wall on the Southern (not the Northern) border, mandatory employment verification, and an absolute prohibition on the Scarlet "A" (for "Amnesty").    

The Reality: Curiously, these are the exact points advocated by restrictionist outfits like FAIR and CIS.  Curiouserly, these organizations provide action alerts on key issues for adherents to blanket politicians with phone calls, faxes, emails, and letters, whether or not the caller is a constituent of that politician.  These were the tactics that worked so effectively to bring down the immigration bill last year and to bully Spitzer and Clinton--politicians not easily cowed on other issues--into publicly reversing their positions at great political cost. 

Now, this is arguably simply part of the democratic process.  There is nothing wrong with urging voters to become more politically involved--in fact, the lack of civic involvement among Our Youth is perennially lamented across the political spectrum.  But the idea with these tactics is to provide the appearance of a mass movement whether or not the movement is as substantial as it claims to be.  There is quite a bit of evidence that it is not, as wide majorities of the public supported each of the major planks of the defeated comprehensive reform bill of 2007, a bill that was anathema to restrictionists.  

The Con: "Illegal alien," "illegal immigrant," "illegal immigration," or just "illegals" are all acceptable terms of discourse; in fact, they are the only accurate descriptors for a class of people whose very existence is illicit and breeds contempt for the law.  For example:

  • Illegal means illegal.
  • What part of illegal don't you understand?
  • Simply: Illegals!!!!!!! 

The Reality: From a legal perspective, the term "illegal alien" is today nowhere to be found in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which is the U.S. federal immigration statute.  A search of Title 8 of the U.S. Code on Cornell's Legal Information Institute for the phrase "illegal alien" will confirm this.  The phrase pops up once in Title 8, but in a provision that is not part of the INA. 

It's a legally meaningless term under immigration law in the U.S.  But restrictionists use the term as if it were the only accurate way to refer to immigrants who have fallen out of lawful immigration status or entered the country without proper inspection.  Restrictionists have been so successful at injecting the word "illegal" into the mainstream that its use often goes unnoticed and unchallenged.  Make no mistake, it is a loaded term and it has helped shift the immigration debate towards punitive enforcement-only measures and away from workable, humane solutions. 

The Con: Advocates of immigration restrictions are colorblind, not racist, in fact it's the ethnocentrist Hispanics and fellow travelers who are racist, and you're a racist for intimating that someone so colorblind, who has stated loudly (and IN ALL CAPS) more than once or twice that he is not racist but you have somehow not gotten the picture, ethnocentrist UN-loving One-World fellow traveler that you are--like I was saying, advocates of a tough border policy don't care which brown-skinned, black-hair-having, foreign-language-speaking miscontented malcreants try to slip across the border to mow our lawns or blow themselves up in our shopping malls, they want them all locked up, shipped out, and categorically denied entry.     

One concerned citizen recently demonstrated his admirable refusal to distinguish between people of different races:

I can't tell Jose Cuervo from the Al Qaeda operatives by looking at them, because they cut their beard off. It's like trying to get fly manure out of pepper without your glasses on, you know? I mean, not a racist thing, but they're all brown with black hair and they don't speak English and I don't speak Arabic or Spanish, so if they don't belong here and they don't come here legally, I want to know who's here.

Ha!  He's a veritable Steven Colbert . . . who, incidentally, exemplifies the laudable objective inability to discern racial characteristics so common among restrictionists: 

"Now, I don't see race ... People tell me I'm white, and I believe them, because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffett albums."  He later qualified this statement in his book, stating, "When I say I don't see race, I mean I don't see Black people. But I can spot a Mexican at a hundred paces."

The Reality: Indeed, it turns out that restrictionists do get particularly incensed about Mexicans, due to Mexico's proactive use of consular privileges and the existence of unjust social conditions at home.  Or something.  See if you can make sense of it here, here, here, or here.  I've tried and failed many times--after wading through more of this stuff than I care to admit, it seems that the most salient facts are that most Mexican immigrants are poor, have brown skin, and speak Spanish.  If this is our brave new colorblind world, I'm afraid it's not very colorblind at all.  

