Saturday, November 19, 2005

Lurking immigration contradictions:
trap for Republicans, potential for Democrats

One of the hidden people who work in the United States; detail from a mural by Joel Bergner.

Leslie Sanchez is an up and comer. Her bio, as posted on her website, is such a fulsome example of marketing hype that one almost suspects parody. Here’s her first sentence: "America is a great country - but it still not every day that a young girl from Texas starts off by working her way through college selling encyclopedias door to door, only to rise up and become an adviser to the leaders of major corporations, members of Congress and the President of the United States." Sorting through the fluff, Sanchez' actual work seems mostly to have been being visibly "Hispanic" among Texas Republicans, at the fringes of the Bush White House, and in such media as Fox News.

This morning, Sanchez riled Republican waters with an oped in the WaPo
asserting that Republican Jerry Kilgore hurt his unsuccessful candidacy for governor of Virginia by railing against "illegal" immigration. None of what she says would be surprising from a liberal do-gooder, but such an advocate probably couldn't have pointed out what underlies attacks on "illegals" so bluntly:

Substantial numbers of immigrants (not to mention their children and grandchildren, too) hear attacks on "illegal" immigration as attacks on them -- so that a discussion of, say, day laborers can quickly turn into an anti-Hispanic free-for-all.

Hispanics know from experience that most people can't tell the difference between legal and illegal immigrants or, in many cases, between immigrants and U.S.-born, Spanish-speaking Hispanics -- so they just assume the worst absent proof to the contrary. …

Republicans embrace anti-immigrant fervor at their peril. The party is perilously close to adopting as its immigration policy the hanging of a "closed" sign on the border.

Yes indeed -- the hue and cry against the undocumented gets its energy from xenophobia and racism -- and politicians who adopt it will pay a price.

Republican critics have been quick to point out that Sanchez's evidence that Kilgore's anti-immigrant rhetoric hurt him is very thin. I agree with them on this, even though, like Sanchez, I've been interested in the probability that losing the Muslim vote hurt him. But what really gets a reaction is her rejection of the label "illegal." She has committed heresy. There are many aspects of the rule of law that right wingers will flout with delight; think how they go apoplectic over environmental regulation that restricts free exploitation of property or about laws requiring accommodation for the disabled. That kind of law they'll encourage breaking. But woe to a hungry person who crosses a border looking for a way to feed his family. He or she is labeled a non-person, "an illegal." What better excuse to vent the underlying racist bile that even so deracinated an "Hispanic" as Sanchez can feel lurking beneath surface concerns for legal hoop jumping?

As a matter of prudent politics, Sanchez' warning to the Republicans to stay away from demonizing immigrants is almost certainly correct. That has been the lesson here in California. Pete Wilson got himself re-elected governor in 1994 riding a tide of vicious anti-immigrant xenophobia and has became the icon for marginalization of Republican politicians statewide ever since. Being a Republican became electoral poison: the only major GOP statewide officeholder to win after Wilson has been an outsider, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sold himself as non-partisan. Not only did California Latinos become naturalized and get registered in record numbers to vote against Republican xenophobia, but also the rest of Californians clearly don't want to go back to the rancor that anti-immigrant politicking lets loose.

Republicans can't really get away with making distinctions between good "legal" immigrants and bad "illegal" ones -- the latter are nearly always someone's sister or uncle, part of the family even if not recognized as such by the state. And one important set of Republicans will never get on the "close the border" bandwagon: employers of low wage labor, usually GOP stalwarts, depend on an ample supply of readily exploitable undocumented workers. Though they won't usually speak out publicly, their political contributions flow away from anti-immigrant Republicans.

Democrats have just as much of a political interest in not demonizing the undocumented as Republicans -- and not much more reliable instincts about this. There is lots of anti-foreign sentiment in their party too. But they have much to gain if they can unite behind a sensible immigration policy that
  • recognizes reality (immigrants are here and will keep on coming for jobs, so there must be some kind of legalization and a path to citizenship);
  • is humane (encourages family reunification);
  • and protects the rights of immigrants as workers. (Anything short of full labor rights will drag down the standard for everyone who works for wages; post-9/11 profiling and discrimination points up the need for civil rights protections.)
Because new immigrants sense the underlying racism of the Republicans, most will flock to Democrats if given half a chance. And down that path lies a long-term Democratic majority, despite whatever strains incorporating newcomers may bring up on the way.

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