“You lie!” shouted Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) at President Obama during the President’s speech on health care to a joint session of Congress. Bill Maher compared the outburst to an episode of Tourette syndrome. Wilson’s unprecedented breach of legislative decorum concerned the President’s statement that illegal aliens would not receive free health care under reform legislation. Why would the mere suspicion of a compassionate stance toward aliens stir such a display of outrage?
Like crime-scene evidence–whether a telltale stain or the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh–Wilson’s outburst was testimony to America’s mouldering xenophobia. This oozing pustule of tribal hostility erupts from unseen depths of the paleoconservative psyche. It’s a visceral reflex that operates far below the radar of intellectual argument about immigration, legal or otherwise. As such, it is of little value here to discuss those arguments, which can’t even break the surface tension of the radical Right’s cauldron of resentment. They’re so worried that a Democratic president would extend benefits to ‘non-Americans’ they forget it was their hero Ronald Reagan who recognized the simple truth that it was un-American to have illegal aliens dying in our streets. It was the paragon of modern conservatism who signed the law requiring universal no-questions-asked emergency-room treatment.
Civilized ethics can be boiled down to two broad questions: Do you think in terms of short-term or long-term self-interest How large is your “in-group,” or circle of concern? The right-wing mindset is typefied by incredibly short-term thinking and an extremely tiny and fragmented circle of concern. Therefore right-wingers can’t seem to manage much empathy, and they find any excuse to dehumanize broad segments of Earth’s population. It’s especially easy when those “others” speak a different language, have a different culture or religion, or most importantly have a scrappy work ethic that threatens to upend the unearned privilege many Americans enjoy through the simple accident of having been born into the world’s dominant empire.
Meritocracy, a “Conservative” Value
It’s a fool’s errand to demand equality of capabilities, or to demand equal outcomes. Only the most idealistic anarcho-communists or new-age dilettantes cling to the fantasy of eliminating money, hierarchy, or private property. The rest of the world realizes there will always be haves and have-nots (or have-lesses), and the haves will always attempt to consolidate their advantages regardless of the sociopolitical system. But it is still profoundly unethical to deny equality of opportunity as a foundational principle of our society.
Whatever the reality on the ground, we should at least aspire to the idea that equality under the law and equal opportunity for advancement are worthy goals. And we must admit it’s extremely hypocritical in a ‘meritocracy’ to deny people the right to work wherever their skills are in demand. Free competition–and that includes the right to sell your labor–is the hallmark of free enterprise. Many conservatives rail against the minimum wage for this very reason, yet when a whole group of hardworking Central and South Americans tries to work for sub-minimum wages, the Right would just as soon arrest them, deport them, or worse.
American paleoconservatives also claim to respect our founding documents, the spirit and letter of which they routinely ignore. For example, the Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal.” Setting aside the obvious problems of this phrase–being poorly worded, creationist, and gender exclusive–it has also been roundly mocked: Not only by a grossly unequal American society, but even in the Orwellian doublespeak of Animal Farm, articulating the bankrupt right-wing attitude that “some are more equal than others.”
That’s felony-level hypocrisy, and conservatives definitely know better.
But the faulty rationale of anti-immigration-pro-free enterprise demagogues is irrelevant to those who cultivate and feed off the bottomless pit of America’s primal fear of “otherness.” The scoundrels who slobber at this trough couldn’t care less about intellectual integrity. And it’s not just fear. Before you can foment fear, you have to fully demonize the out-group.
Let’s try to analyze this set of attitudes, by starting with the just plain “wrongness” of the above road sign. American drivers hit about 1.5 million deer every year. But we don’t consider it to be the deer’s fault. We built roads through their habitat, and they’re not smart enough to get out of the way. We may feel a slight twinge of sadness when a deer dies, but we’re far more concerned about damage to our cars and human fatalities. But in this instance, the silhouetted hazard looks more like a typical American middle-class family late to a baseball game than desperate Mexicans running for their lives. The woman is wearing a skirt, the daughter has a pony-tail. If it weren’t a highway sign, it would be totally Norman Rockwell. What’s incongruous and what horrifies me most about this little tableau is that a family of flesh-and-blood human beings have been morally reduced to a road-hazard. Compare that to the far more dignified universal pedestrian symbol: Unhurried, walking between the lines, belonging.
