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If one listens to the hysterical rhetoric of certain pundits and politicians, one would surely believe America is being attacked or infiltrated by nefarious aliens. Like the paranoid ranting of actor Kevin McCarthy in the famous last lines of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we are lead believe that, "They’re here already! You’re next!" The clandestine "pod people," the aliens if you will, exist by slowly but surely eradicating the very fabric of American culture. They take over your jobs, replace English with Spanglish, aid Al Qaeda, and make America as American as Apple Flautas.
The "alien threat" generally refers to Mexican immigrant workers, some of them undocumented and illegal, and the "scourge" of their existence on our economic well being, security and livelihood. The "illegal immigration" debate cannot be ignored especially in light of the upcoming Presidential elections. Considering the topic ranks second in terms of importance according to Republican voters, right behind the economy, the immigration debate warrants careful analysis. I sat with two of Senator Obama’s recently appointed "immigration advisors" Kevin R. Johnson, Associate Dean of The University of California Davis School of Law and author of the excellent and incisive new book on U.S. immigration laws Opening the Floodgates, and Bill Hing, Professor of Law and Asian American studies.
ALI: Let me read you a latest headline that highlights some statistics:
"The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a report titled "The Year in Hate," said it counted 888 hate groups in its latest tally, up from 844 in 2006 and 602 in 2000. The most prominent of the organizations newly added to the list, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, vehemently rejected the "hate group" label, and questioned the law center’s motives. FAIR said the center was using smear tactics to boost donations and stifle legitimate debate on immigration. ‘Their banner may be ‘Stop the hate’ but it’s really ‘Stop the debate,’ said FAIR’s president, Dan Stein. ‘Apparently you can’t even articulate an argument for immigration reform without being smeared.’"
Ok, first question, doesn’t FAIR and others, like Lou Dobbs, have the right to demand safe borders and not grant amnesty to illegal immigrants? Is this hate speech, or rather free speech? Secondly, assuming these facts are true, give me the factors from your research causing this sudden rise of hate?
HING: First of all, anyone has a right to advocate for border control and safe borders. Ok, sure. That’s a given. But, it’s the manner in which it’s done, and then secondly it’s when you go beyond just advocating for border control and into the area of race and ethnicity that it becomes hate. First things first, it’s the manner in which they do it. Many members of Congress, of course, advocate for border control. All three of the political finalists in the Presidential candidates advocate for border control. But, do they then do the "Willie Horton" and then focus in on the race, the language, the out of control nature of what’s happening to society and American culture, once they start doing that they begin to breed an atmosphere of contempt with those individuals that are coming across the border based on their race, rather then focusing on reform of the Visa system or the border system in a manner in which the border can be enforced in a humane and professional manner.
KJ: I think any American, which includes Lou Dobbs and includes folks with FAIR, certainly have a right to demand more secure borders and reform of immigration law enforcement. I don’t think anybody really disputes that. The issue is sometimes when they talk about immigration and immigrants, there is only one kind of immigrants. Lou Dobbs, night after night, talks about immigrants from Mexico, and illegal immigrants from Mexico, and terror from Mexico. To the extent that there’s any discussion on Dobbs’ show other than any immigrants other than Mexico, it’s about terrorists from the Muslim and the Arab world. So, what comes about is that immigration and immigration reform is all about Mexico and terror. And that’s when it crosses the line into implementing hate and dislike for certain immigrant groups. And when Dobbs is talking about immigration enforcement, he is usually talking about a border fence along the Mexican border. He is not ordinarily talking about anything with the Canadian border.
And when you hear about FAIR, they say often the exact same thing. Talking bout illegal aliens as if the only undocumented peoples in this country are people from Mexico. Talking about crackdowns on illegal aliens, and talking about how illegal aliens are criminals, and if they’re not criminals then they are terrorists. So, I think that groups certainly should be able to talk about what they want to talk about. There are groups that do talk about immigration and aren’t classified as hate groups by The Southern Poverty Law Center. But, I think some groups do cross the line. Groups like the Minuteman certainly do cross the line, where you talk to some of them, or if you see some of the interviews, they talk about hunting down Mexicans. You hear about some of the folks in places like Hazleton, Pennsylvania who say pretty clearly they want to get rid of "The Mexicans." [Hazleton passed the notorious Illegal Immigration Relief Act punishing landlords, who rented to undocumented immigrants, with fines up to $1000 per undocumented immigrant.] Not immigrants, they’re just talking about "The Mexicans." People have a right to talk and should be talking about immigration reform, but a lot of time instead of talking about reform, the talk is a racial code to attack certain groups. And that is not a good thing.
