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The Politics of Xenophobia

The real immigration divide is between emotions and reason

By Jarret A. Zafran, Contributing Writer

Xenophobia is sweeping the nation, and the response to the recent Democratic presidential debate has continued the pervasive focus on politics, rather than on serious policy questions.

During the debate, Senator Hilary Clinton (D-N.Y.) was questioned about her views on New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to provide driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. She had previously been quoted as saying the proposal “makes sense,” but backtracked in response to the question and added, “I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.”

The fallout of the apparent flip-flop was quite revealing of some candidates’ sentiments about illegal immigration. In addition to some Democratic candidates deriding Clinton’s “dishonesty,” Republican candidates criticized both Clinton and Governor Spitzer for the plan, with Mitt Romney saying that “it communicates to people coming to the country illegally that, with a wink and a nod, it is alright.”

Governor Spitzer’s plan involves the issuance of three different licenses. The first, for residents, would be sufficient ID for domestic flights, the second would allow New Yorkers to cross into Canada without a passport, and the third, for illegal immigrants—or, in Democratic parlance, “undocumented workers” —could only be used for identification, driving, and obtaining auto insurance.

The plan has been endorsed by Bill Bratton, the former police commissioner of New York City under Rudy Giuliani, and current police chief of Los Angeles. It also counts the support of Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism czar under Presidents Clinton and Bush.

But 70 percent of New Yorkers stand in opposition to the Governor’s proposal, and Democratic state senators and congressmen in the Empire State are bailing from Spitzer in droves. In swing districts, seeming even moderately pro-immigrant can be the kiss of death.

Anti-immigrant and English-only advocates are really just exploiting people’s economic anxieties and distrust of others. If the majority of the illegal immigrants were of European ancestry or spoke English, the amount of xenophobic rancor that has been infused in the debate would be drastically reduced.

Certainly, anti-immigrant fervor has been a staple of American political discourse for much of the nation’s history. The influx of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants in the early part of the 20th century was met with a great deal of ill will, and the existence of racist laws in our past and the popularity of quasi-nativist candidates like Pat Buchanan certainly reflect a similar “anti-other” attitude. In the past, however, xenophobia has largely been relegated to a portion of the Republican base. Today it seems to have crossed party lines. When Republican Presidential candidate Tom Tancredo says things like “[immigrants] are coming here to kill you, and you, and me, and my grandchildren,” we must wonder if this latest incarnation of anti-immigrant feeling is more intense and widespread than ever.

This increased anti-immigrant sentiment is largely a product of a feeling that Hispanic immigrants are less likely to assimilate to “American culture.” But at the heart of the entire debate are competing concepts of national identity. For some it means Christian values, English language, and little identification with any specific ethnicity. For others it only means shared values of freedom and justice. Yet, this again, misses the crux of the issue. The truth is that there never has been a “typical” American. We are a nation of many faiths, colors, and ethnicities, and we are strong, not in spite of it, but largely because of it.

The intense emotions on both sides of the immigration debate have obscured the pragmatics of the situation—the matter at hand is finding a solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Those who deal with the realities of immigration on a day-to-day basis, like governors of the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California should be the model for how we approach the issue. It’s no coincidence that they all oppose the border wall, and yet two are Democrats and two Republicans. Despite dissimilar political ideologies, they all understand that a wall is not the solution.

The reality is that deporting 12 million undocumented workers is unfeasible. Putting them on a path to citizenship is the only responsible plan, but when President Bush tried that—although his bill certainly had its flaws—a good portion of the country stood vehemently in opposition. But if we ever hope to find a solution, now is the time for voters to shed their xenophobia and confront harsh realities.

Jarret A. Zafran ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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