Beyond the unfortunate roadside symbolism, it is the disparity of circumstances that is most galling. Being apprehended or struck by an automobile are the least of an illegal immigrant’s worries. They are also separated from their families for years–not crossing the road hand-in-hand. They often pay thousands of dollars to “coyotes” who get them across the US border and desert at risk of starvation, dehydration or violence. Once in the U.S., it often takes a long time to pay off their passage, so going home to see their families is out of the question.
Slamming shut the “golden door”
I’ve talked to recent immigrants from Europe who hate illegal aliens almost as much as American paleoconservatives. Few things are more shocking to me. Sure, it’s tough to go through the process of legal immigration. At least that’s available to Europeans, unlike most Central Americans. But empathy makes me want to liberalize and streamline the process–not make it worse. Why should anyone else suffer needlessly? The resentment that someone else is perceived to have taken a shortcut turns some lucky legal immigrants into frothing neo-fascists. And we’re not even talking about a real shortcut. The life of an illegal alien is nightmarish by any standard. To be brutally honest, it’s a life on the lam. Who would take that deal if they had any choice at all?
Like American paleoconservatism, I think we can chalk up these bad European attitudes to unearned privilege. People in the first-world just can’t imagine the levels of desperation that consume the lives of the bottom billions. Nor the value system of someone who would risk their life to clean toilets for $5.00 an hour. Europeans have also benefited from America’s liberal immigration policies toward friendly countries, and the “visa waiver program” that allows people from those countries with clean police records to simply buy a ticket and arrive.
But there’s something else about Europe that might be causing this bad attitude: They have an immigration problem of their own. And they’re not handling it well. Instead of requiring their immigrants assimilate into European society, they’re allowing them to import their culture and build mosques and enclaves where people are encouraged to defy the rule of secular law. And they have not strengthened their constitutions against the onslaught of these Muslim immigrants who would undo the long European tradition of separation of church and state to implement sharia. If they don’t fix this loophole, democracy will collapse in on itself if and when Muslims become a majority–and Europe will become a very different place than it is today.
An informal case study
Recently, I befriended an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. He cleans the bathrooms at night on every floor of a building in Los Angeles where I work from time to time. He works as a carpenter during the day–six or seven days every week. He’s the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, loves America, has learned pretty good English. He’s been here for seven years and he has a nine-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen since she was two. He also has a wife and five-year-old daughter in the US. He owns a relatively new pickup truck he bought on credit and pays $500/month, contributing to our economy. He sends money home regularly, but dreams of being able to get his green card and bring his daughter to the US, or even to visit her one time. But it won’t happen. By being here illegally for more than one year, this man has triggered an automatic ten-year ban on legal immigration. Under current law, his case is hopeless. He is permanently separated from one daughter, and he is only a traffic stop away from being deported and separated from his wife and his other daughter. With immigration reform, this man and millions like him could become tax-paying citizens of the United States. They could contribute to our health-care system instead of draining it. Most importantly, they could be treated like the human beings that they are.
But allowing such an obvious solution would require logic and an open mind. And red-meat Republicans are not interested in either. Their goal is to preserve American exceptionalism, narrow ideas of tradition, and the privileges of the white patriarchy. We therefore have twelve million hard working “illegals” who live in this limbo, who are suffering through every day as official “non-persons” in the desperate American gulag of illegal immigration–a cesspool of utterly pointless human misery. Why? So they can clean our toilets, mow our lawns, pick our lettuce, and otherwise make our society work. The way we have treated these hard-working people is immoral, and outrageous. They are accorded little more respect than the enslaved. It’s especially hypocritical, since most of the ‘patriots’ who oppose immigration reform claim to subscribe to individualism, a strong work-ethic, and religious notions of morality which hold precepts like “be your brother’s keeper,” and “if you’ve done it unto the least of these my brethren, you’ve done it unto me.”
I urge all Americans to reconsider their opposition to immigration reform. Let’s keep our golden door open. Let’s acknowledge the valuable contribution made to our country and our economy by all immigrants, legal and otherwise. I don’t advocate this out of some sentimental notion of morality or charity–but rather because it is in our long-term national self-interest.