ALI: Let’s talk about the upcoming elections: Democrats and Republicans have their wedges issues–for the latter, amazingly, immigration ranks second behind the economy. Is indeed illegal immigration a top 3 problem for America?
HING: (Chuckles) No! I think the so-called immigration problem is not even in the top 100 problems facing the United States. If what we’re concerned about as a country are things ranging from National Security to the economy to health care to the environment etc., etc. The fact there are people in the United States with undocumented status, that is not a direct correlation between that and any of the four or five things I’ve mentioned. Of course, what anti immigrant folks will say is, "How can you say there are no connections between undocumented workers and national security?" In fact, all one needs to do is look at the 9-11 Commission report to find that there was no connection between so called "illegal immigration" and the perpetrators of the attacks. Those are all people who came to the country legally, they were well vetted by Al Qaeda in terms of their backgrounds; they all appeared squeaky clean. They did not come across the Mexican border. Illegal immigration, to me, is not even a problem when I say it isn’t in the Top 100. The people who are the topic of the complaints are decent, hardworking people, law abiding people. People with strong family values. They respect the environment. They love this country. They are conservative in many ways. If people only took the time to get to know them, then they’d realize how it’s really not a problem.
KJ: I think that most Americans, if pressed, will tell you that it’s the economy, it’s the war and it’s not immigration. If you look at the people who ran for President whose issue front and center was immigration, people like Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, either most Americans haven’t heard of them and certainly didn’t vote for them. They are gone from the Presidential races. If you look at the Illinois Congressional races, you have an anti-immigrant zealot who ended up not going anywhere. Even though some polls show people thinking immigration is an important issue, it can be a wedge issue. The people trying to make it their issue have not gotten far in their campaigns. I think that most Americans understand we can’t deport all undocumented immigrants. Most Americans don’t want to see another New Bedford, Massachusetts occur in their hometown. At the same time, many Americans do want to have the borders more secure, and I think the politicians are listening to that. I think the "get tough on immigrant" stuff you see on Lou Dobbs and some politicians propagating that, they aren’t getting too far with it.
ALI: Illegal Immigration is a problem to many. Every country has to have secure borders–that’s just a fact. So, why do liberals and progressives become so passionate in helping those, who for all intents and purposes, break the law? And, furthermore, how we do, if it all, secure these borders?
KJ: We should have a system where a vast majority of people enter legally and remain legally. It’s not good for the nation to have a system where people enter illegally and aren’t on any official record system. I’m all in favor good record keeping and legal immigration. At the same time, we currently have immigration laws which are unrealistic and unenforceable; where economic and political needs for workers lead to mass migration. We have 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, and they are employed by many in this country: we as a nation benefit from them working here. Then the question is if we want to secure our borders, then we probably need to have more realistic immigration laws.
We currently have an immigration law in effect that in my mind is very similar to the Prohibition era, anti alcohol law. Where they are violated on a mass basis, where otherwise law-abiding people do violate the immigration laws, and where there are some very severe negative consequences. Here, you have criminal elements getting involved in immigrant smuggling, you have human trafficking, you have the revival of slavery in certain parts of the United States where immigrants are forced to work particular industries–not just the sex industry, but that’s just one of the industries. I think if we want secure borders what we want to do first is come up with some realistic "admissions criteria" that more closely match the economic magnet that’s bringing immigrants to the United States. Until we do that, we will have people violating the laws, because the laws are unrealistic.
HING: First of all, the reason why I am passionate and other people are passionate in the immigration rights advocacy movement is because we understand that there are large, global economic forces, including NAFTA, that have profound effects on, again, the typical undocumented immigrant from Mexico. And how those phenomenons have visited extreme hardship on the economies of countries like Mexico, then we begin to understand why people come across that border in large numbers. Once we understand that it’s something out of their control. They can’t control NAFTA. They can’t control competition with China. Once we realize it’s out of their control, we then begin to understand why they come across that border. Yes, there is a border. Yes, there is a law that makes it illegal to enter the country without inspection. However, just like anything else, in times of understanding why people act, I think decent people begin to respect people in very much a manner that we saw during the Civil Rights Movement. People will step up and understand that these are acts of civil disobedience against laws that at their heart are emblematic of injustice, and they are properly contested. My work as an immigrant rights advocate is, in my opinion, in the vein of the Civil Rights Movement, of civil disobedience. Where we are pointing out injustices of the law that represent these greater forces that impact immigrants.
ALI: Michelle Malkin and other right wing, conservative individuals have made suggestions about illegal immigration aiding and abetting terrorism–a funnel for Al Qaeda. Bill O’reilly sparred with Geraldo last year using a story about an immigrant who committed an assault on a woman as an example of terrorism stemming from "porous borders." So, talk to me about the connection between illegal immigration and those who aid and abet terrorism.
