MANY MIGHT ARGUE THAT THE PROPOSED IMMIGRATION REFORM LEGISLATION died in the U.S. Senate last week in large part because its principal supporters, including President Bush, didn't make a clear and compelling enough case for it to the American people. Still others might say that they wouldn't have had a chance anyway, that there this is too much of an emotional issue -- even more so than abortion or the death penalty -- for people to listen to reason.
True, the signs of immigrants' benefits to American are abundant to all. Whether we like to admit it or not, nearly all of us rely on immigrants -- most of whom are legal -- to provide an essential supply of workers in both skilled and unskilled positions that simply would not be filled otherwise and to add to the creative and intellectual capacity of the nation.
And, as I pointed out in a post last year, "like Europe, the U.S. is aging.... Increasingly, there will be fewer younger people to take care of older people -- both in terms of what they pay into the social welfare networks (principally Social Security and Medicare) and in terms of actual hands-on care. But with immigration, we are much better off than our friends in Europe, and Japan is facing a similar crisis."
For so many of us, however, this sort of longer term, national self interest is overshadowed by another kind of self interest and fear.
Take, for example, an article in the Washington Post last week that profiled a town in Georgia that has undergone some dramatic demographic changes due to immigration. In it, the reporter profiled Stephanie Usrey, "a stay-at-home mother of two... [who] has dreaded shopping at this particular branch [of Wal-Mart] ever since a Friday afternoon about five years ago, when she said she suddenly noticed she was the only non-Latino customer.
"'That was the first time I looked around and said, "Man, I didn't realize how many Mexicans there were here," ' Usrey, 39, recalled. 'And they don't seem to feel any discomfort when they're, like, six inches from your face and talking to each other in their language, either. I just felt very encroached upon. . . . It was like an instant feeling of 'I'm in the minority, and if we don't get control over this, pretty soon all of America will be outnumbered.'
"That sense of alarm, echoed in communities across the nation, helped seal defeat for the Senate immigration bill Thursday. Fueled by talk-radio hosts and Web sites, Usrey and tens of thousands of other first-time activists bombarded their senators with phone calls and e-mails decrying the bill as an unacceptable amnesty for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants."
I admit to grossly stereotyping the reasons why many of these activitists erupted and got the likes of Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, who is supposed to be leading the Republican caucus (especially on tough issues like this) to hide for several days and then show up at the last minute to quietly change his vote to a 'no' lest he endander his chances of reelection next year.
But so many of the arguments we hear are not unlike Usrey's: they don't want to be alienated by aliens -- and not just the illegal ones (if they make the distinction). Please don't make me press one for English. I'm tired of not understanding what the cab driver's and pizza delivery guys are saying.
And then there's one especially ugly, time-honored chesnut that's been surfacing with some curious regularity lately: immigrants bring disease to this country. The Daily Show, God love it, did a great job unearthing these.
To be fair, there are others who offer more thoughtful arguments (about what immigrants do to pay scales, to the cost of public social service provision, etc.) against an immigration reform bill. But the bill, which was far from perfect, was trying to find a way to address many of these issues, so why tank the entire bill? It really seems that they are just against letting any immigrants in under any terms.
In a column in today's Washington Post, E.J. Dionne quoted Senator Evan Bayh (Dem.-Indiana) saying that there were two big reasons why many grassroots Americans opposed the immigration reform bill (which Bayh voted against last week).
First, Bayh argued "'the complete lack of a domestic agenda to address the needs of the middle class" in areas such as health care, pensions and education. When voters saw Congress directing its attention to 12 million illegal immigrants, [Bayh] said, 'They asked: "When are you going to get around to me? Are you going to get around to me?"'"
Second, Dionne wrote "the strongest arguments in the restrictionists' arsenal played on a widespread belief that the federal government was too incompetent to enforce whatever tough provisions the bill contained. Bayh pointed to poor planning for the Iraq war and the failure to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as leading inevitably to skepticism. 'A government that's going to permit that is suddenly going to know how to make an entirely new employment system work?' Bayh asked."
Sounds like a dodge to me. On the first point, Bayh is making it sound like the immigration bill was just going to be a big handout to illegal immigrants. Not true at all. There were a lot of tough provisions in it -- which I think were warranted -- that were going to make illegal immigrants' lives pretty difficult.
And on both the first and second points, neither is a reason to do nothing about a policy that everyone agrees is broken and that is one of the few areas of our civic life in which the rule of law is flaunted openly and with the encouragement of many. True, I worry that our government, charged with enforcement of the complex set of rules this immigration bill proposed, may do everything possible to screw up the job. But, again, is that a reason to do nothing, Senator Bayh? Are you really thinking this through, or are you just responding to conservative talk radio and the voluminous calls and e-mails to your office?
Yes, the immigration reform bill had become a mess, though that was largely due, from what I could tell, to those who were bent on amending it to death and making it virtually unpassable. But that was not what killed it. The real culprit was a fear of the stranger, even though we all know full well how much the stranger has given to this country in the past and is giving now. And even though we all know full well that the stranger is us.