During difficult economic times, people tend to isolate certain minority groups, usually immigrants, as an outlet for their angers and frustrations, and there's a certain type of demagogue who often rises to stoke these feelings. During the Reconstruction of the American South following the Civil War, the unfortunate people victimized by this process were the blacks, the unwilling immigrants who had recently been freed. In the 1920s and 30s, Adolph Hitler stoked antisemitic feelings among the German working class, and during the Great Depression, various immigrant groups including Jews, Italians, and the Irish were ostracized in America. These anti-immigrant backlashes were associated with periods of unemployment or underemployment, popular anxiety, and a fear of displacement by strangers. They depend on woeful narratives of national decline, of which there is no shortage in America lately. During these times of rampant unemployment and epidemic foreclosures, the group currently being singled out as an outlet for America's frustration appears to be the Mexicans. Brown is the new black.
Fears and anxieties about illicit border crossings are statistically unfounded: according to the Border Patrol, since 2000, the numbers are actually down by more than 60%. In a recent Talk of the Town editorial in The New Yorker, William Finnegan notes that the southern border, far from being “unsecured,” is actually in better shape than it has been for years - better managed and less porous. The border has been the beneficiary of security budget increases since 9/11, which have helped slow the pace of illegal entries, if not as dramatically as the economic crash did. Last year, there were 550,000 apprehensions at the border, the lowest figure in 35 years. Additionally, violent crime, though rising in Mexico, has fallen on this side of the border. According to F.B.I. statistics, the four safest big cities in the United States—San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, and Austin—are all in border states.
But right-wing fear-mongering still works. Even as illegal immigration is falling, polls show that the number of Americans who consider immigration a “very serious problem” is rising—from 54% in 2006 to 65% this May.
The real problem of illegal immigration isn’t a matter of violent criminals storming the walls of our peaceful towns and cities. It’s a matter of what to do about the estimated 11,000,000 unauthorized residents who are already here and apparently here to stay. On the one hand, they are essential to large sectors of the economy. Atlanta's dirty little secret is that the building boom of the 1990s and first half of the 2000s would not have been profitable without the supply of cheap labor provided by illegal immigrants. The Department of Labor calculates that more than half the crop pickers in the United States are undocumented.
However, on the other hand, dirt-poor newcomers lower wages in some industries. State and local budgets suffer when workers are paid under the table. The fact that eleven million people lack legal status is itself disturbing.
Some of the more vociferous opponents of illegal immigrants denounce their presence as a national-security threat. I have heard a large number of people claim that they had no problem with Arizona's new law on the basis that if the immigrants are here illegally, then they should have no legal protections. But this view ignores the fact that if the presence of these illegal immigrants is such a threat, then the need to draw the undocumented out of the shadows and into the sunlight of official registration and legal status is all the more urgent. And if violent crime in this community is a problem, then a law that drives the community deeper underground only makes police work and crime fighting that much more difficult. Already, a number of police chiefs have been arguing against measures like Arizona's new law because they amount, in essence, to racial profiling, poisoning community relations.
Still, politicians are quick to jump on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. Roy Barnes, the Democratic Party's candidate for the Governor of Georgia, in an apparent effort to win over some conservative votes, said he would sign an Arizona-type law to use state officials to crack down on illegal immigrants, but added that he was reluctant to use state dollars to pay the costs of incarcerating the illegal immigrants. A Republican candidate claimed that if elected governor he would not only round up illegal immigrants but was ready to build prison camps to house them for deportation. “If we have to set up a Guantanamo Bay of Georgia," he said, "I would do it.”
The problem of illegal immigration has been left to fester for decades and every effort to address it has provoked a groundswell of angry obstructionism and demagoguery. To his credit, George Bush pushed hard during his second term for serious immigration reform, but was defeated by his own party’s right wing.
Barack Obama had promised to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, but last spring, after meeting with Republican senators, he instead ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the southern border. He gave his first major speech on immigration earlier this month and made a powerful case for reform, but was careful to distance himself from the idea of simple amnesty. People will have to “get right with the law,” he said. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has been cracking down on employers of the undocumented and has been increasing criminal deportations.
The President blames, quite rightly, congressional Republicans for blocking reform, but according to The New Yorker's William Finnegan, plenty of Democrats, both in Congress and in the statehouses, have no stomach for tackling the issue, either—certainly not in an election year. "Given the emotions that the topic arouses," he writes, "the battle to pass immigration reform may end up making the struggle over health care look mild. It is time, nonetheless, to try to finally bring millions of men, women, and children in from the dark."