What is behind the intense interest in the recent immigration debate?
July 18, 2007 7:03 AM   Subscribe

What is behind / has triggered this recent American obsession with its immigration issues/problems?

On my way home last night from work, and as I often do, I was flipping around the talk channels of Sirius looking for some meaty topics of debate. In nearly every place I stopped on the dial, including both NPR and the BBC channel, the discussion was about the immigration debate in the US.

In my 40 years on this planet this topic has come up and receded into the background many times (probably in 10-15 year cycles), but I have never quite seen it like this. What has precipitated this recent obsession with it? It is a wedge issue, but this not being an election year, I'm puzzled. And even though the bill was defeated, what is keeping the issue in the media spotlight? Why does this need to be addressed so urgently, in a way that some other pressing issues do not?
posted by psmealey to Law & Government (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
1. GOP knows that lots of their support is soft-core racist

2. Ugly, ridiculous war of imperialism doesn't go very well

3. GOP sends out talking point on "immigration" to stir up its racist supporters

4. Years of warnings about "terror" give people who generally wouldn't be so crass another justification to act nervous about border situation

5. Takes on a life of its own.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:22 AM on July 18, 2007 [5 favorites]

First, to clarify, any controversy I have heard about is not over immigration, but rather illegal immigration, which is vastly different. And illegal immigration is an increasing problem. Many issues reach a tipping point where they can no longer be ignored, and illegal immigration seems to have reached that point.

I don't know if there is a definitive answer as to "why now?" Perhaps it's like having a bad tooth. You can ignore it for a while; sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn't. But eventually it gets to the point where it can no longer be ignored. Maybe illegal immigration has reached that point.

Someone will be along soon to say it's all about politics, and of course there is truth to that. It's an issue that can help candidates get elected, so it's going to be discussed. It's also an issue that sells papers and advertising. Issues can be a vicious cycle: the more we tune in to shows that spotlight the issue, the more the issue will be covered. The more the issue is covered, the more important it seems, and therefore we become more interested. I predict that after the next presidential election, it will fade into the background somewhat.

But illegal immigration does seem to be a problem that needs a solution.
posted by The Deej at 7:25 AM on July 18, 2007

It's largely a way from taking debate away from the real "most pressing issue" of our day, which is US involvement in the Iraq War.

From what I can tell, the GOP have turned their electoral campaign politics to immigration issues (on which they are viewed as strong) from the war (on which they are taking immense heat). As the media tend to follow the GOP on issues (at least from what I've seen in the past decade of media-watching), the media have absorbed the current political frenzy are are turning it into a media frenzy.

Now, having said that, it is absolutely true that immigration numbers, particularly lately are at the highest levels they've ever been. In the so called "golden era" of the US (1925-1965), we averaged about 180k new immigrants a year. 1965-1990 it crept up to around 500k a year. 1990 to present, we're average 1 million a year (and, in some circles, they suggest that's approx 1 million legal, and another 1-2 million entering illegally).

Why the sudden focus? Perhaps the anti-immigration forces are right in that we've never seen waves of people coming into the US, through legal means or not, in the present volume.

I think perhaps the big alarm signal for some is/was the fact that Hispanics (who make up 85% of immigrants) just crossed the threshold (circa 2004-2005, but possibly sometime earlier) where they now outnumber African-Americans. This makes for an immense shift in the demographics and electoral politics of this country.
posted by The Giant Squid at 7:30 AM on July 18, 2007

Please note that if thousands of Canadians were illegally crossing the border, it would not been seen as a crisis.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 7:35 AM on July 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think The Deej is wrong, and that this is all about immigration full stop. This is not to say that The Deej feels this way.

Holding up illegal immigration as the problem is usually just a fig-leaf over plain old-fashioned xenophobia. The phrase "illegal immigration" does not, as it is actually used, mean "immigration into the US that happens to violate law." It si code-talk for "immigration of spics and maybe chinks."

This is about keeping out different-looking people who cook with funny spices and speak terrifying languages that Ma Whitebread doesn't know, and who want to steal our women with their swarthy ways. It also taps into fears among low-wage relatively unskilled workers that they're going to steal their jobs instead of doing yard work like the Lord intended.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:37 AM on July 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

Here's a theory: 7 years of Republican control in Washington has slashed federal funding for government social programs -- Medicaid, education, child-care, hospitals etc. Localities across the nation are feeling the pinch, especially localities with large (partly illegal) immigrant populations. Their schools and emergency rooms are getting more overcrowded by the day, the federal government isn't doing anything to alleviate the crisis, and local governments are looking for someone to blame. Those brown guys standing in front of the Home Depot make an easy target, even though the situation is much more complex.

