If you believe that political calculation can’t trump reason indefinitely, you haven’t been paying attention to the illegal immigration debate in the United States, which hasn’t, actually, been a debate. It’s been a disingenuous shouting match, something like the banter between competing barkers at the county fair as they tout the relative virtues of the ring toss and the dart throw.
Traditionally, the immigration shill-fest has followed a sordid pattern:
Some clever cadre within the paleo wing of a border state Republican Party cooks up an immigration proposal so nativist as to approach race-baiting perfection. The proposal is then put forward — either in state legislation or a ballot measure — as a “wedge issue” to attract the votes of xenophobic and/or racist Democrats. (Viz., California’s Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative to deny most state benefits to illegal immigrants.)
In due time, more or less in response to the paleo proposal, a clever cadre of leftish Democrats puts forward an immigration initiative that is such an obviously unworkable pander to Hispanic voters as to induce political nausea. (Think: California legislation to give illegal immigrants driver’s licenses.)
Recently, though, counterproductive immigration politics has spread beyond the border states, most notably to Colorado, where, in less than a year, a new law banning state spending on illegal immigrants has cost more than $2 million to enforce, while saving the state precisely no money.
Immigration pandering has even turned bipartisan, with Congress and President Bush working across party lines last year to give America the dumbest immigration policy proposal of my lifetime: The Secure Fence Act of 2006, calling for the government to build a supposedly impermeable, $50 billion wall on hundreds of miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Which, of course, will be about as impermeable as the border fence at Tijuana, where, the last time I looked, thousands lined up at sunset every day, waiting to climb through holes and dash into the U.S.)
There are real reasons the U.S. needs real immigration reform, and you can see a lot of them all at once in “One Nation, Under Fire,” John Dougherty’s look at the Tohono O’odham Reservation along the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Arizona. As smugglers of immigrants and drugs battle with tribal police and the Border Patrol, the Tohono O’odham Nation has become a real-life Mad Max, crazed vehicle chases and wild gun battles routinely shattering the desert calm. A longtime Arizona investigative reporter, Dougherty has a habit of revealing unsettling realities, and in this case, what he finds isn’t just unsettling. It is absolutely chilling.
In the wake of the November elections, there’s been much talk about newfound Western political power. One hopes it can soon be used to fling the Secure Fence Act into the dustbin of history, and to begin legislating our real immigration needs: 1) a guest-worker program that reduces pressure at the border by giving immigrants a legal way to enter the country and perform the work American business needs from them, and 2) broad amnesty for the millions of undocumented but otherwise law-abiding immigrants already living among us.
Until we begin tracking most of the honorable migrants who have crossed and are crossing our southern border in search of a better life, plans for dealing with the undocumented remainder will continue to be exactly what they are now — a costly and political game of Whack-a-Mole.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.