Immigration’s Challenges Are Old, and Brand-New

Lou Dobbs, who has his own somewhat idiopathic show on CNN, hovers somewhere between avuncular and grandfatherly. Beneath his good manners and kindly ways, however, there is a steely man who has hobbyhorses to ride.

One of his horses, which he has been astride for several years, is an immoveable opposition to “wetbackism,” although he would never use this frowned-on term for illegal or undocumented immigrants. He’s a big supporter of the Minute Men Project, the endeavor by a group of volunteers to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border to catch illegals in the act of crossing and report them to the U.S. authorities, who are supposed to come, scoop them up and toss them back over onto the other side. It goes without saying that many people look on the Minute Men as being but two steps away from a lynch mob.

Mr. Dobbs is also a severe critic of Washington’s manifestly feeble efforts to make sure that wetbacks don’t get to dry off on American territory. Gracious though he is in manner, Mr. Dobbs doesn’t hesitate to say that the anti-terrorism program is more or less of a joke if every Tomaso, Ricardo and Harry can and does la-de-da into the United States on a scale so large that whole sections of Old Mexico are in a state of advanced depopulation.

Mr. Dobbs makes an effective case, not only by repetition but by providing his viewers with an endless stream of unhappy and unfair incidents arising out of the illegal presence of those people-another phrase much frowned on in a time when, if the choice is between being sensitive or telling the truth, truth loses. Yet, with all his telling presentations and all the millions of his fellow citizens who agree with him, Mr. Dobbs, the Minute Men and their allies are no closer to their goals than they were when they started.

With all the electronic equipment, the costly delays at airports, the multibillion-dollar anti-terrorism bureaucracy, anybody with a half a brain who cares to bring himself and a ton of marijuana or a dirty bomb or 50 kilos of cocaine or a truckload of suicide bombers into the United States can do so with great ease and little risk.

The Republican Party, which runs the country, is irremediably divided on the question of stopping illegal immigration. On the one side are the religio-cultural Republicans, who are menaced by immigrants and their slovenly, foreign and incomprehensible ways and who see them, often accurately, as competitors for jobs who push wages down.

On the other side are the money Republicans who want cheap labor. President Bush, who is a money Republican on this issue, disagrees with his fellow religio-culturists. He says that the immigrants are doing jobs that native-born Americans won’t do. He is wrong. He would be correct if he were to say that the immigrants are doing jobs that native-born Americans will not do at immigrant wages. Pay people enough in money and celebrity and you can get good-looking, college-graduate men and women to eat worms and live in filth, as those reality-TV shows illustrate. No, this is a question of money, of paying low wages on construction jobs, in slaughterhouses, chemical plants, hospitals, and in your home and garden.

None of this is new: The people already here have been saying much the same things about the people wanting to get here for nigh on two centuries. In times past, with a few inconsequential exceptions, within 40 years of their arrival, the new people had learned to resemble the native-born and were declared Americanized, meaning they were so thoroughly decomposed that they were no longer lumps in the melting pot.

How well the past is a predictor of the present, we shall see. There are some important differences. Most of the past immigrants have been one brand of Christian or another, with the exception of a certain small percentage of 19th-century Germans and Czechs who were well-organized, anti-religious, agnostic anti-clericals. In due course they died out, leaving only one group of non-Christian immigrants-Jews. How well the Jews have been accepted by American Christians, and whether or not, taken together, they are (or are not) still-discernable lumps in the pot, would take some study to decide.

But no study is needed to say that this one non-Christian group, successful as it has been, hasn’t had an easy ride, and it certainly hasn’t had the same kind of ride that members of the other immigrant groups have had.