Local governments are pushing their reps in Washington for answers and solutions, and it's easier for Congress to make noise about walls and security and keeping more brown people out, than to admit we need tax hikes to fund our over-stressed social programs. (Many of which, yes, are stressed by illegal immigrants. And many of which are simply stressed by under-funding, mismanagement, and other regional demographic changes.)

Local social services crisis = increased immigration debate
posted by junkbox at 7:47 AM on July 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Immigration is one of those useful issues that pops up during election cycles (and yes, in early 2007 we were already in an election cycle). It's not really a resolvable question without fundamental changes to our current society that neither party is willing to make, but people on both sides feel very strongly about it. This gives politicians the opportunity to look like brave tough talkers to their base ("We're going to put up a 500 foot wall all around the country!" "we're going to naturalize everybody who's been here two weeks!"), without having to worry about following through when elected. It's a dangerous game (see also: abortion), but it gets the punters to the polls.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:48 AM on July 18, 2007

Same reason why gay marriage became a hot issue in the last election. Republicans are crafty; they play on people's prejudices to get them to vote against their own economic interests.
posted by emd3737 at 8:07 AM on July 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Mayor Curley has it spot-on. A related "issue" is english as the official language. There's really no point other than to bring out the soft-core racists and get the media talking about something other than the war.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:09 AM on July 18, 2007

Holding up illegal immigration as the problem is usually just a fig-leaf over plain old-fashioned xenophobia. The phrase "illegal immigration" does not, as it is actually used, mean "immigration into the US that happens to violate law." It si code-talk for "immigration of spics and maybe chinks."posted by ROU_Xenophobe

Absolutely true for some people. No question about it. (And hey, you are the Xenophobe! Says so right there in your name!)

One of my lifelong flaws is giving people too much benefit of the doubt. I would love it if the issue was and is about illegal immigration, without any xenophobia. Of course that's not true. Whether it's true for the vast majority of Amurrican White People... I hope not, and I seriously doubt. And I can tell you that it's not true for anyone I hang out with, who tend to be right-leaning, but I don't hang out with racists.

There is of course more focus on Mexican illegal immigration than Canadian; because it's way more of a problem, regardless of skin color. There is no talk of a Canadian border fence, because there are not tens of thousands of Canadians sneaking across the border. They live in a great country with plenty of opportunities and a wonderful quality of life. Mexicans are not crossing the border because they want to hang out with all the White Amurricans; they are doing it because they see a better life for themselves, even as an illegal, than they have by staying in Mexico. I have no clue how easy or difficult it is to legally emmigrate from Mexico, and whether the Mexican government or the US government places obstacles. But obviously, many Mexicans feel it's worth risking arrest or even death to come to US illegally. If I were in their shoes, I may well do the same thing, if legal means were not an option.

I work in a Federal Building in Montana, one of the whitest areas in the country. Citizenship ceremonies are regularly held in the court in my building, and people of all races and colors are sworn in as citizens. I have not once seen or heard anyone say a bad thing about it. In fact, meeting one of these people in the building, seeing the ceremony, or even seeing the Marine color guard come and go from the building the day of the ceremony leaves most people speechless with reverence and perhaps with a tear or two in their eye. I have never seen a protest or demonstration the day of these ceremonies. They happen all over the country, every day, and you will never see a protest or a complaint from anyone besides the KKK or ignorant racists.
posted by The Deej at 8:33 AM on July 18, 2007

War On (Of) Terror.

The ideas behind US government are based largely on property rights. Letting others freely enter what was 'justly' acquired from previous inhabitants (not-believing-in-ownership-of-land-'savages') is seen as a violation of our 'God-Given Right' to ownership.

Not to mention it’s not that hard to move a company 30 miles from southern California to Mexico to avoid the ever-increasing pollution laws and minimum wage requirements.

Are you aware how difficult it is to become a legal citizen? An exclusive club such as this one is bound to foster some resentment among the less-well-off-suicide-bomber types.

See also:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Sorry if a little off topic, this question was bound to stir up some kind of shiat
posted by Gregamell at 8:36 AM on July 18, 2007

they play on people's prejudices to get them to vote against their own economic interests.

While I certainly don't approve of politicians playing off of people's irrational prejudices to get their vote, I also find the suggestion that people ought to just vote in their own economic interest disgusting. If we're going to go that route, why not just drop all pretense and condone outright vote-buying?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:43 AM on July 18, 2007

Let me clarify...by "economic interests," I mean to include things like minimum wage, health care, student loans, social security, etc. My observation is that many people who would benefit from the Democratic position on these issues vote Republican based upon social issues, like the fact that they don't like gays and foreigners.
posted by emd3737 at 9:08 AM on July 18, 2007

I'm by no means lacking in cynicism, but I find it hard to believe that the machinations of Karl Rove and his right-wing ilk are fueling the intensity of the recent debate. Several reasons:

-- Unlike popular wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage, the Republican party is far from united on the issue of (Mexican) immigration. Pro-business Republicans are clamoring for an influx of cheap labor into the US. They benefit from paying low wages to illegal immigrants, and they're pushing for MORE legalized immigration, not less. The xenophobic elements of the GOP may be loud and obnoxious, but the pro-business side has money and influence that the rednecks lack.

