Books May 2006

Exodus

The ominous push and pull of the U.S.–Mexico border

The deaths of the Yuma 14, coming at a time when migrant fatalities were spiking, brought the border issue back into public view—at least for those who cared to notice at all. These “unintended consequences” of the Clinton-era lockdown—grisly border deaths and no letup in crossings, and all the bad publicity thereof—sparked some transitory hope that an obsolete policy of denial would be replaced by something more pragmatic. In early 2001, newly elected Presidents Bush and Fox publicly hinted that some grand, historic immigration compromise was in the making. In the summer of 2001, Mexico’s then–Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda told me and others that he was confidently pushing for the “whole enchilada”—an agreement that would provide a legal channel for Mexican guest workers and that would also “normalize” the millions of Mexicans already working and living in the United States without legal status.

September 11 blew away that early optimism, and reforming immigration and border policies once again became politically taboo. Until January 2004, that is, when President Bush, his eye cast on a growing Latino electorate and his administration under pressure from a worker-starved business lobby, rekindled the debate by again publicly calling for a guest-worker deal and by strongly suggesting that something should be done to legalize those already here. An odd-bedfellows coalition stretching from John McCain to Ted Kennedy, from the Chamber of Commerce to the AFL-CIO, was in place to support the reform call. They all agreed that control of the border was imperative. But that could realistically be achieved, they argued, only if future migrants could enter legally, and if the “illegals” already here could be recognized, perhaps pay a fine, and then be given formal papers.

The initiative in the political fight, however, was taken by the reactionary flank of Bush’s own party. No way were they going to go along with what they called an “amnesty” for the illegals already here, nor let the doors be flung open to even more Mexican immigrants. The rise of the Minutemen, the blasts of openly xenophobic AM talk radio even in cosmopolitan outposts like Los Angeles, the emergence of a fiercely anti-immigrant fringe House caucus led by Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, sounded a new border war. Bush, fearing a split among his own base, quietly retreated on the issue, and left the field wide open for a nativist resurgence.

While the market features no current pro-immigration manifesto, a panoply of books are now cashing in on the restrictionist fever. Jon E. Dougherty’s Illegals: The Imminent Threat Posed by Our Unsecured U.S.–Mexico Border perfectly reproduces the Minuteman meme that America is quickly being consumed by Mexico, which secretly plans a “reconquista,” the re-incorporation of the Southwest into Mexico. Dougherty even puts forward the novel notion that America isn’t really a country of immigrants. “Despite ethnic diversity,” he writes,

most Americans can trace their roots to America, and America alone, for several generations. We’ve never lived anywhere else. Our parents have never lived anywhere else. Many of our grandparents didn’t, either. As such, most of us have deep cultural, spiritual and social ties to this nation—despite a desire by certain quarters to hyphenate us along ethnic lines.

One thing Dougherty’s got right, even if he overdramatizes it, is that the historic migration we are witnessing is radically remaking American culture, producing what some call, in a new twist on an old term, a “Los Angelization” of the country. More and more neighborhoods, even some entire towns, are now predominantly Spanish- speaking. Other areas are officially bilingual. In a number of big cities—starting with Los Angeles—some of the highest-rated radio shows and TV news programs are Spanish-language. Salsa replaces ketchup as our favorite condiment. More-densely immigrant neighborhoods—especially if the immigrants are low-paid and undocumented—produce pockets of deep poverty, and of crime. A ZIP code in California’s Central Valley—brimming with predominantly Mixtec field workers—houses more people living in concentrated poverty than any other in the country. Another precinct, near downtown Los Angeles and home to tens of thousands of Salvadorans, is one of the most crowded neighborhoods in America and is ravaged by drugs.

Illegal immigrants contribute work, pay a share of taxes (which can’t be refunded), and stimulate consumerism. They also pressure and overload hospitals, schools, and jails, something that local governments—unreimbursed, for the most part, by a federal government that closes its eyes to these realities—can’t afford. Liberals don’t know whether to celebrate this diversity or to minimize it for fear of a backlash. Conservatives, for the most part, have made up their minds—especially those who live closest to the border, for whom the migratory traffic is a daily reality that flattens the immediate border environment, overruns local communities, tramples fields and fences, and creates a general sense of insecurity.

“Such realities are difficult to accept for Americans … who live along the border regions and are fed up with the invasion of immigrants and the associated violence,” Dougherty writes.

They’re tired of the costs. They’re tired of the threats. They’re tired of the trash. They’re tired of the drugs. They’re tired of being tired of it all. But most of all, they’re tired of being ignored by politicians, law enforcement, bureaucrats and policymakers—most of whom criticize any effort citizens make to take care of the problem themselves.
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