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“Any other topics??

By Daniel Necas, Immigration History Research Center

Reading some of the latest journalistic accounts of the various sides of the immigration issue, one would almost begin to feel that immigration is the single most important question in current U.S. developments. Immigration is being portrayed as the number one issue that Republicans entering the presidential race have recently had to deal with

The New York Times reported last week on several GOP presidential hopefuls cruising the state of Iowa in search of hints for their campaigns. Senator Sam Brownback seems to have been baffled (but was he, really?) by the insistence on immigration-related questions by people he met in Iowa. At the end of a meeting spent mostly answering questions related to immigration he asked the audience: “Any other topics that people want to talk about?? And yet another immigration-related question was dispatched. Similarly, John McCain as reported by the Washington Post, or Mitt Romney as reported by IowaPolitics.

Meanwhile, on the state and local levels, authorities are occasionally trying to address some of the immigration-related issues they are being pressured about by their constituents, but, ultimately no major immigration legislation can by-pass the federal level as it is likely to touch on constitutional rights. Recent examples from Texas and Missouri can serve well to demonstrate this trend.

What everyone appears to agree on is that the immigration law is “broken? and a major, comprehensive overhaul is necessary. At the same time, the issue is understood to be so complicated that results cannot be expected any time soon and any serious effort to make progress stalls before it even gets off the ground.

What must be luring for politicians about the widely perceived immigration crisis is that it is difficult to determine exactly who is responsible for it. Attitudes toward immigrants migrate easily across party lines, a portion of the blame can always be relegated to the immigrants themselves, and since they come from the outside of the nation USA, the “us? and “them? mentality so useful for nation unity building can set in. Immigration has frequently been a problem in the past and will be in the future as long as the United States is a fairly prosperous democracy and as freedom and resources available in parts of the globe are scarce. So, how to satisfy large numbers of voters who want the government to be tough on “illegal? immigrants and at the same time not lose the equally as important if not more lucrative favor of business owners, who in some sectors of the economy could not simply maintain their profits without the labor of immigrants? And frankly, how many of those angry, patriotic Americans would be happy to pay higher prices for their produce, hotel accommodations and other products and services if the cheap labor currently extracted from immigrants would have to be replaced by U.S. citizens or “legal? immigrants in better-paying jobs with benefits that they would inevitably (and only rightfully so) demand? At least some politicians have found a partial solution – to loudly support “border security? (achievements in this direction can be easily documented by how much was spent on law enforcement personnel, unmanned surveillance blimps and other fancy devices, building a fence, etc.) with the awareness that migrant labor will continue to flow across the border anyway (while, sadly, more will pay with injuries or even their lives than before).

However, some sources suggest (see also research by Professor Douglas Massey of Princeton University) that with the border posing such difficulty for crossing, migrants from Mexico are more likely to permanently establish their lives north of the border rather than migrate seasonally back and forth as demand for their labor fluctuates. (A lesson one would hope the supporters of fortified borders would learn from the past is that an iron curtain on a country’s border can be made effectively tight only by totalitarian regimes – and perhaps they have but chosen not to tell us about that yet.)

For the current administration and its potential successors from the same party, the “growing immigration debate? could be a welcome gift. (Or the result of a well-designed campaign by smart political strategists?) Instead of being questioned on the mishandled war in Iraq, the slow economy, the continuing and deepening social and racial divide, corporate fraud, the degradation of the environment, the record deficits, the chaotic and erratic health insurance system, the depletion of the social security funds, the quiet, but significant limiting of civil liberties, etc (1). – all items that the current administration can be held substantially responsible for over the past 6 years – they can comfortably swim in the ever murky waters of immigration while repeating the notorious: “Yes, it is broken, we need a reform ….?

As always, to make sense of the information supplied by the government and the media, one needs a healthy distance from it all. As much as one might be personally interested in immigration (myself being a case in point), it may be useful not to let anyone use the escalating immigration debate as a smoke screen intended to blur from view the other crucial issues whose handling in the immediate past needs to be accounted for, and whose handling in the future is to be expected from the new political leadership.


Daniel Necas, Immigration History Research Center

(1) Most of the failures of the past 6 years do not need to be specified here, to illustrate at least the deepening social and racial divide, one can look at the declining incomes of average workers, especially those classified as African American or Latino in 2000-2005, despite growing productivity, as reported by the BBC in 2006.

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