The Con: Border security is sacrosanct--a variant of "national security," politicians and candidates must pledge allegiance to the inviolability of our border (singular because it's the Southern border, not so much the Northern one, that matters here) before anything further can be said on the subject of immigration.  Think of it as the duty of the father of a teenage daughter to swear to the sanctity of her virginity--none shall enter!--all available evidence and the historical experience of a thousand million teenagers to the contrary. 

The Reality: Restrictionists are not primarily concerned with security; otherwise, they would support allowing immigrants to obtain state IDs and other legal documents, which would allow them to participate more openly in daily life in America and would reduce their reliance on the underground economy, thereby enhancing rule of law and security.  If security were paramount, restrictionists would put more effort into distinguishing between "Jose Cuervo and al-Qaeda."  They wouldn't sit idly by as FBI name checks take two or three years to process when the person under scrutiny is already inside the U.S.  They would be more concerned about the frequency that USCIS loses files or the deep-rooted corruption at many U.S. consulates responsible for processing visas abroad.  They wouldn't countenance ICE showing up at adjustment of status interviews or immigration proceedings, as they often do nowadays, to lock up immigrants who are trying to get into legal status through established channels.

The Con: The problem is not that we need new laws, it's that the ones we have aren't being enforced.

The Reality: Restrictionists are trying to pass new laws all the time (pdf)--just more restrictive ones that don't lead to 12 million people finding their way out of the legal twilight in which they live.  

In addition, the government is implementing new punitive regulations and policies under the radar without going through the legislative process, by, for instance:

  • Raising fees to punitive levels, creating a huge naturalization adjudication backlog just as an unprecedented voter registration effort is underway before an election year.  The upshot is that many potential new voters likely to support candidates in favor of comprehensive immigration reform will probably not be able to vote in the primaries, and possibly not in the general election, either.  
  • Requiring green cards issued decades ago with no expiration date to be renewed at the applicant's expense (pdf) and in a timeframe that virtually ensures many longtime permanent residents will fall out of compliance and end up filling some ICE officer's monthly deportation quota. 

Furthermore, the government is not all that interested in workplace enforcement, which would disproportionately impact small business owners (just try making your way through the paperwork required to sponsor an immigrant worker if you run a pizzeria or a dry cleaner) and likely be politically unsustainable, jeopardizing other immigration initiatives (principally the one to deport as many immigrants as possible).

The Con: Restrictionists have no problem with legal immigration, just with illegal immigration.   

The Reality: For most unskilled workers, legal immigration is a practical impossibility.  As Duke from Migra Matters pointed out

147 new un-skilled workers without US citizen or legal resident family already here were allowed to enter the US last year legally and receive green cards.

147 out of 1,266,264. 

In addition, restrictionists do have a problem with admitting skilled workers through the H-1B visa program, which is capped at such a low level that the annual quota was exhausted last year in a single day.  Restrictionists want to keep H-1B visa availability at the current unreasonably low level.  

The Con: Immigrants commit more crimes than the general public.

The Reality: Immigrants commit significantly fewer crimes than the general public, which makes sense when you consider that they can be deported for shoplifting--literally.  (Note the crossover of the usefully vague and undefinable "moral turpitude" standard from old Jim Crow laws to current immigration law.) 

In sum, these are a few of the falsehoods perpetuated by restrictionists in the media today that warp perspective and thwart legislative efforts to fix our problematic immigration system.  But the current media ground was carefully laid over many years by a coordinated and motivated group of activists.  It will not be dismantled overnight.

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fash said:

Great post. I think the biggest con you mentioned, or at least the one which I think does the best (worst?) in the great game of pretend and makes the rest of the cons seem legitimate, is the idea that restrictionists are okay with legal immigrants but not "illegal" immigrants, when in fact one idea which is often thrown around by them is that there should be a complete moratorium on immigration for several years, and after that very low caps...all of this presented so as to seem as if it's for the benefit of the immigrant--"if there are less people like you here, you'll assimilate faster!"

