On Immigration And The "Browning Of America," Dedicated To Those Who Rightly Fear Their Loss Of Position And Power

The current murmur of lament from Wilsonistas here and across the country over the perceived death-blow to white, male, conservative values and culture — by which we agree that you are to read “Christianity” into that — has, at its core, tremendous concern that the browning of our nation is now unstoppable, owing, it seems, to the re-election of that dark-skinned, foreign-born, socialist usurper to the throne of the American Presidency.

I’ll discuss the shamefulness of a Christian pastor’s lighthearted approach to the admittedly remote threat of current-day secession in a later post, although I will say that the threat of a far-Right revolt against people of color, the Federal Government, the “47 Percent,” women, and virtually everyone else not like them is far from remote.  To toss off with studied insouciance the idea that secession in this, a culturally and religiously divided 21st Century America, isn’t necessarily a BAD thing, as long as you don’t go into with hat in hand and tail tucked between one’s patriarchal Christian thighs, is the height of recklessness.

That the commentator doesn’t particularly think a divided Union is problematic is frightening.  That he’s known as a Christian pastor makes his determined contempt for the Gospel tradition of reconciliation and justice, however, utterly despicable.  But “despicable” is something Doug Wilson does easily, and the thinly veiled white supremacy and racial divisiveness evident in the comments following his secession post demonstrates that his followers have embraced the despicable as well.  Their caterwauling about their white-male loss of privilege and power has a distinctly anti-people of color bent to it.

It does make you wonder if they’re aware that the Savior they claim to worship was not a Scottish kid named Kevin O’Shaughnessy, born in Monroe, Louisiana, and raised in a nice Scots-Irish Presbyterian family.  How inconvenient our dark-skinned, Semitic, homeless, bastard-perceived Jewish Christ must be to them and to all racists, Confederates, nativists, and supremacists.

So when a friend forwarded me something I had written in 2006 about the respect and justice due to Latino immigrants for the online magazine New West, it occurred to me that words I wrote back then are even more true now:

(Originally published in New West online magazine, 2006, written by Keely Emerine-Mix, originally titled “If You Criticize Hispanic Immigrants, Don’t Do It With Your Mouth Full”):

It used to just be “the Californians.”

When Idahoans grumbled and murmured about newcomers and city slickers and McMansion builders on pristine hills, the culprits were a known commodity: Californians, those privileged sons and daughters of hi-tech who scooped up all that Silicon Valley could give them and ran to the wide open spaces of the American West. Once here, they blithely ignored our ways and standards and began to impose theirs, knowing that money and education trumps rural culture, ruining it, the argument went, for those of us who earned our livings by the sweat of our furrowed Idaho brows. Of course, we envied them; some of us, to be honest, were them — but like the next-to-last kid left in a game of tag, we called “game over” once we arrived and joined the natives in deriding those pompous, posing Californians.

Now, though, newcomers and long-term Idaho residents alike have a new group to deride — illegal immigrants, those men, women, and children who build our homes, tend our gardens, pick our fruits and vegetables, and milk our cows. They’re here, we whisper, just to soak up our benefits, use up our tax dollars, and bankrupt our cities and towns with their incessant use of social services — services to which, we say more boldly, they’re not even entitled, having often arrived without legal papers. Nothing, it seems, can unite rural natives, small-town newcomers, and urban settlers like a heapin’ helpin’ of good ol’ nativistic bigotry, and, as might be expected, Northern Idaho is no different. Idahoans have been united in the worst way possible by a group of people who lack the political power to unite themselves — illegal aliens.

By “illegals,” of course, we don’t mean “U.S.-born persons of Anglo descent who commit illegal acts,” a fact confirmed by that which it modifies — “aliens,” those who, if not actually from another planet, might as well be, so different are their customs and ways. These “illegals,” as distinguished from our own, genuine, convicted criminals, are foreigners. They’re people, usually born in Mexico or Central America, who cross the U.S. border without proper papers. The contention is that they do so to pillage and plunder our security, our way of life, and, most gratingly, our social services budget. The Californians at least buy a lot of stuff; the illegals just . . . well, they buy a lot of stuff, too, but do so only to position themselves closer to the government handout line. Or so rumbles the groundswell of anti-immigrant sentiment around us: The illegals live lives of difficulty, to be sure, but only on our dime. And only, says the nativist, because America has gone soft and weak, bled dry by those who would lance the hand it extends at every turn.

