Immigration, Race and Historical Ignorance

Peter Beinart has a piece up at the Daily Beast about immigration and the politics of racial fear-mongering. The thrust of his argument is that those on the right, no longer afraid of African-Americans, are now turning to fear and hatred of Mexican immigrants as a means of mobilizing electoral success.

The problem with this is two-fold: First, it assigns to the Arizona legislature - and the Republican Party in general - the most offensive motives possible, ignoring completely any reality on the ground that may have motivated the people of Arizona irrespective of race. Second, Beinart's analysis does a disservice to the Civil Rights movement by falsely equating attempts to curb illegal immigration and the tragedy of the segregated South.

I'm not a huge fan of the new Arizona law. I think that a lot of care was taken by the legislature to ensure that the letter of the law withstands constitutional scrutiny, but they should not have overlooked the practical application of the law by police officers. Even if law enforcement officials can only ask for proof of citizenship or status after another crime or contact has been made - such as pulling them over for speeding - the result will be legal immigrants and citizens of Mexican ancestry questioned and possibly harassed. That's not a reasonable result.

That said, Beinart's starting point is way off. He ignores the economic and criminal impact of massive illegal immigration in Arizona and immediately assigns the blame to a fear of immigrants simply for being immigrants. He likens this to the anti-immigration laws passed in the early 1900s that were knee-jerk restrictions of legal immigration based on unfounded fears of Eastern European, Jewish and Irish immigrants. No serious candidate or politician is urging a large scale restriction on legal immigration from Mexico. The focus is entirely on illegal immigration and the negative effects of it. Illegal immigrants live in the shadows and undercut American workers by willing to work for next to nothing and in Arizona and the rest of the Southwest, a large amount of drug trafficking and the gangs and violence associated with it drive the anti-illegal immigrant sentiments.

The demagogues that Beinart points to are JD Hayworth and Tom Tancredo. Neither of these men are taken seriously by mainstream America or even the mainstream of the Republican Party. Hayworth will lose in his Senate bid to John McCain and when he does it will go a long way to repudiating the notion that they are the embodiment of racial anger.

The second point that Beinart misses is the connection between the illegal immigration debate and the Civil Rights movement. The racial history of the United States is a sad one. Slavery and segregation will forever be a stain on America's past, and the men and women - both black and white - who fought to right those wrongs are American heroes.

What Blacks in the South and in some major cities in the North endured was anathema to everything our nation stands for. It was oppression and discrimination of fellow citizens for no reason beyond the color of their skin. Much of the crime and poverty was the result of Jim Crow laws that made Black Americans second-class citizens. After the Civil Rights movement, Beinart rightly points out that crime - one of the major issues of the cultural tension - dropped and we have made great strides away from the prejudices of the past. There is still a long way to go, but we have come a long way, too.

The tension that exists today is the result of people illegally entering the country and exploiting our laws. This is an issue of the rule of law and fairness, not one based on the color of one's skin. There is no wide-scale violence against Hispanic or Latino Americans as there was during the Civil Rights battles. We are not denying rights to citizens, but seeking enforce laws that are being broken.

We ask people to go through hoops to become a citizen and yet we have drug smugglers and gang members jumping the fence or tunneling underneath to come here without any regard for our nation's laws. That dichotomy, that tension, between the identity of our nation as a land built by legal immigrants and those breaking our laws is the center of the debate today.

There are always fringe elements that will try to take advantage of that tension for their own perverse gains, but it is unfair and lazy to paint with such a broad brush when it is such a serious issue.