Tuesday, January 15, 2008

2007 DMN Texan of the Year: The Illegal Immigrant

Interesting piece. Why is the Texan a "he" by the way and why is it presupposed that Texans don't know how to live with or without "him?" The use of the masculine pronoun makes Mexican males—all of them—bogey men who must be feared and controlled.

Also, not knowing how to live with "him" is so untrue from a historical perspective. Rather, the antipathy to "him" occurs in cycles. Heck, we can easily live with "him" when we want to exploit "him," use "his" labor, and dispose of "him."

And Mexican Americans and lots of Anglo and African American Texans know what it is to co-exist and in some instances, really embrace Mexicans' language and culture. This framing troubled me. For Mexican Americans, relations across the border are also so alive, deep, and rich—no wall can erase these. I see this piece with its framing as attempting to establish a symbolic wall that harms rather than furthers the goal of sound policy formation.

Dra. Valenzuela

07:44 PM CST on Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007 DMN Texan of the Year: The Illegal Immigrant

He is at the heart of a great culture war in Texas – and the nation,
credited with bringing us prosperity and blamed for abusing our resources. How
should we deal with this stranger among us?

He breaks the law by his very presence. He hustles to do hard work many
Americans won't, at least not at the low wages he accepts. The American consumer
economy depends on him. America as we have known it for generations may not
survive him.

We can't seem to live with him and his family, and if we can live without
him, nobody's figured out how.
He's the Illegal Immigrant, and he's the 2007 Dallas Morning News Texan of
the Year – for better or for worse. Given the public mood, there seems to be
little middle ground in debate over illegal immigrants.

Spectacular fights over their presence broke out across Texas this year,
adding to the national pressure cooker as only Texas can.

To their champions, illegal immigrants are decent, hardworking people who,
like generations of European immigrants before them, just want to do better
for their families and who contribute to America's prosperity.
They must endure hatred and abuse by those of us who want the benefits of
cheap labor but not the presence of illegal immigrants.

Especially here in Texas, his strong back and willing heart help form the
cornerstone of our daily lives, in ways that many of us do not, or will not,
see. The illegal immigrant is the waiter serving margaritas at our restaurant
table, the cook preparing our enchiladas. He works grueling hours at a
meatpacking plant, carving up carcasses of cattle for our barbecue (he also picks
the lettuce for our burgers). He builds our houses and cuts our grass. She
cleans our homes and takes care of our children.

Yet to those who want them sent home, illegal immigrants are essentially
lawbreakers who violate the nation's borders. They use public resources –
schools, hospitals – to which they aren't entitled and expect to be served in a
foreign language. They're rapidly changing Texas neighborhoods, cities and
culture, and not always for the better. Those who object get tagged as racists.

Whatever and whoever else the illegal immigrant is, everybody has felt the
tidal wave of his presence. According to an analysis of government data by the
Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, Texas' immigrant population
has jumped a whopping 32.7 percent since 2000, a period in which immigration
to the United States has exceeded, in sheer numbers, all previous historical
eras. Half the immigrants in the state – 7 percent of all Texans – are
estimated to be here illegally.

Though many would agree that the status quo cannot be sustained – more
illegal immigrants arrive each year than legal ones, a sure sign that the system
is a joke – neither Texas nor the nation seemed nearer in 2007 to resolving
this complex crisis. We can't deport 12 million people who already live here,
but we can't leave our back door open indefinitely. Compromise comes hard
because the issue is tangled up with the most basic aspects of everyday life,
down to the core of what it means to be American.

This essay cannot put a name or a face to an illegal immigrant, because that
would subject him to possible deportation. Because he lives underground, the
illegal immigrant becomes, in our rancorous debate, less a complex human
being and more a blank screen upon which both sides can project their hopes and
If illegal immigration were an easy problem to fix, the nation wouldn't be
at an impasse. In the current atmosphere, it seems, reason doesn't stand a
chance of digging us out. Ask Irving Mayor Herb Gears, a man once denounced by
anti-immigration activists for running what they called a "sanctuary city." He
then found himself targeted by Hispanics because of the city's participation
in a federal deportation program.

