The Culture Component

John Tirman says the fuel behind the illegal immigration issue is actually the fear of "diluting some distinctive American character."

Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash, by John Tirman.   (National Journal)

Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash

by John Tirman

The MIT Press, March 2015

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Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash, by John Tirman.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The typical arguments for taking a hard line with illegal immigrants are well known: They compete for American jobs; they don't respect the law; they and their families put a strain on social services. But these aren't the real reasons that some are so passionate about the issue, author John Tirman says. What stirs people so deeply about illegal immigration — and the increase in the American Latino population in general — is the same thing that fueled the reaction to the Great Migration of 1910"“1970, when African-Americans spread across the country from the South only to be met with segregated housing, attempts to withhold voting rights, wage differences, and "white flight": the fear of "diluting some distinctive American character." Tirman argues that this perceived threat to culture — more than any true economic or legal rationale — is what led politicians to introduce legislation like Arizona's Senate Bill 1070, which allowed officers to question a person's citizenship and which was quickly copied by five other states.

TARGET D.C. AUDIENCE Policy wonks working on immigration and related issues; Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson; sociologists; members of Congress who represent large immigrant populations; anyone with a dog in the immigration fight.

BEST LINE "It is particularly important, I contend, to overcome the decrepit notion that immigrants must assimilate in order to 'belong' to the American community."

TO BE SURE Tirman likens those who are currently taking a tough line on illegal Latino immigration to those who acted in a racist way toward African-Americans during an earlier era. But in drawing that parallel, he sometimes glosses over the complexities of today's illegal-immigration debate.

ONE LEVEL DEEPER Immigration-reform advocates should flip to Chapter 7, "Legality and Language as Cultural Weapons," for a historical perspective on some of the ulterior obstacles to bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows. Here Tirman argues that withholding legal status is a valuable tool to those seeking to preserve the cultural status quo, because it keeps many Latino arrivals in the United States in a disenfranchised class similar to the one African-Americans constituted under Jim Crow in the South.

THE BIG TAKEAWAY The current backlash against illegal immigration has antecedents in U.S. history, and a look at the past suggests that treating millions of unauthorized Latino immigrants as a social, economic, and legal subclass will lead to long-term problems.