-- In addition to the pro-business Republicans, Bush & co have spent years courting the Hispanic vote. Hispanics are (generally) Catholic and socially conservative; as their numbers grow, so does the number of socially conservative, potential Republican votes. Alienating the Hispanic community isn't in the long-term interests of the GOP.

-- Bush's recent immigration legislation was a political disaster. It pissed off his Bible-thumping, jingoistic base (according to one article, the RNC closed down their solicitation phone banks because donors refused to give money unless Bush got tougher on illegals), and it didn't satisfy the pro-business, pro-immigration side either. It was a weak attempt to bridge the gap on immigration in the Republican party (a gap that also exists in the Democratic party, but it's less wide and of less importance to either of the Democratic sides). Carrying on about immigration for another 15 months until the election doesn't seem like a winning strategy, especially after Bush's big misfire.

Yes, illegal immigration is a wedge issue -- a wedge right through the middle of the GOP. If this is the Republican party's silver bullet for distracting America from the Iraq War and winning in 2008, then they're in even worse shape than I thought.
posted by junkbox at 9:30 AM on July 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

I fail to understand how anyone can say that the Berlin wall was bad and evil, while at the same time saying that the Juarez wall is a good thing.

Well, maybe because the Berlin wall was built by East Germany to keep its people IN.
posted by The Deej at 9:32 AM on July 18, 2007

The vast majority of the United States' population has lived with widespread immigration for decades, given the fact that 83% of the country lives in one of the 361 Census-defined metropolitan areas^, which are naturally places where the most jobs and money are, and where immigrants would naturally gravitate.

But in the exurbs and outermost suburbs, many of which didn't exist even 10 years ago and are both some of the fastest growing areas of the country, immigration is new and unexpected in two ways:

First, the people who are leaving cities and older suburbs are heading out to communities where they might subconsciously assume that undocumented immigrants won't be able to live, either because of the price of houses, or the distance from the city, or a presumption that because there's no public transit, it would be hard for a poorer immigrant to get there. These people might also come from an area where Hispanics have their neighborhoods, schools, churches, and stores, and non-Hispanics have their neighborhoods, schools, churches and stores.

Second, one can imagine that the people who lived in a now-suburban, previously-rural area before large-scale development arrived have lived with a certain equilibrium and social order that may have been set up for generations, with few people leaving or entering the community, and now they see their Way of Doing Things under attack, be it by hearing more Spanish in the one grocery store everyone shares while the new über-center is being constructed, or not getting the jobs building all those new houses and stores because contractors choose to go with lower-priced undocumented labor.

So both the new sub/exurbanites and the "native" people who lived in these communities before are shocked that undocumented workers - who are providing the labor, especially in construction and food service, that's making the community prosper - follow people out to outer suburbs and exurbs.

I don't know if I'd call it racism, though I'm sure racism plays a role here; perhaps we can say that two powerful groups of people - the original "owners" of a community and the wealthy transplants who are transforming it - really didn't expect what's happening to happen, and don't know how to react to it. Look at the taco truck bans in New Orleans and Salinas; both towns are trying to desperately avoid some imagined future of destitution by trying to drive mostly-Latino-owned small businesses out. The fact that locally-earned money is changing hands, and that people are keeping that money in town, instead of spending it at the next chain restaurant which is sending the money off to some corporate headquarters somewhere, seems to be lost on folks who just don't like change.

David Brooks, in his book On Paradise Drive, claims that George W. Bush won the 2004 election because of exurban populations, which have little or no connection to an urban core - and the issues Democrats (ostensibly) are more known for working on, like unionization, welfare programs, health care, and urban poverty. But given how much the Administration (and the federal government as a whole, really) has alienated people in the last 6 years, it's not surprising that politicians are stirring things up on the immigration debate, because it gets the attention (and money and votes) of exurban folks in ways that don't happen in more diverse, urban, older cities and suburbs.

(And the crazy thing is that I bet the children in many of these communities - the kids of the folks there before, the new suburbanites, and the undocumented people - are all probably taking Spanish, the most popular non-English language taught in American education.)
posted by mdonley at 10:07 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Please note that if thousands of Canadians were illegally crossing the border, it would not been seen as a crisis.

