September 8, 2006


Those dirty immigrants? Don’t buy it.
by Patrick Dobson

Immigration, as an issue, is a recurrent theme in American history, generally coming out of the closet about the time our attention needs some distraction from real issues.

Let’s review some American history:

  • In the 1890s, the nation fell into a depression. Instead of dealing with the growing inequities arising from industrialization, whites and their politicians turned on immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, blaming them for everything from the rapidly changing culture to the loss of white racial hegemony.
  • During the Great War, Kaiser’s kin was a convenient scapegoat to fan the home fires. The mustachioed Hun cutting our throats in our sleep was a hell of a lot easier to blame than dealing tough cultural, social and political realities of a world stitched together with international trade, industrialization and immigration.
  • In the 1920s, immigration as an evil took our attention from the solidification of the government/corporate state at the detriment of labor. Chinese were excluded, the scope of immigration from everywhere but England and northern Europe was narrowed, and then Congress and the President Taft took after Japanese and Mexicans.
  • During the Great Depression, the government deported 15,000 American citizens who happened to be Hispanic from southern California. It was part of a larger anti-Mexican sentiment stoked mostly by Western corporate growers that had become jealous of Hispanic family farms as the trade in citrus, grain and grape became more lucrative.
  • In 1942, the government approved internment camps for Japanese-Americans in California, and wealthy white farmers and corporations wind up with their property. (Meanwhile, the governor of Hawaii told FDR to piss off and Japanese on the islands lived through the war largely unscathed.)
  • In 1947, the U.S. began importing Mexicans for seasonal work with the Bracero program, which lasted nearly 20 years. As the nation’s involvement in Vietnam grew, not so coincidentally, in a fever of brown-skinaphobia, Johnson ended the program with the whisk of a pen although thousands of Mexican laborers and their families, and many hundreds of Americans, had come to rely on the program and its firmly established migrant patterns we have become so familiar with today.

The point is, really, when immigration comes out of the bag something else is wrong.

After a decade of fear mongering with overgrown government, moral values, family values and gay marriage, the Republicans landed on those dirty Mexicans. Last year and earlier this year, immigration suddenly burst on the national stage through the portals of reactionary talking heads and irate congressmen and governors, generally Republican, as the number one problem facing the nation.

First, I smell that fatal American neurosis, racism, being inflated to manipulate Americans, who, for all their attributes, still harbor race fear. After all, the immigration problem in America usually revolves around complexion. When the Bush administration couldn’t deflect attention from a rotten shooting war, over-anxious national security agencies and conservative politicians denying civil rights in the name of making us safe, Mexican kids going to public schools became a national threat.

Second, it seemed easy to pound on people who had no voice and no vote. After all, hadn’t they violated law? Taxed local health care and public services? Didn’t they take jobs from Americans?

The problem, of course, was that most of Americans knew some of those dirty Mexicans. We worked with them. They were friends, family and close acquaintances. We knew undocumented workers paid sales and property taxes that pay for the local services allegedly so taxed by their presence, despite the fact they couldn’t vote.

Moreover, the people on television and in the newspaper, as well as the bloggerheads complaining about Mexicans taking jobs weren’t usually Americans whose jobs have been lost to immigrants. They are well-off white people. Yet, Americans weren’t losing jobs in the big picture to immigrants. Bush’s recent bragging about low unemployment seems incongruous when millions of jobs have allegedly gone to undocumented workers.

So the immigration thing didn’t stick too well. But with little else to distract us from increased opium production and growing anarchy in Afghanistan, and a sad war that’s exacerbated ethic and sectarian strife, and will likely wind up in revolting civil conflict, those Mexicans are at it again.

What’s most disturbing about the present immigration bogeyman, however, is how many of Democrats have bought into it. Republicans have couched the latest election issue in terms of who can be toughest on immigrants, build the longest wall and put most troops on the border. Americans have genuinely come to believe Mexican immigrants present a problem even while cultural and social conditions have not changed from six months ago. Democrats trying to win hearts and minds have cynically catered to this belief, no matter how shaky the ground on which it stands.

As long as immigration distracts Americans and we let it, the Republican administration and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress don’t have to make the humane decision to pay living wages to American workers, deal with a health care system that — for all the bluster about how advanced it is — doesn’t deliver, and cutting the government/corporate bonds to deliver human services to the poor and left out.

Think about this a moment: If health care keeps chugging along broken, insurance companies can depend on not having to compete against each other on price and service but keep increasing margins on their separate and often unequal risk pools. American workers still have to compete against one another in a corporate controlled and manipulated labor market. Corporate control of and dependence on a beneficent government for and by them never comes into question. Period.

The threat isn’t immigrants — people who work and pay taxes and deserve to send their kids to the schools they help pay for. Instead, it’s political cynics and demagogues that represent those who stand to benefit from our distraction from real issues. They are, in fact, the real threat to American culture, society and economy.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at


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