This immigration business is giving the country a split personality, true political schizophrenia. Everybody is divided in weirdly unforeseen ways on what’s right and what’s wrong and what do we do about it. Even “The Star-Spangled Banner”—Spanish version—has split people who ordinarily cleave together. The President hates it, but his Secretary of State finds it mildly groovy. Then there are those millions of us who cannot sing it in English but might give Spanish a try if it would help.
Non-Hispanophones were irritated, to say the least, at those Mexican flags flapping in the streets being carried by persons who ought to be picking grapes, but the selfsame people who get prickly when they see the “Se Habla Español” signs and hear people doing it on sidewalks are often pro-immigration. Everybody’s schizy and inconsistent, and everybody is reminding everybody else that America is a nation of immigrants, which turns out to be a premise from which you can argue any conclusion from let ’em all in to keep ’em all out.
Many of us who may be for giving ’em the boot make an exception for our personal illegal immigrant. My own favorite illegal is Max (name changed for obvious reasons), a man who snuck in from Germany many years ago and does superb carpentry, equally good plumbing and electrical work and can also fix your car, even Japanese models. Recently Max found himself trapped in a Southern city trying to get back to New York and having a rough time doing so because they were asking for official ID’s with photographs at the bus and train stations.
Max’s Spanish-speaking confreres have been responding to similar pressure by suddenly making themselves known in a new way. They have been marching in the streets and making fiery speeches in which they have been demanding the right to be legalized. For some people, such a demand is tantamount to a person breaking into the house and then claiming a right to the silverware. If the polling is correct, this line of reasoning is a tough sell. It would be more politic and also more reasonable if, instead of demanding a right which is clearly not theirs, they were asking a privilege which we must grant them.
However, when fear, anger and indignation get loose, the niceties get lost. The immigrationists and their friends are steamed up and marching.
The large numbers of people in the streets are proof, if any were needed, that the illegals and their relatives are ardent for change. Their shadowy status makes it easy for some employers to exploit them and, to a greater or lesser degree, prevents them from enjoying the opportunities and services full-fledged citizens take for granted. We know their motives, but why are they out in the streets now? Why not last month or last year?
For that we have F. James Sensenbrenner, a musical-comedy Congressman from Wisconsin, to thank. He is the author of the bill that would make being an illegal a crime punishable by a year and a day in jail. It would do much the same with anyone giving succor or employment to an illegal. The Congressman is a Midwestern isolationist—that is, one who is isolated from reality. You must be out of your mind to believe that this government, which could not render help to a few hundred thousand New Orleanians, is capable of rounding up 11 million (the lowest estimated number) illegals, putting them on some form of transportation and shipping them home. Don’t make me laugh. Even George W. Bush, a man with an unblemished record of failure to execute any program or policy, has stepped back from this one.
Nonetheless the bill, though it has passed in the House, has no chance of becoming a law. Presumably the yahoos who voted for it did so thinking it could be used as a fulcrum to lever the harshest possible provisions out of the forthcoming conference-committee tussle with the Senate and into the final bill. It didn’t occur to them that what they had done was to give a heaven-sent organizing opportunity to the medley of interests who want the borders down Mexico way kept open and unsealed.
They frightened those thousands of people into the streets. Or do they believe that Spanish-speaking disc jockeys really are able to bring people out in such numbers? Till now, disc jockeys—regardless of the language they shout into their microphones—have been unable to bring out a group of more than a few hundred teenage screamers to make a fuss over a singer or movie star.
People with money and organizational know-how saw their chance to make a major move using the Sensenbrenner bill. Other than emotion, something extra has been added to the cause which was not there before, namely money for organizing, buses, gas for cars, placards, banners, phones, media relations, etc. There is no such thing as a spontaneous demonstration: People do not see something on TV or read it in the paper and congeal into a massive demonstration unless there is a centralized organization. So who put these marches together?
Among others, organizations like LULAC (the League of Latin American Citizens) and the Roman Catholic Church have been very active. The church is concerned lest the Protestant evangelistas make off with the plumpest chickens in their flock. Doubtless many Catholics also see this as helping the downtrodden, which indeed it is—but there are other not so visible, non-immigrant downtroddens in this picture.
The presence of 11 million–plus illegals is having a large, though hard to measure, effect on wage levels in many industries. The Pew Hispanic Center (pewhispanic.org), an independent and reliable organization that keeps watch on immigration, says that illegals “were 24 percent of all workers employed in farming occupations, 17 percent in cleaning, 14 percent in construction and 12 percent in food preparation industries.”
If these huge percentages of illegally present workers were not in the American job market, you can bet your bippy that the wage structure at the bottom of the American economy would look very different. Were the Mexican-American border to be closed to unauthorized persons for three or four years, it’s a safe assumption that there would be no need to clamor for raising the minimum wage.
Of course, it follows that a lot of things which people above the minimum-wage level now get on the cheap would cost more, perhaps even a lot more. Besides outfits in the big, corporate Wal-Mart category, people who hire cut-rate gardeners, nannies, motel maids, practical nurses, dishwashers, handy men and so on don’t want this source of labor cut off. They have little interest in seeing legislation passed which changes the status quo. Even conferring some sort of semi-legal standing on illegals would make it somewhat more difficult to avoid paying them, if not a living wage, then at least a higher wage.
Nevertheless, the closing-off of illegal immigration would be a boon for teenagers seeking work, people without college degrees, miscellaneous redneck dropouts, plus a couple of million African-American males—youths and grown-ups. (African-American women are in better economic shape.) This side of the equation gets less airtime, since the people in this category have no powerful organizations behind them.
El Presidente, as conflicted as anybody because his hard-core Republicans hate amnesty, is backing amnesty by another name while hoping a promise to close the borders will get him off the hook with his angry rank and file. Hence, a few weeks ago, the well-advertised raid on IFCO Systems, an industrial-pallet manufacturer, netted almost 2,000 illegals. It’s an ancient police con game: call up the reporters and arrest somebody while they watch and put it on TV. The Drug Enforcement Administration and your local police department have made a way of life with such showy, inconsequential raids/publicity stunts.
There are, according to the Census Bureau, 296 million people currently living in the United States—and more are arriving by the minute. As we are beginning to run out of fuel, drinkable water and breathable air, either we must do something soon or America is going to get dirtier, drier, wetter, colder, hotter, poorer, uglier and very, very overcrowded.
But that’s for the kids to think about. You climb into your overpowered automobile and tell the Hispanic to gas it up, stick an American flag on one fender and a Mexican flag on the other, and drive off as though you were living in 1958.
Follow Nicholas von Hoffman via RSS.