Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Nation (almost) Lost in Xenophobia Part 4

This article can be found on the web at

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


That bill, vulnerable on the right and left on any number of points, was an easy target for oversimplification. But the talkers also played a central role in stopping the appealing DREAM Act, a bipartisan bill--its sponsors included Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republicans Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska--that would have provided a path to legalization for some 365,000 undocumented students who were brought here by their parents as young children, attended and graduated from high school and intended to go to college or serve in the military. No one could claim that they were lawbreakers. Many never knew their native countries and don't speak the language, and few have any interest in going back. At a time when the imminent retirement of millions of baby boomers is predicted to leave major shortages of skilled workers and when the nation has already invested billions in their education, deporting them seemed as self-defeating as it was cruel. But none of that reduced the intense pressure on a Senate minority--nearly all Republicans--to kill the bill with a threatened filibuster.

It is probably also the talkers and their angry listeners who, as much as anyone, have gotten much of the GOP, including its leading presidential candidates, to replay the anti-immigrant wedge strategy that former California Governor Pete Wilson deployed in his 1994 re-election campaign, when he supported an initiative to deny most services, including schooling, to undocumented immigrants. But other Republicans are tearing their hair. "Some in the party seem pleased," said former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. "They should be terrified."

What Gerson and other savvy Republicans know is that in California, Wilson's party paid a fearful price. Feeling vulnerable as aliens, a million California Latinos became citizens and, in the vast majority of cases, registered as Democrats in the years after 1994. Republicans have won little in California since. Something similar seems likely to happen nationally. At the same time, it is an unfortunate reality that, as Harvard economist Alberto Alesina and others have argued, the greater the ethnic diversity in a jurisdiction--and the larger the number of undocumented immigrants--the more reluctant are voters, who are still overwhelmingly non-Hispanic whites, to tax themselves for public services that they see going to "others."

Nonetheless, given the nation's high rate of demographic change and the rapidly growing proportion of Latino voters that will come with it, the GOP strategy is a bet on the past (and, perhaps, the present), not the future. Karl Rove and George Bush understood the stakes and, in pushing for reform that included a path to legalization and thus drew Hispanic voters, tried to put their chips on the other square. But after the immigration bill failed, the White House switched sides, cranking up its roundups and coming out against the DREAM Act. Meanwhile, the GOP presidential candidates seem certain that within the horizon of this election--or at least the primaries--illegal immigration, touching on all manner of economic and cultural anxieties, may be the best issue they have. And Democrats like Hillary Clinton are running for cover.

There are some 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, many in mixed families that include citizens--including US-born children--and other legal residents. The history of the past two decades indicates, according to most research, that rather than holding down the undocumented population, tougher border enforcement--more Border Patrol agents, more walls, more electronic sensors--has dramatically increased it. As enforcement made it ever more dangerous and expensive to cross the Mexican border, many workers who once shuttled back and forth chose to remain in the United States and send for their families.

In the long run, argues Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at American University, the most promising strategy depends on major investments in the Mexican economy and infrastructure (which would probably require basic political and economic reforms) and the creation of better opportunities there. In addition, the larger picture will be dramatically affected by two significant demographic trends: first, the sharply declining Mexican birthrate--down from 6.8 babies per woman in 1970 to 2.4 today--and the predicted concomitant decline in Mexico's surplus labor force; second, the millions of skilled US boomers retiring in the next decade. If voters begin to understand that sustaining and growing the US economy and securing the retirements of those boomers will depend in large part on the labor and skills of immigrants--and that there is no one else--the issue may fade as quickly as it arose. What's certain is that the faster the illegal immigrants who are already here can emerge from the shadows, the faster they can be trained to do those jobs. In another generation Americans may wish for more immigrant workers, not fewer.

At that point the nation may look back on this period as another of those eras, like the Red Scare of the 1920s or the McCarthy years of the '50s, when the nation became unhinged; politicians panicked; and scattershot federal, state and local assaults led to unfocused, and often cruel, harassment. It may be seen in retrospect as a desperate rearguard attempt to freeze Anglo-white places and power in a mythic past. But today's policy vacuum also stems from our collective uncertainty. A new society with new kinds of people and new voters is rapidly growing under and around us--just as it grew under our great-grandparents a century ago. Many of us still have no idea how to deal with it. At a time when other economic and social certainties are evaporating, and when income gaps are growing obscenely, demagogues have room to play. If there's a recession, the backlash against not only illegal immigrants but all immigrants could get worse before it gets better. The hope is that the nation will somehow choose leaders committed to cooling those tensions, not fueling them.

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