Monday, March 12, 2012

The Common Clay of the New West

I'm grateful to the Facebook friend who passed along this image today, for confirming what I'd long suspected: at least some, and probably many, of the vocal opponents of "illegal immigration" can't tell the difference between legal and illegal immigrants. In their eyes, all immigrants are illegal.

The giveaway was the part about "a tax free business for 7 yrs". According to, versions of this claim have been circulating in the US since at least the 1960s:
In Miami, it's Cubans who are said to be getting all these government goodies. In Detroit, it's recently arrived Arabs. And all over the U.S., Asians are rumored to be getting those tax breaks, free shoes, new cars, and interest-free loans.
All those groups are legal immigrants. Hostility toward Latin Americans, which long predates the rise of undocumented workers from south of the border, has more to do with their accents than their immigration status. (And it's not irrelevant that white Americans have treated Americans of African descent as undesirable aliens all along.) Snopes also reports that the same rumors circulate in Australia and England; I'd bet they turn up in non-English speaking countries too.

The part about driver's licenses is also false: only two states, Washington and New Mexico, issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Nor are these free gifts: applicants must pass the normal test requirements to get a license; LA Police Chief Charlie Beck, who advocates licensing the undocumented in California, says as much, and that such licenses "should differ from those granted to citizens: 'It could be a provisional license, it could be a nonresident license.'" This also indicates that the real target is immigrants, regardless of their status.

I've quoted before this excerpt from Harvey A. Daniels. Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983):
In Chicago, during the Christmas season of 1978, twenty-six Spanish-speaking people were killed in a series of tragic fires. Many of them perished because they could not understand the instructions that firemen shouted in English. When the city promptly instituted a program to teach the firefighters a few emergency phrases in Spanish, a storm of protest arose. "This is America," proclaimed the head of the Chicago Firefighters Union, "let them speak English." A local newspaper columnist suggested, with presumably innocent irony: "Let's stop catering to the still-flickering nationalistic desires to perpetuate the Latin heritage." The city's top-rated television newscaster used his bylined editorial minute to inveigh against the Spanish-teaching program in the firehouses.
Americans living and working in other countries have no obligation to "learn the language", of course, because they're Americans. (Americans who are good at languages, and are interested in learning them, are widely regarded as freaks or traitors.)

I challenged my friend on this material, and she freely agreed: "How do you tell the difference, they look the same. Just catch them at the borders. Employers need to screen better." She added, "I could use some target practice." Notice that: you can't tell the difference between legal and illegal immigrants, they look the same. (But different from "real Americans," I guess.) As I just pointed out, even legal immigrants (and descendants of people brought here generations ago by force) will be the target of campaigns of lies, alleging that they get privileges that "real" Americans are denied.

There's a lot more wrong in that image, of course: the implication that the US should adopt North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan as our role models; the fact that people killed at those borders are not immigrants looking for work -- often they're suspect as spies or terrorists, which (contrary to the American racist propaganda) is not true of Mexicans coming north. (Just sticking with Korea, the North and South are still in a state of armed truce, unlike the US and Mexico; and they have a long history of mutual infiltration for sabotage and assassination.) And, of course, immigration, legal or illegal, has nothing to do with the American debt: that's more a product of our own penchant for illegally invading other countries to get their oil.

The crowning irony is that the United States wouldn't exist if not for immigrants, legal or otherwise. Much of our westward expansion involved white settlers who moved illegally onto land that belonged to Indians by treaty, and then demanded that the government ratify their theft. Texas was stolen from Mexico by American immigrants, which I guess is a good argument against letting Anglos onto any land anywhere. If my friend and other nativists really cared about legality, they wouldn't need to augment their complaints by spreading racist propaganda.