"One week I'm a traitor, the next week I'm a patriot," laments Mr. Gears.

The mayor says he just wants to respect both people, and the law. His
exasperated manner seems to ask, Why can't you do both? Good question.

The economy

If there are jobs in America, Latino immigrants will come, no matter the
risk. And why not? They may be at the bottom of the economic ladder here, but
they're making about four times, on average, what they could back home.

Antonio, a waiter at a North Texas restaurant, was an accountant in Mexico.
He and his wife thought they could make more money in Texas, so they came

"In the time I've been here, this country has been very good to me. I am a
responsible person. I pay my taxes. I pay my bills on time – utilities,
mortgage. I pay federal taxes, too," he says.

Antonio resented any suggestion that he should consider returning home or
that illegal immigrants don't belong here. He seemed to regard his presence
here as exercising a right.

Workers like him find support among business owners – especially in Texas
industries dependent on unskilled immigrants, like agriculture and
construction. They say that without those workers, they couldn't survive.

Marty owns a North Texas construction company. He has come to view American
workers as undependable, lazy and arrogant, while he finds illegal immigrants
motivated and reliable.

"I'd rather employ them than Americans," he confides. "In my line of work, I
need the Mexicans, and I am for them being here. I need them because I can't
find anybody else to do the work."

(Both Antonio and Marty asked that their last names not be disclosed to
prevent repercussions.)

The importance of immigrant labor to Texas was underscored this year with
formation of a new political alliance – big business and the Legislature's
Mexican-American caucus. They threatened to cripple the lawmaking machinery if
legislative leaders allowed a slate of "anti-immigrant" bills to advance. The
tactic worked.

It's unclear from the data whether illegal immigration is a plus or minus
for the nation's economy overall. Harvard economist George Borjas reports that
it's more or less a wash. On close inspection, Dr. Borjas, a leading expert
in the field, found that immigration's financial benefits accrue to those at
the upper end of the economic scale, who can buy labor and its fruits at a
lower cost, at the expense of those Americans at the lower end, whose wages go

"There is no such thing as a job that natives won't do," Dr. Borjas, an
immigrant from Cuba, wrote last year. "Instead, there are jobs that natives
aren't willing to do at the going wage."

The state comptroller's office had a different take on Texas, reporting in
2005 that illegal immigrants provided a net economic boost of nearly $18
billion that year. While state government took in more taxes from illegal
immigrants than it paid out in services for them, the comptroller said, the opposite
was true for Texas' local governments.

Nationally, a Congressional Budget Office report released this month said
illegal immigrants cost more in tax dollars than they provide, especially in
the areas of education, law enforcement and health. Indeed, 70 percent of
babies born in Dallas' Parkland Hospital in the first three months of 2006 were to
illegal immigrant mothers. Taxpayers spend tens of millions of dollars
annually subsidizing births in that one hospital.

Texas schools are filling up with students classified as of limited-English
proficiency, many of whose parents came here illegally. The number has
reached more than 30 percent of Dallas students, 36 percent in Irving and 16
percent statewide.

Hispanic immigrants are more likely to be poor, but they don't stay that
way. The Hispanic poverty rate has dropped 30 percent since 1994, census data
show. At 20.6 percent, that's significantly above the national average of 12.8
percent. But Latinos are undeniably upwardly mobile. Besides, if you want to
see what happens when Latinos leave, look at the business losses in Irving
since the city's role in the federal deportation program sent a chill through
the Hispanic community.


Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, when asked what his
constituents were talking about, said, "Immigration, immigration,
immigration." GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee, born again as an immigration
hard-liner, told The New Yorker this month that wherever he campaigns,
immigration is the first thing voters ask about. "It's just red hot," he says, "and I
don't fully understand it."

John McCain does. Voters are worried, he told the magazine, that illegal
immigrants make a mockery of law and the idea of sovereign borders, as well as
upset social norms.

"They see this as an assault on their culture, what they view as an impact
on what have been their traditions," Mr. McCain says. "It's become larger than
just the fact that we need to enforce our borders."