HING: I refer to the 9-11 Commission report. There was no connection between illegal immigrants and terrorism. But, more importantly if we actually not only got to know the undocumented immigrants, but granted them legal status, we would be freeing up so many resources in this country to actually do a better job of ferreting out those people in our midst who would do us harm. We waste a lot of time, energy and money focusing on the undocumented immigration problem. We can free up those resources and start figuring out who among us, like the Timothy Mcveighs who would do us harm, and who abroad are trying to figure out ways of entering the country, or figuring out how to attack the country. Those resources would be available. To me there just isn’t any connection between the image of the typical, undocumented immigrant: namely, an undocumented worker from Mexico. Let’s be honest, that’s who we are talking about. There’s absolutely no connection between that individual who is coming here to wash dishes, or work on the farm, or work in the garden. I mean, we found out on May 1st, 2006 we found out how indispensable those people are to our survival when they went out on a day of protest. It’s insane to try to make a connection between illegal immigration and terrorism.
ALI: A lot of people say Democrats are more tolerant and enlightened regarding immigration, yet under President Clinton the statute was passed enforcing mandatory detention of illegal immigrants who commit certain aggravated felonies. Furthermore, Demore v Kim, a Supreme Court case, upheld this as lawful. So, you guys are assisting Obama’s camp. Suppose Democrats win, how will Clinton or Obama do anything different?
KJ: I think you’ve raised a very important point. In my mind, immigration isn’t really a red state-blue state, Republican Democrat issue. It’s a very complicated issue. I think I have a lot more in common with President Bush’s positions on immigration than I have with President Clinton’s positions on immigration. Some people would say that the 1996 law you refer to is one of the most draconian immigration laws passed by Congress. It was signed by President Clinton and enforced vigorously by him as well. Clinton was also the President who saw the massive growth of border enforcements, things like "Operation Gatekeeper," "Operation Hold the Line," and "Operation Rio Grande" which resulted in thousands and thousands of deaths. So, this idea that immigration is an easy Democrat-Republican issue–it’s far from that. I think that President Bush, for example, was much more sensitive to the plight of undocumented immigrants when he said we have a shadow population living under the radar screen, and we have to bring them out of the shadows.
I think a lot of people in this country agree with that and agree with the President. Now, when it comes to immigration today in the Presidential elections, I do think you have some choices to make between the candidates, regardless of whether they are Democrat or Republican when it comes to border enforcement. You have Senator McCain who at one point in time supported comprehensive immigration reform, at one point in time appeared to be more flexible on the issue, now has basically said he can’t support his old positions. He has heard the American people and believes in securing the borders first before anything is done.
You see Hillary Clinton talking the same kind of "enforcement talk" that President Clinton talks about, and backing away very vigorously and quickly from her initial stance on drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. She gets into debates saying she supports it, and then she flip flops and says she doesn’t support it anymore. If you look at Barack Obama’s immigration position, you see that he does emphasize "enforcement" as one of the prongs of his immigration policy, but he also has been unwavering in his support of drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. He has also been the only candidate who has said in a debate on national TV that immigrants have often been scapegoated for the problems in our country, and that it is wrong. He also mentioned well before the Southern Poverty Law Center Report that anti immigrant debate had led to hate crimes against Latinos, and he said that was unacceptable. He’s the only candidate who is mentioning any of those things. And I think there could come some change in his administration. It is not going to be as far reaching as some people might like, but it moves in the right direction.
ALI: Let’s be honest–how much racism and prejudice is involved in this anti immigration hysteria? Do you believe the fever pitch would be this high and volatile if these were Italians and Germans crossing the border? Do you think there would be same the amount of outcry?
HING: Absolutely not. Now, I don’t want to call everyone who opposes immigrants as racists. Because, as we all know, different people are motivated by different reasons. But, I do think that those who are outspoken, like Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, The Tom Tancredo, those people have problems with race. There’s just no doubt about it in my mind. The big evidence of that is that about 20 years ago the largest undocumented population in Chicago was Polish nationals. 15 years ago a sizeable undocumented population in San Francisco were from Ireland. We didn’t see this uproar against Poles or Irish in SF or Chicago. For the very fact they were "White" and had European roots. We just didn’t see that uproar, and I think it’s because they are not people of color.
KJ: I think unfortunately race and racism influences significantly the debate on immigration. The fact that illegal aliens is a code word for Mexicans tells you a lot about what the terms of the debate are about. I think the fact that people South of the border are viewed as racially different and by many people as racially inferior leads in no small part to their dehumanization, to attacks on them. It would be impossible for me to say that some of the anti immigration measures aren’t discriminatory and intended to be so.
