Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?
— Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) by Woody Guthrie
“You think change is the goal? Really? You’ve been doing this way to long to believe that.”
— Homeland Security official Cynthia Foards to covert operator Matt Graber in Sicaro 2: Day of the Soldado.
When I was in college, I spent breaks and summers driving a glass truck for an outfit in La Cañada, California. I picked up glass at commercial plants and delivered to job sites across the L.A. Basin, in an ancient four-speed flatbed Ford with no radio and no AC. It was a great job. Every one of those glass plants was staffed almost entirely by Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans. They piled eight deep into Chevy Impalas and drove halfway across L.A. for the privilege of working their asses off in front of tempering furnaces in the summer L.A. heat. I reckon most of ’em were illegal.
When I think of immigrants, that’s who I see.
Immigration across the U.S./Mexico border is perhaps the most intractable issue in all of American history. Woody Guthrie wrote Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos) recounting the deaths of 28 braseros — legal migrant farmworkers — in a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon in California. They were being deported to Mexico. That was 1948. And it goes back way further than that — back to gunrunning, cross-border raids and a major refugee crisis during the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20; back to tequileros smuggling booze into the Prohibition-era U.S.; hell, it goes back to the 1840s, when the border moved south at gunpoint and crossed thousands of Mexicans.
There’s absolutely nothing new about the immigration controversies roiling the nation.
It’s hard to solve a problem as big and complex as illegal immigration along a 2,000-mile border. It’s impossible when nobody wants to be honest about the myriad impacts of generations long migration across that border.
President Donald Trump hinged his improbable campaign on the issue, kicking it off with a flamethrower: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us (sic). They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
The specter face-tattooed MS-13 gangbangers flooding like a horde of orcs across an open border is red meat for the activist base on the political right. The moral panic is impervious to challenge on the data — which doesn’t correlate increased crime with immigration, legal or illegal. It is also impervious to the cruel impact of a “zero-tolerance” policy, which we watched play out in recent weeks.
If the nation is faced with an invasion, no tactic is off the table.
The right also tends to forget that it is the business community in the U.S. that creates the demand for cheap labor that drives most (but not all) of the migration.
As Tom Russell asked — eight years before Trump’s election — Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?
Meanwhile, the political left tends to ignore or downplay the very real impact of illegal immigration. Trump painted with a broad brush dipped in the nastiest kind of nativist bile, but one doesn’t have to be “anti-immigrant” and certainly not racist to acknowledge that there are people coming to this country illegally it would be better to keep out.
The left also elides the fundamental fact that people who cross the border illegally are, in fact, breaking the law. If America is not a nation of laws, we’re not anything at all.
The “good people” whom I believe surely make up the vast majority of those coming here from Mexico and Central America seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness create a significant burden on the social safety net in high-immigration states. There are impacts in emergency rooms, in schools, and on highways where uninsured illegal immigrants create a cost burden on the rest of us. Those impacts are real, and they are significant.
Everybody knows that the U.S. needs comprehensive immigration and border security reform, but defining what that looks like seems to be impossible. And part of the reason for that is that for too many politicians and activists, change isn’t the goal. Illegal immigration is a “good issue” for both the right and the left — a club with which to beat each other in the tribal war that has come to define American politics.
The right gets to portray the left as pro-criminal, enabling the “infestation” of the nation by dangerous “animals,” while the left gets to portray the right as inhumane and/or racist. After the impressive upset primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Queens, New York, the Democratic Party is falling over itself to jump on the Abolish ICE bandwagon, demonstrating yet again that a slogan is better than a policy.
Fixing the problem — as imperfect as any such fix will inevitably be — would cost both sides a wedge issue, and that ain’t good politics. And politics — where appearances are all important and effectiveness is often irrelevant — is what is driving the immigration “debate,” and has been for decades.