Is there still room for the ‘huddled masses’?

Mid-term elections: a missed opportunity to debate the role of immigration in America today.

Alex Standish

Topics Politics

With the 7 November mid-term elections for house representatives and senators rapidly approaching, one issue that the electorate is not being given the chance to vote on is immigration reform. With some 12million largely Hispanic illegal immigrants seeking work and local services in numerous urban and suburban areas across the country this has been a subject on which almost everyone has an opinion. Yet, while this has been a hot topic at local level and in the media, Republicans and Democrats are giving mixed messages, and no clear policies have been tabled, leaving voters devoid of an opportunity to vote on reform at the polls.

In the first months of the year, there was much discussion of how to address the question of the illegal immigrants currently residing in the US. March and April saw hundreds of thousands of pro-immigration demonstrators on the streets of many urban centres, as well as some significantly smaller anti-immigrant protests. After the spring recess, the Senate appeared to have reached a ‘compromise’ deal putting the majority of the illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, at least those who could prove residence in the country for at least two years. They would also have to pay back-taxes and learn English. Even the President threw his not-so-mighty political weight behind the proposal in a televised national address. The legislative process stalled as Republicans instead opted for a series of citizen forums around the country to better gauge public opinion, or at least buy them some time.

Clearly the issue has divided the Republican Party into one camp that is against any sort of amnesty for immigrants and the more pro-business lobby who want to formalise employment of undocumented workers. Further, Republicans and Democrats have come up against much opposition in their home states to any sort of amnesty. The only legislation that Congress could manage to agree upon was to authorise the construction of a 700-mile fence on the US-Mexico border, although even this reportedly lacks teeth, being open to local interpretation and may involve some ‘virtual fencing’ in places (1).

So what have we learnt from all this? Firstly, that the leadership of the country has completely failed to offer political guidance on this issue. While the likes of Bush and Arlen Specter (author of the original Senate proposal for legalisation) can be at least praised for pinning their colours to the mast, the absence of wider agreement has led Congress to pull back from tabling a clear path forward. Without a consensus on immigration, the mid-term election presented a perfect opportunity for a national debate to clarify the issues at stake. Yet, congressmen have shied away from utilising the democratic process to clarify how the nation should move forward with reform.

Locally, people are concerned about undocumented workers undercutting the local labour market, driving without licenses and using public services without paying taxes. Finding a way to legalise immigrants and formalise day labourers would resolve much of this tension. But beyond this, the immigration topic raises broader questions. In particular, what is the meaning of being an American citizen today? When there is such a weak sense of national purpose and pluralism, what exactly is it that immigrants would be signing up to? This weak sense of nationalism no doubt contributes to people’s fears that the country is being over-run by immigrants who have no desire to assimilate, or little to assimilate into. There is also a discussion to be had about the meaning of America’s borders today. Eleven years after NAFTA both Canada and Mexico’s economies are highly integrated into that of the United States. Wouldn’t it also make sense if labour could also freely cross these borders as it does in the European Union?

Politicians have whole-heartedly balked at such important questions, or at least will only consider tightening border controls, while offering only confused messages about how they might move forwards with immigration reform if re-elected. Instead, political discussion has been bogged down with the ins and outs of congressman Mark Foley’s relationships with congressional pages (see Foley’s Follies, by Kevin Yuill). This has left people’s concerns about immigration to simmer below the surface, although voters could and should create new political forms of organisation to express their ideas given how redundant both parties have become. No wonder the approval rating for Congress is at a fourteen-year low – just 16 per cent (2).

Secondly, with issues such as immigration it is becoming much clearer that politicians and the public no longer fit into the old political framework of Democrat and Republican. It is not only Republicans that are at odds over immigration. While the leadership of the Democratic Party in Washington DC has supported the legalisation of immigrants, there are reports that in some states, including Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina, Democrats are desperate to present themselves as tougher on immigration than Republicans (3). Again, this is the antithesis of political leadership: cowering down to message your constituents want to hear rather than standing by your principles, trying to win the argument and ultimately being held to account at the polls.

Finally, there is clearly a strong anti-immigrant current to this whole debate. While this might not be so surprising in more historically traditional nation-states such as Britain or France, in a country that was founded and built by immigrants this parochial viewpoint is decidedly un-American and very worrying. Although I am a firm believer in a completely open door policy for all national borders, I have some sympathy with those who see an amnesty for immigrants as an erosion of the social norms and customs of a nation they take responsibility for. I can understand them wanting to protect the social system and demand that immigrants have respect for the laws of the land. However, many of those who are calling for illegal immigrants to be deported seem to be motivated by a desire to keep the US to themselves: that it is the immigrants themselves that are the problem. The bipartisan agreement on tightening the border with Mexico echoes a similar sentiment.

In my local town of Danbury, Connecticut, there have been many calls to toughen-up on undocumented workers. A few weeks ago federal officials lured eleven undocumented day labourers into the back of a van, presumably with the offer of work. They were promptly arrested and most of them face deportation. While there have been some smallish demonstrations calling for their release, this tough attitude towards immigrants is welcomed by many in what is traditionally one of the most liberal U.S. states. Similar stories from around the country help to explain why illegal immigrants are no longer on the streets protesting. Instead, they live in fear of the state.

With such a weak sense of what it means to be an American today, non-English speaking immigrants who stick together and ‘impose’ upon quaint suburban America are being seen as a threat to this way of life. Surprisingly, a number of students I teach subscribe to this conservative perspective, one that might usually be associated with older generations. Certainly, many of them are taken-in by arguments that too many immigrants will overburden the system, taking jobs and services from law-abiding Americans. Few people consider the potential of additional labour to add to the wealth of a country.

It’s worth repeating the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem The New Colussus, now inscribed on the pedestal wall of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

It would seem that many Americans today hold a different view. While Congress might well pragmatically opt for a guest worker program leading to citizenship once the messy business of re-election is out of the way, the question should be posed: will the future of the US still include immigrants? For sure, this election will not be the place to decide.

Alex Standish is assistant professor of geography, Western Connecticut State University.

Read on:

spiked-issue: USA

(1) In Border Fence’s Path, Legislative Roadblocks, Spencer Hsu, Washington Post, 6 October 2006

(2) Approval of Republicans at a Record Low: Poll, My Way News, 18 October 2006

(3) In Some States, Democrats Are Sending a More Conservative Immigration Message, Rachel Swarns, New York Times, 17 October 2006

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Topics Politics


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