By the way:

They wouldn’t countenance ICE showing up at adjustment of status interviews or immigration proceedings

This is something I haven't heard before, though I can't say I don't believe it, as it sounds right up ICE's alley. Do you know of any articles/reports online I could read about this? Thanks!

anike said:

This is an EXCELLENT post - will be distributing it for the CHIRLA staff - thanks very much for posting it.


Changeseeker said:

This is a truly fine presentation of the mindset and gameplan of the restrictionists, yave. It totally deserves the attention I am sure it's going to get. Some thoughts I had as I read:

You wrote: "This ongoing disjunction between reality and media narrative has not arisen organically—it has several causes..."

I would add to your list the fact that, as the general population of the U.S. has become increasingly oppositional to the War on Iraq, the Powers-That-Be have needed to utilize a new and overarching "common enemy" to draw the population's focus away from the real problems at hand. Forget all that you've said here (so well) about the specious nature of the restrictionists' view in the first place and forget that the average U.S. citizen has not been harmed in any way by the presence of Latin@s (citizen or immigrant), but rather has, in fact, benefitted by the culture, goods and services provided by these demonized people. Immigrants in general and, most particularly, Latin@ immigrants (because there are so many and they are both visible and vulnerable) have become a handy tool of manipulation to help keep the power in the hands of the corporations and their elected governmental representatives who currently wield it toward the end of continuing to make war against countries in the Middle East.

Your discussion of the use of the word "illegal" to create a perception reminded me of the very successful drafting of the term "pro-life" in the seventies to sweep aside the less palatable concept of "anti-choice," which is what its proponents really meant. Opponents of this clever side-step never managed to successfully remind the mass public that so-called pro-lifers were, in the end, far more about power than life, since the denial of safe, low cost abortions to all women, in fact, causes not only loss of life, but loss of quality of life, as well.

It's hardly startling to be reminded, then, looking at the word "alien" in the dictionary, that definitions include not only "a resident born in or belonging to another country who has not acquired citizenship by naturalization," but also "a creature from outer space," as well as, "adverse," "hostile," and "opposed."

yave begnet said:

Thanks for the comments, guys. (Just randomly thinking, we need a better generic, nongendered term for "vosotros" in English--I can't quite bring myself to say y'all, and there's nothing else that quite fits.)

Fash, I don't know of any reports in particular, just anecdotally detention is happening more often in the NYC area, at least. It isn't happening with each case--ICE doesn't have the manpower--but it's more frequent now than before. People who have outstanding orders of deportation or removal or certain past criminal convictions are going to be first on the list, but in general ICE is acting much more aggressively than even 6 months ago. The government is pushing for all enforcement, all the time, even if it dissuades people from using established channels to get into lawful status. ICE couldn't care less about that--it's not their mandate.

Btw, an ICE agent at the NY District Office told me this morning that they are now, as a matter of policy, automatically detaining any F-1 students they catch who have fallen out of status (OOS), even if they don't qualify for mandatory detention under the INA. In my limited experience on this issue, that has been the case. I am told that ICE is actually looking up OOS students from their SEVIS records and going to their houses to pick them up.

Changeseeker, I keep meaning to read that George Lakoff article on language and immigration that came out awhile ago, but haven't gotten to it yet. The terminology really is central to this discussion.

Jim said:

Oddly, you never mentioned anything about assimilation. As one who has done volunteer work on behalf of south-east asian refugees, I am offended by your viewing the immigration issue a racial one. This is especially true of the "Undocumented Persons" living on the east coast from eastern European countries.
Feel free to open the borders, just make sure that they "Our guests" are fingerprinted, photographed, and identified just like the rest of us. Citizens that is. Even second generation ones like myself.

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on January 3, 2008 1:29 AM.

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