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Know the West

Primer 6: Immigration


To get a glimpse of the complexity of the issues surrounding immigration in the United States, one need only watch the peculiar dances of this year’s presidential candidates, and the way a few of them stumbled and lost the beat and fell to the ground at the end. Somewhere, somehow, someone in the ranks of Republican strategists decided that being “tough on immigration” was a prerequisite for the nomination. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado congressman, led the crowd onto the dance floor, and wouldn’t let up, his flamboyant moves skirting dangerously close to the edge of racism. Soon, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who had both taken compassionate stances towards immigration in the past, rolled out their own version of the Tancredo Tango, each trying to take the lead.


In the end, neither could find his rhythm, and it was Arizona Sen. John McCain, known to the Tancredos of the world as an amnesty-loving softie, who walked away with the nomination. Now, the party that until recently cast itself as anti-immigration hard-liners is running a guy who worked with the likes of Sen. Edward Kennedy, on reasonable immigration reform that has yet to make it through Congress.


And so it goes in the world of immigration politics. Despite all the hard rhetoric on both sides of the debate, we, as a nation, seem to be confused about what we actually believe or truly want. We are a country built on and by immigration, and we have an isolationist bent. We revere free-market capitalism, but also want to protect our own industry. We pretend to be color-blind, but racism is deeply embedded in our culture. We thrive on growth, but worry about overpopulation.


Perhaps we’re confused because our policies are schizophrenic. In 1994, when President Clinton signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement, he opened the gates on the Mexican border to goods and capital. At the same time, he militarized the border in urban areas in an attempt to close the gates on workers. Clinton mistakenly thought that he could direct the laws of supply and demand -- that they could apply to tomatoes, but not to people. But the invisible hand of the free market doesn’t discriminate. As the U.S. sent cheap agricultural products south, it hit Mexican farms hard, forcing farmworkers to risk their lives crossing the border to jobs in the fields, slaughterhouses and landscaping firms up north. Clinton’s contradictory policies resulted in disaster. His border walls in San Diego and Nogales forced immigrants out into the desert. Hundreds have died as a result.


Once they get here, the immigrants are caught up in other contradictions. We welcome them into our economy (economists say immigrants boost the Gross Domestic Product by more than $14 billion), but shun them from our communities. We tax them (more than 50 percent of the unauthorized have payroll taxes deducted from their paychecks using false documents or fake Social Security numbers), but bar them from taking advantage of the programs they help fund. The list goes on and on.


In the end, it’s complicated enough that a politician is probably best off staying on the fringes of the immigration do-si-do, and not jumping out onto the dance floor. There may not be much a president can do about the issue, anyway. In recent months, the U.S. economy has tanked. And guess what? Without any new border fence, without hard-line immigration laws, immigration has slowed.


To learn more about the complexities, check out these articles: