Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Nation (almost) Lost in Xenophobia Part 3

This article can be found on the web at

Divided States
The Nation
[from the January 7, 2008 issue]


California, where 27 percent of residents are foreign-born, and which endured an intense anti-immigrant backlash in the early 1990s, appears to have become accustomed to its brown and Asian faces and to the countless accents and languages of its residents--and of course has assimilated their cuisine, music and art. (Recent Census data indicate that 70 percent of California's "Mexicans" are US citizens.) Its population is now majority-minority; in another generation it will have an absolute Hispanic majority. Many parts of Iowa, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Virginia, Georgia and Missouri are just starting on that route.

More than anything else, the crazy quilt of contradictory local responses seems to reflect the nation's own ambivalence about immigration. California denies driver's licenses to undocumented residents but grants them in-state college tuition if they attended California high schools. Three years ago Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lauded the Minutemen, the self-appointed enforcers of a tight border, for doing "a terrific job," and he's vetoed bills passed by the Democratic legislature that would have made undocumented residents eligible for driver's licenses. But in October he signed a bill that prohibits cities from requiring landlords to check whether tenants are here legally.

The polls confirm the ambivalence: 69 percent of adults believe the illegal resident population should be reduced and (by 76 percent) should not be allowed to get driver's licenses. But 43 percent also say that when illegal aliens who've committed no crime encounter local cops, they shouldn't be arrested. By a margin of 58 to 35 they support "a program giving illegal immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements." By 66 to 33 they say they're not bothered when they encounter Spanish speakers. Some 45 percent (in an earlier poll) say immigration is a good thing; 19 percent, a bad thing; some 33 percent have no opinion.

But as with issues like gun control, the intensity of an opposition--in this case fueled by economic insecurity and fanned by radio and TV talkers--tends to overwhelm the pressure from the broader but generally passive pro-legalization plurality. Illegal immigration is the hot-button issue not only for the national talkers and bloggers, from Ann Coulter to Lou Dobbs to Rush Limbaugh, but for local and regional talk-radio hosts as well--Roger Hedgecock in San Diego, Armstrong Williams in New York, Terry Anderson in Los Angeles, Melanie Morgan in San Francisco, Martha Zoller in Gainesville, Georgia, Dom Giardano in Philadelphia and a score of others. Last April, having organized themselves into a quasi lobby called Let's Hold Their Feet to the Fire, thirty-four of them brought their microphones and some of their listeners to Washington, broadcasting to their home audiences, urging anti-immigration e-mails and faxes and working Congressional offices to head off comprehensive immigration reform. Anything that might lead to legalization was "amnesty." In its own survey, the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism gives Limbaugh et al. a big share of the credit for killing the immigration bill.

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