Once the GOP favorite to win the nomination, the Arizona senator set back
his campaign this summer by supporting President Bush's call for comprehensive
immigration reform. A revolt at the grassroots scuttled that plan in

Democrats have felt the political whiplash, too. Hillary Clinton, for one,
abandoned her support of a New York proposal to issue driver's licenses to
illegal immigrants. Most other Democratic presidential candidates fell in line
with her.

The political tap dance is trickier in Texas, owing to the 1,300-mile border
with Mexico and community ties across the divide. Many local officials
bitterly objected to Congress' plan to fence off long stretches of the Rio Grande.
Gov. Rick Perry ultimately said "boots on the ground" and not a hard barrier
was the answer to keeping out illegal immigrants. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison
and John Cornyn put forth a measure to ease up on mandatory double fencing
if locals have better options.

At the local level, Farmers Branch voters this year approved a local ban on
renting to illegal aliens, a move later blocked in court. Despite accusations
of racism ("They are so prejudiced, but they don't want to face it," local
business owner Elizabeth Villafranca says), and despite the judge's order,
City Council member Tim O'Hare was defiant at year's end. Says Mr. O'Hare, "I
only wish we had done this earlier."


It's easy to say, as many immigrant advocates do, that opposition to illegal
immigration derives from racist sentiment, because that's undeniably part of
the mix. But the culture clash is a lot more complicated.
Illegal Hispanic immigrants are usually Third World peasants who have moved
to the First World. They go from a country with sharp class divisions to a
middle-class society.

In earlier waves of immigrants, millions of new arrivals left processing at
New York's Ellis Island with the expectation that they would adapt fully and
deliberately to American norms – the melting pot, rather than the salad bowl.
The post-1960s movement toward multiculturalism has made the nation more
tolerant of ethnic and cultural differences, but it has also lessened the
impetus for immigrants to conform.

"Mexico is radically, substantively, ferociously different from the United
States," Jorge Castañeda, formerly Mexico's foreign minister, observed in

It was a period of turmoil, with NAFTA newly inaugurated, a rural uprising
in Chiapas and a growing gulf between social classes.

He described Mexicans trying to embrace an American-style work ethic, while
others remained glued to a "mañana" view of life, reinforced by low pay, low
self-esteem and an inability to penetrate Mexico's rigid class system. Many
Mexicans lost hope and sought a better life in America.

Rural Mexicans have dominated the migrant wave, bringing a country-style
sense of time and priorities. For Americans, a transfer of Mexican rural culture
to our neighborhoods leaves many feeling overwhelmed. The fear of cultural
overload is manifested in sights like Spanish-language billboards or large
quinceañera parties in public parks. Schoolteachers find it incomprehensible
that, for some reason, immigrant students often disappear for days and suddenly
return with the expectation that the teacher should catch them up.

"Certain Mexicans can subscribe to a series of rules, from traffic
regulations to work discipline and punctuality; others can decide, consciously or
otherwise, that they prefer not to," Dr. Castañeda wrote.

Illegal immigration exacerbates the natural tension in American society by
injecting more change than can be absorbed – and by defying laws designed to
control the rate of change. When immigration restrictionists protest defiance
of "law and order," they reveal anger at the cultural revolution Latino
immigrants bring – a revolution many U.S. citizens feel powerless to stop.


Harvard's Samuel Huntington, one of America's most eminent political
scientists – and a liberal one – has argued that the immigration wave stands as
"the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional

In his 2004 book Who Are We?, Dr. Huntington identified several factors that
set current Hispanic immigration apart from previous episodes in U.S.

Most immigrants are Latino and come over a border, not an ocean. Roughly
half of these are illegal. Assimilation is slower, writes Dr. Huntington,
because the immigrants "remain in intimate contact with their families, friends and
home localities in Mexico as no other immigrants have been able to do."

