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For Illegal Immigrants, the End of Tolerance?

4 years ago
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NEW YORK – Amid the intense national debate over immigration, news came late in the week that 1 in 12 children born in the United States in 2008 were offspring of illegal immigrants, an estimate that could add fodder in the current clamor over birthright citizenship.

The figures, published by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, could embolden anti-illegal-immigration conservatives in Washington and elsewhere who are calling for changes in the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment to deprive children of illegal immigrants born in the United States the automatic right to citizenship. It is no secret that the opponents of birthright citizenship are directing their fire at illegal immigrants from Latin America.

The report landed just as the debate over the proposed change to the Constitution was gathering steam in the Congress and other corridors of political chat in the capital, hashed over on the cable news talk shows and given front-page play in The Wall Street Journal.

The controversy was ignited last month by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who had been a supporter of immigration reform but has evidently changed his position in order to better defend his seat in his conservative state. In words that resonate for their crudity, Senator Graham told Fox News that many illegal immigrants were crossing the border just to have babies on U.S. soil and gain citizenship for their children. "They come here just to drop a child," he said.

It's a vivid unsavory image that savages immigrants, parents, children, all alike. It's a startling example, or symbol, of how illegal immigrants and by extension all Latin American immigrants, are demonized in politics, in the media, increasingly in the past five years or so.

What happened? There are countless theories but changes in the immigrant flow at the border seem to have made the difference. According to The Los Angeles Times, three key reasons are increase in illegal immigrant traffic, especially in Arizona, as border enforcement in California pushed smuggling east; a boom in construction that brought more illegal workers to job sites and increased the illegal immigrant population in towns and cities; and fear of crime as the drug war rages south of the border.

Who remembers now the meek immigrant Mexican farm workers bent under a broiling California desert sun picking fruit and vegetables, or laboring in the subtropics of the South, or in the unwelcoming north, working in terrible conditions, paid a pittance, living in dirt-floor shacks and trailers with no running water? Who remembers Cesar Chavez, the U.S.-born Mexican who became the symbol of civil rights for his people and whose birthday, on March 31, is a holiday in California? Who remembers when migrant workers were seen as humble, good-hearted and hardworking victims of callous and greedy American farmers and agri-businessmen who trucked them in over the border for the harvest seasons?

Those benign old images are long gone. The sympathetic portrait of the immigrant worker -- your gardeners and roofers, your produce grower and fruit picker, your restaurant dish washer, your maids and nannies -- has been eclipsed little by little over the past decade by the coyote image.

In a them-vs.-us world of today, many Americans seem to regard illegal immigrants as either unreliable day laborers lurking in corners, in parks, on street corners, or drug "mules," smugglers, traffickers and dealers, home invaders and rapists. The truth is blurry.

As Francis Fukuyama, a professor of international political economy at Stanford University, wrote in The Wall Street Journal recently, "It is perfectly true that the simple fact of being an illegal immigrant induces one to break further laws.'' But he argues that illegal immigrants, who come from the underclass of their native countries and have no knowledge of rules of law, are not criminals. He likes to describe them as "informal" rather than "illegal," meaning they want the same things that every immigrant to America has sought: to work and improve their condition.

Perhaps. It may be that the Fukuyama perspective and plea for understanding of cultures and classes are a little bit too complex for people who are worried about the foreigner with the thick accent and the shifty eyes. It's easier to dump all illegal immigrants in one bag and let it go at that. Or we may hope that the $600 million measure that President Obama signed into law on Friday to reinforce and tighten monitoring and increase border patrols will stem the flow and defuse a combustible situation. Already the administration has succeeded in deporting a record number of criminal illegal immigrants. And, surprisingly, given the level of worry in border states, illegal crossings have actually decreased recently, partly due to the slump in our economy and lack of jobs for menial workers, and partly due to tighter border enforcement.

Still, the tensions and frictions between illegal immigrants and citizens, as demonstrated in Arizona but also evident in the Northeast and other regions, seem on the rise at an alarming rate.

A rash of attacks in the past four months on Mexican immigrants in the New York City borough of Staten Island underlines the crisis, calling for doubling the police presence in a busy commercial strip that has been described as an "armed encampment." Latinos in the Port Richmond neighborhood have been victims of hate crimes for years, but recently the assaults have increased in violence and frequency. Nine men, all Mexican immigrants, have been attacked since April, all by young black men, raising fears of a racial tinderbox. Other assaults and killings have been reported in the past month in Summit, N.J., an affluent suburban town near New York City, and in towns and well-to-do suburbs of Long Island.

It's no wonder that trust and tolerance are in short supply on all sides. Last month, a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted July 16-21, showed that a plurality of Americans now feel that the "melting pot" policies of the 20th century, are making the country weaker today.

Those who remember the bitter fight in California over the anti-immigrant ballot measure known as Proposition 187 in 1994 wonder why the debate today is nastier. Proposition 187 was passed by the voters but later overthrown by the courts. Today, it's Arizona setting the pace and the federal courts that will ultimately rule. And why is the debate in 2010 meaner and angrier than it was 16 years ago in California?

It's a guess. Politics is uglier now. The economy is a mess. The nation is polarized far more so than it was in the mid-1990s. Cable news chatter encourages division and intolerance. Legal and illegal immigration has indeed changed the demographics in towns and cities across the nation but especially along the border.

And perhaps the country is not a kinder, gentler nation after all.
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