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For Illegal Immigrants, the End of Tolerance?

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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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202 Comments

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mytutu

Why even bother to give a personal view point to a Latino. Of course they are for the mexicans coming over here. They want to stir up sympthay for them. Blood is thicker than water remember. Illegals of any kind are not welcome here. I am sick of them and there pushy attitudes.

September 30 2010 at 8:12 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
wood079

Or maybe Americans are just fed up with being told that they are wrong because they do not like people who break the law. What part of illegal do you not recognize. If we really need folks here to do menial labor then lets set up quotas and bring them here in an orderly fasion. Furthermore it is wrong to say that they do work that Americans will not do, and I am sick of hearing that. They do work that Americans will not do at that wage level. If you want someone to roof your house or mow you lawn then you need to step up and pay Americans a decent wage. Who did this kind of work in the past? This is a problem that has been brought on by politicians, and not just Republicans or Democrats. Each party has their own agenda for turnning a blind eye and now its gotten out of hand. There should be no amnesty, they came here illegaly and broke the law and now they should pay the consequences, send them back where they came from!

September 21 2010 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Steve & Sharon

Research? Check out 'Operation Wetback'. Do a web search and read what we did in the '50's. It was done in the '30's and '40's before that. Now we have a problem with deporting illegals? I tried to get any media to check this and the Koran verses that support the radical Muslim actions to no avail. What does this tell you?

September 15 2010 at 12:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
depichu

Illegals are in the USA illegally - they have insulted our law-abiding citizens by breaking our entry laws. "We the people" of the USA are speaking, the citizens of the USA want the illegals deported back to their home countries, and we want the potential immigrants to legally apply to be here, which entails proving that they are physically and mentally fit to be here, provind that they can support themselves/have skills to work here, prove that they do not have a criminal background.... The USA citizens welcome legal immigrants, but do not want illegals "rewarded" for trying to outsmart the system.... And "anchor babies" legislation needs to be enacted to stop illegals from coming here to birth their babies.... And illegal latinos need to stop demanding citizenship rights while immigrants from other countries of the world patiently follow the legal rules for entry....

September 15 2010 at 11:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Andre Stazzano

Legallized them all! And make them start paying taxes and soon, all of you, nayers of illegal immigration, will see how the economy will start building after making them pay their dues plus all of those famously immigration fees to become a resident first then a citizen. Besides, whenever a citizen breaks the law they go to court, they pay a fine and they are all set free to go. THIS IS NOT A CRIME! It's just crossing in a desperate move to get a better life. Don't judge before walking a mile in someone else's shoes.

September 14 2010 at 11:21 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Andre Stazzano's comment
vicbar88

If it is against the laws as they are written then it is in fact a crime. nobody else gets to pick and choose which laws best suite them do they? If their government is illegally killing them then fine get in line and come to the US the legal way but jsut because you can't find a job? or to escape criminal charges at home?? Sorry cnnot accept that excuse.

September 15 2010 at 8:46 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
mark

ILLEGALS cost our Economy 338 Billion a year and 15 Million have American Jobs while Americans Loss there Homes and Jobs ENOUGHS ENOUGH.We a Country of LAWS..

September 13 2010 at 8:16 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
Cas

The United States is the ONLY Country in the World that lets this Happen. It is TIME for it to STOP.

September 13 2010 at 12:31 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
undrpsi

Wow..how everyone keeps missing the 'why' is absurd. Most american have no problem with LEGAL immagrints...it's the ILLEGAL ones we have had enough of. Why does everyone want to group them together? Do some more research. You'll find most of us will support expansion and regulation of legal citizens. They pay their fair share in taxes. They learn to read and speak english. They get drivers licenses. There is something about having to work for your citizenship that is lost when you steal it.

September 13 2010 at 8:53 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
cow1129

Illegal is illegal... there should never be tolerance. Should we have tolerance for someone breaking into our home and stealing something? NO! We have got to take a stronger stand and stop illegal immigration.

September 12 2010 at 3:02 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
Martha

I welcome legal immigrants. When I go to to Canada I have to show my US passport and ID to return. My daughter, as an American, could not work in Italy or go to school with out a student Visa and a work Visa. They check her at every turn. When I traveled in Europe during college I had to have my passport checked at every border. Why is this called racism? that we do not want illegal immigrants from any country here. We live in a society with the terrorists of some factions of the Middle East. We live in society with terrorist drug dealers on our southern borders. And why aren't any Mexican-Americans here legally doing anything about improving their own country?? We never hear ANYTHING about making Mexico BETTER!!!!!! Where is the political movement in their own country?? instead of here fighting for illegals?

September 12 2010 at 2:01 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

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