The scale is unmatched, he argues. Since 2000, more immigrants (10.3
million) have arrived in America than in any other seven-year period, according to
the Center for Immigration Studies' recent analysis of census data. And in
contrast to previous waves of immigration, this one shows no signs of letting
up, according to Dr. Huntington.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Some of Dr. Huntington's critics
point out that the rate of immigration (as distinct from sheer numbers) is not
as high now as in previous eras, which ended with successful assimilation of
foreign-born populations.

Besides, though the current immigration flow shows no signs of abating, the
Mexican GDP is growing and the national fertility rate has plummeted by
almost two-thirds since 1970. That birth rate is nearing the level at which Mexico
would need to retain workers for its own economy, thereby shutting off the
spigot of immigration into the U.S.

As for assimilation, Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center,
points to social-science data indicating that Hispanic immigrants are, in fact,
assimilating as fast as immigrants of previous generations. They learn English
quickly, and, once they acquire proficiency, they adopt American cultural

One other observation of Dr. Huntington's has particular resonance in Texas:
The current wave of immigrants has had disproportionate impact on the
Southwest. And as the majority of them are from Mexico, they are now settled in
areas that used to belong to their ancestors.

Attempts to draw a sharp line between mainstream "Anglo" (for lack of a
better term) culture and Hispanic culture is a distortion of the reality we live
with in much of Texas, and always have. The border between the two Texan
cultures is as porous as the border between Texas and Mexico, which is one reason
why our experience with immigration differs from much of America's.

Texas culture reflects the long list of towns with Spanish names. What's
more, in a great swath along the border, most cities are run by those with
Spanish surnames, too. Today's immigration wave has carried a different version of
Hispanic culture to Dallas and other major population centers. And in this
increasingly urbanized state, the dominant Anglo culture has felt a rub like
never before.

Though towns and cities nationwide have felt the rub, too, it hasn't been on
the Texas scale. Leaders in Farmers Branch and Irving were reacting to
complaints of runaway community transformation brought on by illegal arrivals.

As 2007 began, the isolated Texas Panhandle town of Cactus was still reeling
from the arrests of nearly 300 people at the local Swift & Co.
meat-processing plant, the community's economic lifeblood. Dozens of Mexicans and
Guatemalans were prosecuted this year for using stolen Social Security numbers to
work at the plant.

The town had come to resemble a kind of renegade outpost of illegal
immigrants that wouldn't exist in non-border states.

The future

Everything's bigger in Texas, and history and geography guarantee that the
immigration problem is no different. And many issues are flaring sooner here.
What Cactus, Irving and Farmers Branch are dealing with today, the rest of
America may be dealing with tomorrow. Texas, which will be majority Hispanic by
2020, and the nation face an unprecedented challenge that we can't dismiss
with gauzy platitudes, nor defer meeting indefinitely.

How Texas – and, by extension, the rest of America – reacts will be unlike
how previous generations handled immigration, given how the nation has
changed since the 1960s. Fair or not, core American culture and values have become
a popular punching bag. Some have cheered that as refining the American
character by embracing diversity, inclusiveness and empowerment of ethnic and
other minorities. Others worry that America risks losing itself in the process,
especially if it gives up on securing the borders.
Historians say that the distinctly American democratic and middle-class
ideals grew out of a specific cultural tradition – the Anglo-Protestant. Changed
slowly over time by immigrants from the world over, it's now challenged by a
strong competing culture.

If critics are correct, we could be seeing the advent of the kind of
fractiousness that bedevils public life in Canada and other nations where peoples
who speak different languages, and come from different cultural backgrounds,
live together only with mutual suspicion and unease.

On the other hand, perhaps the alarmists are wrong. Maybe these ambitious,
hard-working immigrants, whatever their documentation, will write the next
great chapter of a story that's still deeply American, though with a different
accent. If the optimists are right, much work remains to be done to
incorporate all immigrants fully into new cultural traditions.

We end 2007 no closer to compromise on the issue than when the year began.
People waging a culture war – and that's what the struggle over illegal
immigration is – don't give up easily. What you think of the illegal immigrant says
a lot about what you think of America, and what vision of her you are
willing to defend. How we deal with the stranger among us says not only who we
Americans are today but determines who we will become tomorrow.

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