They have a lot of names. Invaders. Spics. Terrorists. Wetbacks. Identity thieves. Less harshly, illegal aliens. Illegal immigrants. Undocumented workers.
They have been, over the last few years, one of America’s most important political flashpoints. Derided by some as simple lawbreakers who deserve no rights or preference. Praised by others as hardworking immigrants in the greatest American tradition that deserve a full place at the table.
Efforts to solve the problem that by various estimates includes 12 million, 17 million, or 20 million people have failed. After efforts to pass moderate reform laws twice failed, George W. Bush’s executive branch decided to make it appear that their Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm was serious about the problem. Raids on employers followed, with the brunt of the effort harming lay workers and the not the corporations that employ them.
This has brought the president some greater credibility with the “law and order” conservatives who seem to oppose any reform that doesn’t involve building a giant wall between the United States and Mexico and forcibly deporting all the undocumented.
But the Republican presidential field now lacks a member of that group. Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo–the immigration opponent–ended his presidential bid last month and threw his support behind the Massachusetts governor who had been accused (accurately it turns out) of running a “sanctuary mansion.” This detail came out in the same debate in which it was unveiled that the other governor, Mike Huckabee, didn’t oppose giving scholarship to the children of the undocumented. And the former mayor of New York City, like most other mayors of large American cities, had run a “sanctuary city.” John McCain, perhaps worst of all, twice supported the president’s push for moderation on the issue.
The Democrats’ history on the “undocumented” issue is much harder to pin down, current and former Senators that they (almost) all are. But Hillary Clinton fell into the fray about New York’s failed plan to license all drivers, legal citizens or not.
The whole issue has long been mired in two competing narratives, neither of which tells the whole story.
From the far right comes the narrative of inhuman criminals who are here to steal jobs. These Mexicans–they’re rarely seen as anything “white”–have broken the law by coming here, broken the law by living here, and broken the law by working here. The only way to make sure they leave never come back is to assure that their life in America is an impossible hell. We’ll have to assure they’re deprived government services, the right to work, and probably arrest a lot of them. And we’ll have to build a giant wall to make sure they never come back.
From the far left we get the narrative of the deprived and desperate economic refugees from an impossible life in Mexico. They’ve come here with hope and hard work in mind. They’re vital parts of their communities and should be treated with respect. Citizenship should be made available to them, as should larger quotas so people don’t have to come to America illegally.
The stark contrast between the two views is clear. As is the impossibility of a détente between them.
The country will not solve the problem unless the two views are rectified. And there are only two ways for that to happen. Moderates to win control of power in Washington, or the most determined partisans realizing that their views make them look like ham-handed buffoons (I doubt the latter will ever occur).
Americans do need to raise legal immigration levels, especially from Mexico and central American countries that have supplied most of the tide of illegals. They need to recognize that their immigration enforcement system is badly broken and in need of systematic repair. They must recognize that amnesty is not the answer, but also that a long wait, big fines, and a thorough background check is not amnesty.
Progress on this issues has been halting and frustrating. And though I sincerely hope that the new year and new president (I know that doesn’t officially happen until 2009, but it effectively happens in November) will bring a wiser political class with greater willingness to accept compromise and moderation, I recognize that I may be waiting some time.