If anyone doubts that bigotry is enjoying a Great Revival of its own in the United States, the spectacle of the past week's "crass roots" banding up across the land to defeat what they called a "shamnesty" immigration bill in the U.S. Senate should kill those doubts. The bill was enormously problematic -- except for the winding road to citizenship it gave some of the country's 12 million undocumented immigrants. And that's what killed it. The defeat is attributable to one thing: Americans don't want more Mexicans and other brown-skinned people here."These people came in the wrong way, so they don't belong here, period," was how one Monique Thibodeaux, whose name suggests her American origins don't quite date back to the Jurassic, summed it up in the Sunday paper.
These people. It's as if the civil rights era never taught us anything. Welcome to Brave New America, where a nation of immigrants is re-engineering its once broad-hearted traditions to ape those of nativists, xenophobes and selective supremacists. It is, after all, the 75th anniversary of Aldous Huxley's classic. "Progress is lovely, isn't it?" as Lenina tells Bernard when the pair is, appropriately enough, traveling through New Mexico in the 26th century.
Let's not look that far. By 2050, the population of the United States by one estimate is projected to reach half a billion. The 200 million increase is twice the current population of Mexico. Accommodating that many more people doesn't seem to be the issue. More people means more consumers. In a nation that consumes more than it produces, and where two-thirds of the economy depends on consumption, immigrants are a double boon. They're ready-to-work employees in whom the state doesn't need to invest a cent in education dollars. And they're ready-to-buy consumers. They also explain why the economy since the early 1980s, when this latest immigration boom started, hasn't stalled. Immigrants, including -- if not especially -- undocumented immigrants, have been its saving grace (see fact box). Without them, the economy would collapse.
At no point in this country's history have immigrants, involuntary or "illegal" included, hurt the country nearly as much as those exploiting them. Undocumented immigrants aren't hurting the country now -- not as we're constantly reminded of record stock gains, record corporate profits, low inflation, low unemployment and low interest rates. That rosy economic profile hides serious fissures, to be sure. But inequality is top-driven, never bottom-driven, and certainly not immigrant-driven. The country is profiting on the back of undocumented immigrants and treating them like dirt in return when it should, without question, offer them legal status up to citizenship on a silver platter. Instead, we have the Great Bigotry Revival: Yes, the country will fill up with two more Mexicos over the next 50 years. Just don't let it fill up with Mexicans and these people. Why not, considering how much this country owes the neighbors to the south it has so derisively neglected when it hasn't invaded them?
The bigotry isn't limited to white reactionaries of the Thibodeaux variety. Vernon Robinson, a black Republican running for Congress from the Winston-Salem, N.C. area, called immigrants flag-burners, tax-dodgers and child molesters before calling incumbent Brad Miller their enablers last November (Robinson lost). T. Willard Fair, the Miami civil rights activist and Jeb Bush protege, was featured in recent ads in The New Republic and the Washington Post saying: "Amnesty for illegal workers is not just a slap in the face to black Americans. It's an economic disaster," and eliminating distinctions between "legal" and "illegal immigrants." Disturbing, how a civil rights leader can embrace such a divisive us-and-them mentality.
As for undocumented immigrants supposedly jumping the line, it's difficult to see how braving extortionist coyotes, bandits and rapists preying on easy victims, river currents, fences, walls or desert heat, border cops on both sides, arrests, humiliation, and an eventual life in half shadows can be called jumping the line. Those who make it across, especially in light of miseries they're leaving behind, have more in common with refugees than line-jumpers or lawbreakers -- refugees willing to integrate and make good on a new life. They should be welcomed as such.
So it bears saying one more time, for those who think America's immigration history is bunk. Just as "illegitimate child" is, morally speaking, an oxymoron -- a child is by definition legitimate for being innocent, regardless of his parent's choices -- there are no such things as illegal immigrants or illegal aliens. There are immigrants. Some are documented. Some are not. Both contribute. Both make this country work better than it would without them, as they always have. The difference is details. The country's debt to immigrants, legal, undocumented or involuntary, isn't. It's larger than America could ever repay. If all those immigrants have the right to say one thing to Americans lobbing all that sham legalism and moralizing at them, it's this: Save it for yourselves.
© 2007 The Daytona Beach News-Journal