What you're saying isn't true, but I'm sure my friend who was deported to Alberta would be quite comforted to hear it.
posted by oaf at 10:08 AM on July 18, 2007

Let me clarify...by "economic interests," I mean to include things like minimum wage, health care, student loans, social security, etc.

So did I. I stand by my original point.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:13 AM on July 18, 2007

(just a guess)

Construction is one of the industries that is most adversely affected by illegal immigration. Unlike the bicycle courier and dishwashing jobs that nobody cares about, construction jobs typically pay well and are often seen as a stepping-stone to a middle-class life. Right now, some very unfortunate things are happening in the real estate space, and one of the effects of this is a slowdown in construction. So now, you have a bunch of people scrapping over the few jobs in construction that are left, and *SURPRISE* some of them have chosen to play the immigration card. I would say this is more due to self-interest then racism.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:14 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think Afroblanco has a point. And not only a slowdown in construction, but the fact that cheaper labor is a factor.

I don't blame the Republicans for this. My husband (who is a local Party Chairman) actually worked in the fields alongside undocumented aliens years ago when he was young and broke. His take is that we need to help the good folks who are here and keep the bad folk from coming in.
posted by konolia at 10:45 AM on July 18, 2007

Perhaps there just isn't much else to talk about? Everything else is boring, or going nowhere fast.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:53 AM on July 18, 2007

1. Open border + terrorism: Do you think the same people who smuggle desperate Mexicans across the border would mind taking money from a terror cell to smuggle people or weapons through?

2. The very very ugly way in which this bill was being shoved through when a majority of Americans hated it: The politicians are normally able to conceal their contempt for their constituents, but it became glaringly obvious during the debates--particularly with Bush calling people racist because they didn't like his bill.

#2 is the one that really has people worked up this time. It isn't often that we get to see how ugly politicians really are, and their behaviour probably did significant harm to their cause.

(And for the record, I'm pro-immigration. But that bill was a stinker.)
posted by happyturtle at 11:13 AM on July 18, 2007

Aside from a vague abstract feeling that maybe people are dying over there, Iraq really doesn't have any damn impact on the average American. They might know some kid who's in the national guard, but that's about it.

However, you can see more brown people all over than ever before— people care about what's close to them. And now places like Indiana are finding themselves having to confront all sorts of cultural problems that they've always felt were the province of border states. When my racist relatives in the area surrounding South Bend found out that whole small towns were being taken over by hispanics, they finally agreed that "something had to be done."
posted by klangklangston at 11:45 AM on July 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Maybe it's belated reaction to the Zimmermann Telegram.

My top annoyances about this issue:
  1. Unless they're Native American, the average American is descended from immigrants.
  2. People that complain about immigrants are happy to benefit from their labor and the reduced costs in groceries, landscaping, etc. The US economy is built on these people's backs.
  3. Bitching about Mexicans moving to a part of the United States that the US stole from Mexico.
  4. Shameful abandonment of the principles on the Statue of Liberty.
  5. Racism sucks.

posted by kirkaracha at 1:27 PM on July 18, 2007

How often do you hear "They're taking our jobs!" Now mess with that a little: "What happened to the (good) jobs?" And a little more: "Where did the jobs go?"

If you can turn the blame for our economic changes to "(illegal or legal) immigrants took our jobs!", you can happily ignore that the good manufacturing jobs have, themselves, emigrated. And you can get your guilty racist and xenophobic tendencies a nice workout at the same time, and you get to play with fearmongering about terrorism.
posted by dilettante at 2:48 PM on July 18, 2007

it might be that immigration is in the news now because it's increasing and causing a demographic shift. conveniently, this is happening at a time when the governing party needs a decoy issue.

nafta and us farm subsidies have conspired to damage mexico's agricultural industry. war, corruption and SAP programs are causing ever-increasing poverty in central america. the economic ideologies of western countries are creating the immigration pressure that their citizens now complain about.

i think there's a bit of poetic justice in it, really.
posted by klanawa at 11:02 PM on July 18, 2007

Response by poster: "They're taking our jobs!"


Thanks for the responses, everyone. Pretty insightful stuff here. I was thinking that there was some incident that spawned this whole debate, but it seems equal parts undeniable demographic shift and manufactured political crisis.
posted by psmealey at 5:06 AM on July 19, 2007

Perhaps: The debate isn't more intense than any of the other cycles in your forty years, it's just that you didn't have satellite radio to flip through and hear the debate rage on. You probably didn't read as many newspapers as you do listen to radio stations, for example.

Alternatively, the proliferation of accessible media has actually cascaded the debate to a greater level. Since everyone is talking about it, everyone will talk about it.

(To wit, the iPhone iPerboles.)
posted by prophetsearcher at 7:36 AM on July 19, 2007

« Older Baseball hitters and time out   |   How do I set up a training calendar? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.