Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Controlling the Debate on Illegal Immigration

Controlling the terms of argument is paramount for any partisan advocate in public debate.

For decades, America's position, with respect to its immigration policies with our neighbor Mexico, was dictated by pragmatism, and tacit neglect. Our agricultural economy in the border states depended to a significant degree on so-called "stoop labor"--among the most grueling kinds of work there is--which the Mexican peasantry class was more than willing to perform, for what in America was "dirt cheap" piece-work wages. It wasn't possible to live decently in the States on income from farm labor, so these nomadic "seasonal" laborers (frequently in family groups) went back to Mexico when there was no work on the farms. It was a loose arrangement, and no one--the farmers, the Mexicans, or the rest of the population--worried too much about it. A few scofflaws melted into the domestic economy, but the numbers were small.

All that changed over the last 25 years. Federal census figures show that the number of illegal immigrants coming into and staying in the United States has been on a steep steady rise over the last three decades. Estimates of the current illegal population (comprised primarily of Mexicans and certain other Central and South American groups), put the current number somewhere between 14 and 30 million. 

In the 1960's, political advocacy "on behalf of" illegals began to lobby for improvements in work conditions, and liberalization of immigration procedures and policies governing seasonal workers. In the intervening years, however, the situation has dramatically changed. What was once a seasonal phenomenon has grown into a surge. Instead of being limited to agriculture, illegal foreigners have moved into the general economy, taking jobs in the hotel and motel industries, the building trades, factories, transportation and shipping, and the general retail businesses. This employment pressure has been driven by poverty and neglect in Mexico and other poor countries. 

As the problem has grown, and the number of illegals arriving and staying has mushroomed, the debate over how to define the problem has sharpened. Advocates of lax immigration policy have attempted to frame the debate in terms of "racism" or "ethnic prejudice." They have tried to make it seem that any attempt to control borders, enforce legal residency and work status in America is motivated by a generalized racial hatred of Latinos (the general "ethnic" catchword for all Hispanic nationals) and their culture. All attempts to address the problems created by mass illegal immigration are met with organized propaganda on behalf of Latino Rights organizations. 

In the the general media, "sympathy" for this position has become politically correct. "Multi-cultural diversity"--the new phrase meant to represent the American melting pot--dictates that we all come from different places, different cultures, and that the classic American policy should always be tolerance in the face of "difference." 

But there are limits to how much tolerance any nation can afford. America has immigration policies, which are based on estimates of how many people the economy and infrastructure can reasonably absorb. Almost everyone is in agreement that excess (illegal) immigration has swelled well past the logical limits anyone might consider to be acceptable. 

Public opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of American citizens want stricter enforcement of our immigration policies, and better control of our borders. But anyone raising the spectre of actual enforcement is immediately labeled as racist and white supremacist. 

In the news today, San Francisco District Attorney, who is running for State Attorney General, was exposed for allowing illegal immigrant drug criminals to expunge their criminal convictions and go scot free on her watch. The City of San Francisco has set itself up as a "sanctuary city," presumably allowing illegals to reside free of interference, and refusing to cooperate with Federal agencies attempting to enforce immigration law and policy. 

In the present atmosphere of strained state and federal budgets, it's difficult to make reasonable arguments about our ability to continue to tolerate the costs and inconveniences which illegals place on our economy, infrasture, and governmental departments. And yet this is what we keep hearing. Like the little puppy stuck in the sewer pipe, we hear about midnight raids on innocent little Latino families, screaming babies and distraught relatives, haggard ragtag groups dying along the desert border desperately seeking "the American dream", fruit-pickers living in shacks, etc. 

These images are designed to elicit sympathy and to frame the discussion in terms of needy poor who deserve only sympathy and help, who have been victimized by unfair regulation. 

Rather than seeking to address the root causes of this social distress, advocates of illegal immigration prefer us to think only of "solutions." Their solutions include open borders, no national immigration quotas, unqualified amnesty, quick paths to citizenship, multi-lingual schools and institutions, free medical, legal and social welfare benefits, and relaxation of all restriction upon trade, employment and residency. 

Instituting these "solutions" would result in what has been referred to as the "re-Mexicanization" of the American Southwest. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Utah and Colorado would be overrun within a decade. Los Angeles would become a new Mexico City. Sprawling tracts of shack and tent cities, millions of poor, uneducated, unhealthy streaming northwards to escape the deprivations of their homeland. 

All this of course would play directly into the corrupt hands of the Mexican government, which is delighted to have its excess poor leave. It would like nothing more than to have America take on this unwanted burden.

So it goes. America is the land of opportunity, the land of dreams where all who are hungry, unemployed, politically forsaken, must come. Woe be to him who would challenge the new "diaspora."