In California, with Proposition 187, it’s hard to say that campaign wasn’t anti Mexican or anti immigrant. You had nightly advertisements on television showing shadowy figures along the U.S.-Mexico border with a sort of crime scene narrator saying, "They keep coming." When you talk about other initiatives like Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education in this state, you also see anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant twist. And it’s not just Mexicans although that is one of the groups. When there’s the talk of terrorists, you often see this anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiment rear its head, when people assume we have to have tough on Arab, tough on Muslim immigration laws because they are inclined to terrorism, even though there is no evidence that. The only evidence is that there is some small group of people who are terrorists, some of them who are Muslims or Arab.
I think unfortunately immigration is about race and racism and that is seen throughout American history. From the days of German immigration to Pennsylvania, where Ben Franklin complained about the Germans who were a different race and complexion. To the Irish later on, to the Japanese, to the Chinese, to the Southeastern Europeans, to Mexicans, to Arabs and Muslims today, it has consistently been about race and racism.
ALI: How will the White House and Congress deal with undocumented workers, without whom the economy, especially that of California and Texas, will most likely crash? How will the Democrats react? And the Republicans?
HING: I think it will be a sad day for our economy and our lifestyle, to be honest with you, if we got rid of all the undocumented immigrants in the United States. We really should be addressing this from the point of view of flexible Visas. In other words, let’s recognize this. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Chamber of Commerce has recognized this. We actually need workers of all types of jobs because of the changing demographics. Also, the fact that my generation, the last of the Baby Boomers, we are going to be retiring, and we are not replacing ourselves with the numbers we are going to need. So, we actually need immigrants of all stripes, of all wage ranges, and we need to recognize that we should allow these folks to come in here and work.
Now, I’m not advocating for a guest worker program. I’m advocating for a flexible visa program. Where individuals are able to come here, be able to work, bring their family, and at some point the make a decision whether they will stay or leave: say at either a 5 year point or a 7 year point. At that point, they want to decide if they want to stay permanently or if they want to return, and then they make a decision.
I talk to people from Mexico and from Asia all the time from all different wage categories, and they all say the same thing. The wealthy ones say I wish there was a way I could come in and out of the country, because I actually like living in Hong Kong or Taipei, but I also like living in San Mateo. I talk to Mexicans who say the same thing. They want to be able to come and go, they want to work and they want to contribute. But, some of them want to stay permanently, and some of them don’t. So, we have to recognize the modern age in which we live, and let’s go with the flow and get on board here and understand that there are greater forces that are at play here that we ought to go with instead of resist.
ALI: Let’s talk about the Bush-McCain plan for immigration reform, which many say was more moderate and judicious, relatively, than Bush’s other domestic policies. Why the hostility to it by Republicans? Is that plan the best option than any other the country can possibly enforce right now?
HING: I believe that in the Summer of 2007 that plan was politically the most practical thing that could have passed even though I didn’t like one provision in it that would have stripped many of the family immigration categories; in particular, that was gratuitously thrown in to be evil. But on a practical matter, I was surprised it didn’t pass. There was a lot of political will from both the White House and a lot of Republicans and Democrats to pass it.
Why did it fail? Because there is this strong contingency in the Republicans party that is rabidly racist and against undocumented immigrants, and they don’t want to do anything that’s going to help them. Anything that smells like amnesty or legalization or makes them appear to be soft on illegal immigration–that issue has been equated with that rabid wing of the Republican party that doesn’t want to appear soft on crime or soft on illegal immigration. They are also very outspoken and they were able to control the Republican party last summer just the way the religious right has controlled the Republican party on many social issues – even though they are a small but vocal group.
ALI: Suppose you get to talk to Lou Dobbs one on one about immigration. What would you say to him?
KJ: I’d say I agree with you that we need to work on our immigration system. But, I fear the kind of attacks you engage on our system, generate racism, generate fear, play on racism and play on fear. Why are you doing that?
HING: I’d say to Lou Dobbs, "Get a grip!" Your advocacy is wasting the country’s time, money and efforts. We should be focusing on real issues. You should go back, Lou Dobbs, to focus on what you did best which was talk about the economy and the fact that NAFTA needed to be questioned and the fact that Wall Street needs to be investigated. And the fact that multinational corporations are the ones that benefit from trade agreements – not the working class. That’s what you should be focusing on, Lou Dobbs.
WAJAHAT ALI is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, "The Domestic Crusaders," (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at email@example.com