Immigration is an issue sure to appeal to the most xenophobic, racist and jingoistic impulses in American politics. Even relatively progressive people harbor some sense that those “Mexicans” are “different,” and thus react strongly against the idea of immigration reform that either makes it easier to move to the US, or for those here illegally to gain citizenship.
To be sure, there are legitimate issues on both sides of the debate. Many legal immigrants resent the idea that others can come illegally and gain what they worked hard for. Others are genuinely concerned about the economic impact, rule of law, or other issues which immigration reform may seem to threaten. Those in favor recognize that there are 12 million illegal immigrants here, and there are no resources to enforce bans against them working under the table or living in the US. The only way to fix the system is to accept this reality, and find a workable plan for the future.
To me, the issue is more profound. America is changing. The demographic profile of the country is shifting. In not too long whites will constitute less than 50% of the population, and the “European” nature of American identity, already weakened, will be hard to maintain. Moreover, this change is inevitable and can be a source for future strength of American ideals, even as those ideals continue their evolution.
Fox News’s John Gibson made headlines when he told people — white people — to make more babies (here’s the clip). The threat he sees is that Hispanics might become the majority population in America, and Europe might become “Eurabia”. To be fair, he tries to soften it at the end by saying “Hispanics can’t carry the whole load,” suggesting that we’re in this together, but the general feel of the piece is that there is a fear that western civilization is about to give way to the ‘darkies’ – Arabs, Hispanics, blacks, whatever.
Those fearing immigration often compare the US to the Roman Empire, noting how the Romans allowed “barbarians” to settle on Roman lands. These Visigoths, Vandals, Huns and Ostrogoths adapted to Roman ways in order to prosper, but ultimately overthrew the empire and sacked Rome. They see a parallel to how Mexicans are welcomed into the US, and fear we’ll become Mexamerica.
That comparison — and fear — is wrong on a number of counts. First, in Rome the “barbarians” had been living in Rome for centuries, serving the Empire well, before Rome collapsed. Rome’s collapse was not due to barbarian immigration but stagnation of their society. It was a slow, steady decline, with no clear end point. Even the popular 476 date, marking the end of the reign of Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of the western empire, is misleading. The new ruler simply became King of that region, and life went on pretty much as it had. Alaric, the Visigoth who sacked Rome in 410 had been an officer in the Roman legions. The problem did not stem from the “barbarians” wanting to overthrow the empire, but the steady decline of the empire.
And if you want to make the comparison, the best one is found in Cullen Murphy’s book Are We Rome. Our country and economy has given way to foreign capital. Our debt and trade deficits depend on it. If China or other countries wanted, they could drive us into hyperinflation by refusing to finance, or in fact trying to cash in our debt. The dollar would collapse, and then they could buy up our businesses and industries at cut rate prices. If this happens slowly, over decades, we’ll gradually see increased foreign control over American business, and less sovereignty in terms of economic and foreign policies. This would be the equivalent of the barbarians occupying Rome — foreign concerns controlling the American economy. The cause wouldn’t be Chinese “barbarism,” but rather American decadence, greediness and poor judgment. That is a better comparison with Rome than fear of Mexicans!
This phobia about Mexicans is also irrational given America’s past. In 1790 nearly half of the country was of English descent, with about 20% more from Africa, mostly slaves. About 15% were Irish, Scottish or Welsh. Now the largest ethnic group is German, with 15.2%. African Americans are about 13%, with the Irish about 11%. The English, Welsh and Scots make up less than 10%. Waves of immigration altered the country from being an extension of Great Britian to become a mix of groups. Mexicans make up 8%, the fifth largest ethnic group in the US. Hispanics (non-Mexicans) make up about 4% more.
In short, the US is not defined by ethnicity. Nobody doubted General Richard Sanchez claim to be a true American general, or Colin Powell’s credentials. A core of loons tried to question whether or not Barack Obama was a true American with stories that he was born in Kenya or had Indonesian citizenship, but they were laughed off. Simply, America’s identity is not defined by ethnicity, but by core values.
The anti-immigrants know this. They self-righteously (some honestly, some simply to avoid political incorrectness) talk about ‘rule of law’ and not rewarding illegal behavior. Yet, of course, it was the rewarding of illegal behavior that brought this problem here. We sustained an economic boom in the 90s on the backs of mostly Mexican immigrants, a large percentage coming illegally. They were given jobs. We needed their labor. We benefited. And now, as this becomes unsustainable over the long run due to the sheer numbers involved, we want to declare them the criminals, and pretend to be victims of some foreign invasion. Thank you for your cheap labor that we lured you over here to provide, now we’ll return the favor by locking you up, destroying your lives, breaking up your families, and demonizing you as criminals. Hypocrisy on parade yet again!
Another self-righteous argument is fear of terrorism. But there are so many ways would be terrorists can enter the country that this is a fallacious argument. Granting a path to citizenship to those already here in no way increases terror threats, after all! And drug trade and the drug wars on the Mexican border? Well, that is a problem Mexico has thanks to the fact Americans are so willing to large amounts for illegal drugs. Either we need to clean up our act and stop demanding illegal substances, or we need to legalize them and regulate trade.
So let’s put aside the racism, xenophobia, or fantasies that the US is a country defined by European heritage. True, the “West” emerged from Europe — from the Roman Empire in fact — and we represent “western civilization.” It’s a civilization we’ve tried to force on others through armed conflict, trying to spread ‘democracy and markets’ to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That hasn’t worked. Perhaps the best way for the West to thrive is simply to stay open to others, and make it clear that the “West” is a set of ideas and principles, not defined by ethnic background or even economic development.
Now is the time for real immigration reform, recognizing the reality of shared interests between the US and Mexico, the need to give those who have been living here a path to citizenship, and a workable system of allowing work permits and immigration that reduces the temptation to cross illegally. And sure, make the borders more secure at the same time, that can’t hurt. Frankly, given the times we’re in, we need to unify as a country and not risk ethnic divisions that contradict our core values.