Thursday, August 03, 2006

Plus Ca Change Le Meme Que Chose: Ich Bin Ein Auslander

"Come and work!" "They ain't stayin', bubba!"

I have avoided expressing my opinions on the American immigration debate in these pages precisely because I am a legal immigrant myself. As a legitimate holder of a green card any position I take would probably be dismissed by the other side as the rantings of someone with a dog in the hunt. Recently however some elements of the anti-immigration crowd have reached such a pitch of inanity I had to break my self imposed omerta and have a little comment.

I'm a firm believer in the rule of law. Although onerous, I went through the proper channels to get my visa and would never have considered having done it any other way. That said, I am white, speak English as a first language, come from the United States's strongest ally, and am university educated. That all probably counted in my favour. I also wasn't fleeing economic hardship or the collapse of civil society (no matter that John Major and the Tories were still in power- tee hee!).

I know how tough it was to be away from my family and everything I had known all my life in those early years. Even though I had been independent from a young age having left home to go to boarding school at 11, I always returned to the bosom of my family every 6 weeks or so while at school. And from my arrival in the USA to today, I have always been able to go back to Britain to visit my family or entertain them over here safe in the knowledge that I had the correct papers to return at will and that I came from circumstances that meant my visitors were not considered risks to over-stay.

Even if I had stayed in Britain and made my life there, I know I would feel the same about immigrants, both legal and illegal. The act of leaving one's safety zone- for adventure or to escape hardship- is quite brave and not a decision undertaken lightly. Those who have shown the gumption and stamina to risk it all by enduring the processes of the US Embassy consular division or crossing deserts and rivers while hunted like deer should be welcomed as exactly the sort of resourceful and tenacious individuals we want in a country. I'm not being completely factitious when I suggest that beating the obstacles and challenges placed in front of the prospective immigrant should be enough alone to put them on the fast-track to citizenship. If a Navy Seal escapes, evades, and infiltrates as well as an illegal immigrant they give him a medal. They don't make him install drywall for less than minimum wage and threaten to deport him.

But my personal philosophy of immigration is not why I started writing this post. What I wanted to do was pick up on two things said during the recent House of Representatives immigration road show that I think bear more scutiny than the 24 hour news cycle allows for. I shall be be brief, but I hope I make my points.

On July 5th House Republicans held hearings (months after they passed their version of an immigration bill) in San Diego to discuss the national security and crime implications of illegal immigration. Two popular topics were the risk that Mexico would serve as a conduit for Al Qadea and their ilk and that incarcerating illegal immigrants (25% of the population of jails in L.A. county, for example) was costing local and state governments a fortune.

First, the incarceration issue. No doubt that jailing illegal immigrants is expensive. Jailing anyone is expensive. Hookers, robbers, Andrew Fastow; prison is not a cheap option. Therefore I would love to hear a GOP house member explain how making the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States guilty of a felony rather than a civil offense would do anything to lower the burden of prison expenses. If the President were to sign their bill in an instant we'd have the need for 11 million prison beds, new prisons, new prison staff, new courts, and the kicker is the food needed to feed the felonious immigrants would be more expensive as there would be nobody to pick it cheaply. Mind you, even Fox "News" is discussing that juicy potential $385 million prison building contract awarded to Kellogg, Brown, & Root in the context of future immigration detention centres, so perhaps these nuts are doing more than just posturing.

Second, the national security issue. Like any controversial policy or cause deemed to need unquestioning support post 9/11, the horned beast of "terrorism" was wheeled out to demonstrate the need for electrifying the Rio Grande or something. Why not? After all, "Wetbacks of Mass Destruction" is just plain offensive, and the "Mexico is a threat to our national security" line is almost as old as the Louisiana Purchase. Consider this passage from The American Home Front, 1941-1942* by British reporter/American citizen Alistair Cooke, written in the fall of 1941 as the USA got into the swing of the Second World War:

"(Phoenix, AZ) The people you talk with have a sense of alertness that springs from something more that a new call for long staple cotton. It is the sense of living on a possible frontline..... Here in the Southwest, there seems to be an active fear of what might be done through the back door of Mexico. Many people tell you that for a decade before Pearl Harbor the only people who seemed to know much about the tactical possibilities of the Baja California coastline were Japanese fishermen.... The taxi-driver who takes you to the station boasts of the number of airfields around Phoenix.... He repeats- in case I happen to be a Japanese agent- fearful rumors of 'hundreds, yeah thousands of our planes patrolling the Mexican border'..." (Full passage can be found on pg 121 of The American Home Front 1941-1942 Atlantic Montly Press. I edited for brevity, not context; I'm not Fox News).

What fear of terrorism should we have, if the modern equivalents of that Phoenix cabbie are scanning the beaches of Cabo for bearded and be-turbaned sunbathers? Of course, the fact that most probing of the United States by terrorists and alleged terrorists has come from the much more socially hetrogeneous Canada is neither here-nor-there. Those opposed to northbound immigration find it convenient to say that the threat is in Mexico, the threat will be in Mexico, the threat has always been in Mexico.

So here I leave this subject. Truth be told on subjects like these minds are not changed by pithy argument or logical dissection but rather by personal experience and empathy. I fear that for many Americans the cartoon image of the sneaky illegal will always overshadow the real human beings unless they get to meet, live, and work alongside the "other".

*Thanks Listmaker & Youthlarge!

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