We're all racists. Or at least that's what the media calls us. 

The immigrant lobby has succeeded admirably in framing the debate by demonizing their opponents as racist. 

Are you a racist? Is it racist to want to control immigration? Would it matter to you if illegals were Irish, or Chinese, or African, or Australian? 

If someone suggested that America immediately absorb 30 million African nationals, would you reject this notion on racist grounds? 

If someone suggested that we immediately import 30 million Filipino immigrants, how would you defend your right to deny them?  

Are you a racist?     


Steven Fama said...

This post is proof, if any more is needed, that reading lots of poetry, and even writing some good poems, does not always translate into thinking marked by clear-headedness and appreciation for nuance.

You write,

" . . .illegal foreigners have moved into the general economy, taking jobs in the hotel and motel industries, the building trades, factories, transportation and shipping, and the general retail businesses. This employment pressure has been driven by poverty and neglect in Mexico and other poor countries."

Why not mention -- since it's at least as important in terms of why these people are or were employed -- the other "half" (at least) of why they have jobs?

What have you missed? What's the other part of the equation that causes employers to hire these particular workers?

Please think about it, it ain't that hard, and when you've figured it out please amend your post. Amend it to acknowledge that there's been a giant sucking vacuum that's drawn these people to these jobs, as much as pressures that have driven them to them.

As for your Favilling around with the silly assertion that stricter enforcement of immigration laws is verboten:

What's going on at the Mexico-US border now and for the next five years? And how did that come about? (Hint, the answer to that last question can be found in the Congressional Record).

And that's just an example: you bully around claiming this and that about "America" or "the nation" yet never -- not once -- mention a single legislative act.

And what happened at Overhill Farms, Inc. -- the giant food processing plant in Vernon, California (Los Angeles) two weeks ago? (And it ain't the only place it's happened.) Google "Overhill" and "computer raid" in the news tab of the search engine, please, then read, then think.

Curtis, I'm sorry, but this post is a shame: a bunch of old-fart generalizations that fail to address a multitude of specifics that directly relate to what you blather about, and which happen -- and maybe this is why you don't wanna think about those specifics -- to show that your generalizations are crap.

Maybe you ought to stick to poetry and booze.

Curtis Faville said...


I don't mind the rudeness, but it bothers me that it's at the behest of so much misconception.

My post isn't about the immigration problem, per se, but about the framing of debates.

George Lakoff--certainly a friend of the Left--and conspicuously connected to the Language Poets in general--has written extensively about how the neo-Conservative Right has "framed the debate" (his words) and thus controlled our apprehensions about issues both on the domestic and international fronts. I have been firmly in agreement with him about that.

My post is a application about how the illegal immigration debate has been controlled by those wishing to resist reasonable discussion and realistic solutions to a problem that has gotten completely out of hand.

The problem isn't the nativists and minute-men border guards (a symptom). It isn't about the conflicted Republicans pretending to play both sides of the fence, catering to the new "Hispanic vote" and the business interests who feed off illegals, while trying to protect their rear ends from charges of pandering. The problem is illegal immigration, and the growing problems it presents.

I'm not looking to throw blame at Latinos, or any other group. If I were in their situation, I'd be doing exactly the same thing, and for exactly the same reasons.

Read the post for what it is, not for what you wish it said. Don't imagine that you know what I'm thinking between the lines, just read the lines.

Are businesses to blame? Of course. Does that mean, necessarily, that the solution to the problem is to close down those businesses? To permit them to continue as they have indefinitely? Or to bring about compliance, so that American citizens benefit by holding those jobs, for fair pay, benefits and decent working conditions?

Steven, your thinking about immigration is half baked. But that really isn't the point. You've bought into the terms of the debate as it's currently being framed. You've already lost the argument, before you've even said a word.

At least, that's what Lakoff would say.

Anonymous said...

if, as you say, most of these illegals are finding work, how are they a problem? doesn't the job market determine the numbers of illegals in this country?

how any debate is framed is largely irrelevant. a frame is just what it is, a piece of wood, metal or plastic surrounding the actual picture, which is not ever changed by the existence of a frame.

george lakoff is not a politician or a legislator, is he? most politicians and voters have no idea who who george lakolff is.

Steven Fama said...

Yes, I very much appreciate that you are remarkably tolerant of "thrown elbows" (referencing there the style of play under the basket when big men and big women play hoops) and similar harsh argumentative tactics.

Unfortunately, your post doesn't read as a meta-analysis regarding the framing of the immigration debate. Except for the first sentence, and a few random observations, it's almost entirely a point-of-view piece on the underlying subject.

If you were trying for something else, you didn't, in this case, make it.

And further, the answer to your assertion about the difficulty of making "reasonable arguments" lies not in how the immigration debate has been framed, but in your inability or refusal to learn salient facts, and/or acknowledge and/or synthesize such facts into your views.

