Monday, May 3, 2010

Immigration narrative in fragments

I'm not a huge fan of polling, mostly because I'm a writer and I don't like the way questions are written most of the time. Of course, that didn't stop me from looking the results of the latest NYT/CBS poll, mostly on immigration.

I'm very interested in the kind of narrative Americans are cobbling together about the issue of illegal immigration and about Latino immigration generally. Most Americans probably start by thinking about it through the popular historical narrative that's been written into the story of the nation: of European immigrants who came to escape repression or seize better opportunity, worked incredibly hard, assimilated fully (but maybe keep their food), and rose in status. But the echoes of other historical narratives survive as well: the ignorant and unskilled who come merely to soak up the low-wage demands of American industrialists; the inherent racial difference of newcomers, which propels political corruption, crime, urban filth, disease, and all sort of other vices.

That positive narrative is a product of post-World War II America. Even it was not enough to overcome resistance to (legal) immigration reform until the Civil Rights Era. In time for the Bicentennial, it morphed into the rediscovery and celebration of Ethnic America, captured in all its whitewashing grandeur by the song that served as the theme for Neil Diamond's remake of The Jazz Singer, (complete with its own blackface scene, no less): "America." This seems by far to be the preferred narrative when Americans consider the immigrants in their own familial histories.

Other people's families may be another story. Only a third of the poll's respondents believed that the US should "always welcome all immigrants." Twenty-seven percent said the US shouldn't allow any new immigration at all. And the headline of the poll was that a majority of those polled supported Arizona's "show me your papers" law.

It's clear from all the hand-wringing about the meaning of the Arizona law that we know those other immigration narratives less worthy of a sing-along moment are out there. Progressives have (I think very justifiably) pointed to the similarities between the law and older regimes of racially-based immigration restriction. Conservatives have defended the law as a necessary enforcement act standing in the place of an absentee federal government, an argument that's not merely about race but about controlling an inexhaustible flow of desperate and very cheap labor. But I still don't think we really know what's actually happening in the broader public on this issue.

Take, for example, the poll's question on whether or not the nation should keep legal legislation at its current level. How many Americans know what that level is? I had to google it: 1.13 million persons became legal residents in 2009.

The rest of the poll is simply too polite. It asks whether or not respondents believed racial profiling would follow in the wake of the law (majorities say yes) but didn't ask them if they thought this was a bad thing. Almost all of the rest of the poll asked about the economic and government services impact of illegal immigration. The only question that even hints at the potential underlying racial aspects of support for the bill came in a question about the bill's impact on crime, and only as one part of the vague (and untrue) social ills unchecked illegal immigration may cause.

While it's proper to connect the sentiment behind the Arizona law to the broader swirl of racial and xenophobic ideas at play in the Birther and Tea Party Movements, this contemporaneity is not a sufficient explanation for the law's passage or its popular support. Belief that the United States is an Anglo-Saxon nation, or a white nation stretches back to the our very first naturalization law in 1790. In a post-Civil Rights Era America, however, this kind of opinion is, to put it mildly, passe. While its easy to cherry pick examples of when conservative immigration opponents tap into it, we need a more systematic plumbing of its depths. Instead, the current debate emerging is largely one about legal and governmental process, of how to distinguish between law breakers and law abiders and of a failure to enforce what in reality is unenforcable short of Soviet-styled construction solutions.

Let's set the issue of immigrants' legality in entering the country aside for one moment and discuss more important and uncomfortable issues. How many Americans believe still that race is a critical factor in American national identity and that immigration from non-European nations undermines its "culture," "values," or "traditions" -- words, I believe, are merely code for "whiteness." Americans at the turn of the twentieth century struggled mightily to reconcile the desire to integrate immigrants into the nation with those immigrants' perceived racial difference. What are the contours of that struggle today, now that race-based theories of social organization are discredited? The only hint we get from this poll is that 32 percent of respondents believe illegal immigrants should be summarily deported -- a solution as impractical as it is inhumane.

In light of the coming demographic change for the country in this century, when "minorities" will become its plurality of residents, these questions are of vital importance. If we are to overcome those more sinister narratives about immigration in our national experience -- and all sing along with Neil -- we need a more honest and open examination of the strata of American public opinion.

1 comment:

  1. Trying to pin down support for a pluralist nation is a far more interesting and elusive question than tracking support for immigration, I agree. I would like to think that support for this pluralist vision of America has grown over the years, but perhaps I'm just being Whiggish.