Printed in The Dothan Eagle , 31 May, 2007.
Immigration Backlash is About Race
Not too long ago, the Republican Party was still able to attract immigrants. High skilled, low skilled, educated, uneducated – it didn’t matter. The Grand Old Party’s tent was big enough to attract immigrants of every stripe. Lowly educated workers were courted with social conservatism. Highly educated workers were courted by standing up to unions that wanted to keep immigrants away from “American” jobs. Those days are over. Now, the anti-immigration Republican base’s opposition to the Senate’s immigration legislation is so strong that Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), a one time sponsor of similar legislation, has run away from the bill. The ostensible reasons for the opposition are so flimsy that it is impossible to believe that the opposition is about anything except race.
The biggest anti-immigrant argument is the one that they lead with: they broke our laws. It is hard to believe that argument from the same base that celebrates violations of the law perpetrated by abortion-clinic bombers and a president who illegally sold arms to Iran. The objection is not so much to law-breaking as it is to breaking a law the base happens to like. If they were serious about enforcement of the laws, they would actively fund and support the enforcement of the employer sanctions that are already on the books. It’s the same principle that undergirds the drug war: go after the suppliers and the consumers.
The base says: “They don’t speak English.” Well, historically, few immigrants do. Social and market pressures give them a strong incentive to learn, and, more importantly, their children learn, and quickly. These market forces are more powerful than ever. In this era of globalization and light-speed communication, it’s hard to imagine a high-level corporate board meeting simultaneously taking place in Hindi, Spanish, Cantonese, German, English and Swahili. Surely the GOP base, market-fundamentalists when it comes to cutting taxes and rolling back regulation, should be able to understand how this works.
The base says: “They wind up living in their own communities and don’t interact with society.” There is some truth to this, but it’s nothing new. This has been the history of immigrant communities all through our time as America. They arrive en masse, seek out or create communities, develop their own social services and institutions, and within five generations, integrate. The irony here is that the GOP base is adamantly opposed to government-provided social safety nets, suggesting community-based charitable organizations should fill that role. Yet, when immigrant communities do precisely this, they use it as a pretext for an immigration crackdown.
The base says: “They drive down wages and take jobs that Americans could do.” Once again, this is somewhat true, and it’s nothing new. Driving down the cost of labour means that businesses are able to offer their products and services for lower prices. In turn, this allows more people than ever to have access to things that were once playthings for the rich. It also allows more people to make their hard earned dollars go further. As far as doing jobs that Americans could do, the simple fact of the matter is that they weren’t and they aren’t. There would not be job openings if Americans were already doing those jobs. Americans have chosen to price their labour outside of what the market will bear, and as such, you’re seeing the markets react. Moreover, these immigrants start new businesses and create new jobs, growing and enriching our economy. The same Republican base who trump free markets when opposing labor unions seem to have forgotten their principles when it comes to dealing with immigration.
Of course, the base, as powerful as it is, does not define the Republican Party as a whole. President Bush has taken a comprehensive approach to this issue since before running for Governor of Texas. Governor Jeb Bush has, too. Senators John McCain, Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), all Republican heavyweights, are on the pro-immigration of this issue, as well. Of course, the animus between them and the party’s rank-and-file members is so strong that Senator McCain told Senator Cornyn (R-Texas) to do something rather foul to himself.
If their public arguments are pretexts, what is this really all about? The Republican base is never up in arms about Italian-American, Irish-American, or Jewish communities. Each is a case of immigrants who arrived here, settled in their own communities and integrated over time, enriching our polity and culture. In my home state of Texas, ground-zero for the base backlash, the base take pride in the once large Texas German community. Why, then, is the base so terrified of Asian and Hispanic immigrants? To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, we’ve eliminated the impossible, so whatever’s left must be true: it’s about race. The party that began to oppose racism in this country and helped deliver the votes for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act is now beset with a civil war over race based immigration. How sad.
If the party of Abraham Lincoln, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Everett Dirksen remains captive to Trent Lott, Tom Tancredo, Jeff Sessions, and other knee-jerk nativists, demographic change may doom the Grand Old Party to join its forerunner, The Whigs, in the political graveyard. It is time for the Republicans to reclaim their birthright and embrace the principles that allowed them to rise: free movement of capital, free movement of ideas, free movement of labor, and opposition to racism.
Dheeraj Chand is a political reporter in Washington, D.C. He maintains a website at http://www.dheerajchand.com