And I need to amend something from my first comment: in addition to poetry and booze, I also generally find very interesting your posts on photography and films.

Kirby Olson said...

If that Raza people got their way and parts of the American Southwest were returned to Mexico, wouldn't it just mean that Mexicans would have to walk further to get out of Mexico?

Curtis Faville said...


It's usually not a good idea to make presumptions about what your opponent does or does not know about a subject, has or has not read, or has or has not experienced directly.

The first question one would ask is: If I had read what you read, and knew what you knew, and experienced what you had experienced, would I necessarily agree with what you think, how you've interpreted those things.

What I'm trying to do is push back at those who would rather cloud the debate with negative buzz-words and fake generic "sympathy" etc.

If I, for instance, suggest that one answer to our porous border is to secure it, the usual retort is that "we" (i.e., American citizens) are racists, that they are trying to "seal themselves off" from invasion by "aliens." In one sense, this is true--it is better to prevent illegals from coming here in the first place, than it is to deal with the many problems that arise AFTER they're here. By attempting to divert and channel the argument away from a possible real solution, advocates for illegal immigration parade out the usual pony show of phony accusations. They know that the media will always film that performance, because it inspires indignation, and because that's the only card they have to play.

But I'm not into indignation, just as I'm not into racism. They both are a waste of time.

I wish I had a convenient solution to our immigration problems with Mexico (who doesn't?).

But I do know this: People who accuse me of racism as a way of avoiding talking about the problems which illegal immigration causes aren't interested in real solutions. They're just whistling Dixie.

Some time we can have a debate about possible solutions to the immigration problem.

My post wasn't an attempt to argue one way or the other about the immigration issue, which you might have noticed if you'd paid attention.

In the meantime, ask yourself why the national debate on immigration "reform" is stalled again. Might it be because those who surmise they have a great deal to lose, have scared the politicians into avoiding real discussion, for fear they'll be labeled as racist? That's my take on it.

That stalemate plays right into the hands of the immigrants rights lobby. The status quo is what we've been doing for the last 30 years. My guess is that's exactly what will happen over the next 30 years, with predictable consequences.

With respect to "acceptable subject matter"--we live in a democracy. Blogging is a new format, one without clearly defined borders. My sense is that we get to say pretty much what we like here. Also, blogs aren't where you can trot out complex arguments with long quotations, references and footnotes. These are opinion pieces. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about public issues.

I'd be interested in hearing what you have to say about the immigration debate, but I'd hope it wouldn't consist merely of accusations about what you think I secretly "feel" about Latinos, etc.

Finally, I find it amusing that I "get" to talk about poetry and film and music and photography and spirits, but political opinions are off-limits. The presumption that, as a practicing critic, editor, or writer, one's opinions must necessarily adhere to a pre-conceived partisan agenda (i.e., all poets must be have a tolerant position vis-a-vis illegal immigration) is just goofy. I don't buy it.

Curtis Faville said...


A good example of someone who plays the immigrants' rights game unfairly would be this Navarrette fellow who occasionally gets column space in the Chron. His position is that anyone who thinks that the United States shouldn't, in effect, economically annex Mexico must be a Nazi, plain and simple (well, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit). Still, you can't debate people like that. There's no common ground.

Kirby Olson said...

If we are merely animals as the Darwinians claim and that all or almost all secularists accept, then it is all about competition for resources.

If that is the case, why shouldn't we hog all the resources, like the animals that we apparently are?

Where, in nature, do we find a relaxation of competition?

Curtis Faville said...

People aren't animals.

Humanism is based on the common sympathy of humanity, that we have a common purpose which is the perpetuation and perfectibility of the species.

Others would argue that we're just another variation of the animal kingdom, albeit with the addition of a brain. There's much truth in that, but it's not the whole story.

I'm not arguing for selfishness and insularity, only controlling the problem so it's manageable.

If we, as a nation, allow our economy to deteriorate, then there won't be any money to accomplish all the wonderful things we want. If you're a poor country, you won't be able to offer foreign aid, etc. Without money, we don't have a strong military. Without money, we have a restive population. Without money, democracy is at constant risk. Capitalism and democracy are two halves of an equation.

Uncontrolled immigration presents a threat to the prosperity that a reasonably self-interested national economy provides. If we let ourselves be overrun, we lose all the other benefits of quality of life. You can try justifying it on moral grounds, but in the end there's really no argument. Explosion of population is a recipe for disaster.

Kirby Olson said...

Why not just argue along the lines of economic self-defense. Self-defense is legitimate, I think. Therefore, extrapolate from that to the notion of economic self-defense, perhaps, and you have a sustainable argument that even the far left might grok.