What about Muslims? If Christians have had their reservations about Jews, whom they have sometimes looked on as strange, Oriental and irreconcilably different, at least Christians and Jews lived together-if not happily, then closely-in Europe for centuries. They knew each other of old. That’s not so of Muslims, who in this moment of superheated religionism are foreign exotics. Synagogues don’t stand out on a street; mosques do. Christians and Muslims dress differently and have no history of successfully living together in Europe. Just a few years ago in southeastern Europe, in Bosnia and Kosovo, Christians and Muslims were killing each other with barbaric energy. Who can say if goo-goo stuff like sensitivity training will soften up Christians and Muslims to become more than nominal Americans together?

Of course, Hispanics are coming by the millions. The non-Hispanics like the cheap labor, but they hate the language and fear these newcomers are going to take over simply by virtue of remaining Hispanic, by not learning English, by not internalizing Anglo-American principles of politics and law, and by maintaining and growing a world of their own. Similar fears were felt vis-à-vis German speakers in the latter part of the 19th century.

There are some important differences between then and now. Then, the German-speaking lands of Europe were a long way off, and it was too expensive for most to return on the kind of visits that keep loyalties, cultural practices and the Teutonic mother tongue fresh and strong. For many a Mexican, the motherland is but a walk across a bridge, and for other Hispanic people, it’s a quick and inexpensive ride on a jet.

A hundred years ago, the foreign-language press and theater were important, but its wallop was nothing in comparison to satellite TV. Nor did the ties which bound to the motherland then consist of anything as powerful as cheap telephone contact. The discount phone card is as much a staple of immigrant neighborhoods as are native foodstuffs.

In the 1890’s, the last thing the federal government would have thought of doing was to encourage immigrants or native-born ethnics to stay politically active in their ancestral homelands. Today, it’s done routinely. The best-known examples are Cubans and Cuba and Jews and Israel, but that’s only the beginning. Americans of Iraqi extraction were asked to vote in the recent elections there. Americans of Serbian, Georgian, Albanian and Ukrainian derivation have been politically active in the lands of their ancestors. Jewish groups are the best known for campaign donations to influence American elections in favor of pro-Israeli policies, but they’re hardly alone. Many dual-national-interest groups do it to the best of their financial abilities, and although such things happened in the distant past, it was never on the scale and never the permanent thing it is now.

A century ago, men of Woodrow Wilson’s stripe scorned what they often called “the hyphenates” or “hyphenated Americans,” (i.e., German-Americans or Irish-Americans). A century ago, it was made clear that you would get nowhere around here if you didn’t speak English and acquiesce in the dominant Anglo-Saxon, Christian culture. If you couldn’t find it in you to become a Christian, you could take on most of their coloring, as did the Jewish Germans. Diversity wasn’t celebrated; it wasn’t even really tolerated, except in such mild forms as German and Czech Pilsner beer, the hot dog, the Christmas tree and the pizza pie.

These days, you’re something of a schmuck if you’re not a hyphenate. The most American of Americans, the people who used to call themselves Negroes, are now African-Americans, although it would be hard to invent a more attenuated connection with an ancestral land. But invent people must, because they would feel left out if they didn’t have a dual identity of some kind to boast of.

Hyphenatism or call it what you will is also spreading thanks to free-trade policies, which not only abolish the barriers associated with stand-alone nationalism but carry the United States into curtailing some of its sovereign powers. From time to time, we see an angry but impotent American Congress watch the World Court issue decisions that the legislators detest but can’t do anything about.

When you look at all that’s happened in this area of the national life, you have to ask if we are crossing the threshold into a world political system. It isn’t world government, but it isn’t national government either. It has no charter, no constitution, but it is there, growing, developing and shaping the world.

Has American sovereignty been vitiated in ways not foreseen, ways which have proceeded to a point that they are past being controlled or regulated? Certainly not in the mechanical sense, since laws could be passed to change the direction of things, but it’s unlikely that the political foundations exist to do so.

So Lou Dobbs will continue to make his plaint against wetbackism and its consequences. Millions will agree with him, but not enough millions and not politically organized millions. And America will continue going in the direction it’s going, heading for who knows where.

Immigration’s Challenges Are Old, and Brand-New