For 12 years in Western Washington, I was privileged to work with recently arrived Mexican immigrants to the U.S. Some were here with legal papers. Most weren’t. But I don’t know of anyone who didn’t work, who didn’t try to raise a family, and who didn’t try to fit in. Some made use of government services; all paid taxes into the system that provides them those services. I knew of families who were provided beat up old travel trailers to live in — with water provided by a hose through the window — and then had rent totaling nearly half their wages deducted for the privilege. Choice? Nope. Some dairy owners want their employees on site and considered this living arrangement a requirement. It certainly was a money-saver. Others trained their new workers for two or three weeks without pay, claiming that U.S. law didn’t require “paid training.” Quite a few pocketed FICA and worker’s comp deductions, leaving employees without coverage in case of an accident, and others refused to provide even simple amenities like toilets and fresh drinking water. Landlords rented one- and two-room apartments with standing water, cockroaches, and mold-covered walls to groups of men and families, then denied them their deposits for things like leaving the key on the window sill instead of the table upon vacating.

I used to eat pollo en mole every Wednesday with a family of five living in an old travel trailer. I’ve stood more times than I can count ankle-deep in cow manure pleading for someone’s paycheck. I’ve helped bail water out of the sink and bathtub of apartments I wouldn’t keep my dog in, and I’ve seen children playing in fields of effluent and living in trailers so damp that floors were reinforced with cement blocks from underneath. And, most tellingly, I’ve eaten the fruit they picked, dieted on the lettuce they pulled from the ground, drunk the milk they pumped in filthy dairies, and enjoyed the beautification they provided for my community’s lawns and gardens. And so have you.

I’m aware that hospitals, schools and, much less often, jails and prisons are suffering under the weight of illegal immigrants who require services. I’ve seen the effects of compassion fatigue from providers as well as the effects of under-funding in their agencies, and my tax dollars pay for those services. So do the tax dollars of those who benefit from our government’s ragged safety net. I’m not someone who argues for a sudden flinging open of our nation’s borders, but neither will I assume that legal immigration is accessible and simple enough for anyone with a few months and a few bucks. The people I worked with were sub-literate, undereducated, desperately poor, and had almost no power, economic or political, in their home country. The Mexican government is, without question, utterly corrupt and it of course shares the blame for making Mexico inhospitable to its own poor. Poverty breeds contempt — not just from the powerful, but amongst the poor.

Not surprisingly, but tragically, lighter-skinned Jaliscans scorned darker residents of the Durango or Coahuila, who in turn often loathed the Oaxacans, who spoke about being glad they weren’t some other, darker-skinned group. It seems that racism demands that its ugly voice be heard, even among those who suffer from its effects courtesy of the majority. And so legal immigration, while certainly preferably — and while certainly within the power of the United States to grant — is largely unattainable for those who most need relief, the poor. I’ve known a few people who immigrated legally, and I’ve known many more who arrived without papers, who were granted amnesty in the mid-80s and are now citizens with a greater respect for the responsibilities and duties thereof than most native-born Americans I know. They came the hard way, giving their all to a country that didn’t want them, and they stuck it out to become a part of that country.

I’m a witness to the struggles of those who heroically risked life and limb to make a life for themselves and their families in the United States. I’ll let God decide whether their coming here was a sin or not — and I believe the Holy One will say it’s not — but I have no hesitation in pointing out the sin of bigoted assumptions, those assumptions that attribute wrong motives to people whose motives, providing for their families, are crystal clear.  I’ve seen these heart-rotting assumptions comfort the comfortable, and work to further the affliction of those who suffer. Not all immigrants are noble or self-sacrificing; some do cross with malicious intent. But I steadfastly deny that the “malicious intent” is to work for less, suffer more, be separated from family, and live in fear solely for what the bigots say is the privilege of draining your and my benefits and bank accounts.

The hue and cry over the high cost of illegal immigration rarely comes from people who are equally vehement in their opposition to the cost of our “war” on terrorism and our “war” on drugs. It appears to echo primarily from those whose sentiments are at least somewhat in line with a nativist approach that suggests our country is being overrun by, well, you know, “them.” The symptom might be a burdened social service system (which staunch conservatives generally disdain under most other circumstances), but the disease is made clear: the evolution of the U.S. from an Anglo-American bastion of Western culture, bland Christianity and a melting pot whose broth always tastes more WASP than Tex-Mex. I would be inclined to think that the high cost of providing services to undocumented persons truly was the concern if I saw other high cost endeavors of dubious value and outcome being targeted by the anti-immigration crowd, but I don’t. It’s difficult for me to see how anyone can salute the $400 billion effort the Bush administration has launched in Iraq so far and yet feel justified in denying medical benefits and education to immigrant children. Why are they not also railing against the hemorrhage of killing debt with which we have saddled our children? The war on drugs has incarcerated even first-time drug users, bled resources from urban and rural police forces, and destroyed families all over the nation, costing billions of dollars in its execution and even more in the result of it, but I don’t hear how drug users, much less the war against them, is soaking up our benefits and bankrupting our nation.

Whatever the solution to our nation’s immigration situation, it’s time to realize that the hand in your pocket is far more often the hand of a white guy from Texas, born in privilege and steeped in avarice and corruption, or the hands of those in power around him. What it’s not is the calloused, weathered, and work-stained hand of the Mexican immigrant or her children.

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