Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, May 19, 2006

I'll be away for a couple of days . . .

but I'll leave you with this. I probably should have had more to say about this whole immigration flapdoodle before now, so here's something. I think this letter to the editor of today's Globe is quite revealing. (It refers to an earlier op-ed, so I've edited it lightly so you won't have to go back and read that essay.)

Yes, we Americans are nearly all descended from immigrants. Most of us acknowledge the struggles [of immigrants]. Most of us welcome immigrants; it is illegal immigrants we oppose.

People . . . who lump the two in one category insult our grandparents and great-grandparents who came to this country legally, endured a rigorous health screening at Ellis Island, and never dreamed of asking for welfare, unlike many of the illegals. Wouldn't he like to know that when he eats in a restaurant, the immigrants who work there have been screened for communicable diseases? And after Sept. 11, who wouldn't wish to be careful about illegals who may pose security problems?


Now, the rhetoric around this issue does tend to focus very much on the question of legality. People who are in the country illegally are "lawbreakers" and we shouldn't tolerate lawbreaking. But of course that is perfectly circular. It was once illegal for Black people to ride in the front of the bus. The question is what the law ought to be. The laws concerning immigration into the United States have changed drastically and repeatedly throughout our history. Originally there were no restrictions whatever. Anybody could just walk in. Then restrictions were imposed, motivated by racism - people worried about too many Chinese or Eastern European people coming here and polluting our culture.

This cartoon is from the 1860s.

Fear of cultural contamination is very prominent in today's anti-immigrant hysteria, of course. The Senate just passed a resolution proclaiming English to be the national language. This terror of the language of Cervantes is inexplicable to me. Spanish is the indigenous language of Puerto Rico, whose citizens are also U.S. citizens; the entire southwestern United States was once part of Mexico, until it was taken by conquest in 1849. I speak Spanish and as far as I know, that does not make me in any way dangerous to the people around me. Nobody has accused me of threatening their way of life by saying buenos dias.

The letter write is also worried about infectious disease. What makes her think that the native-born citizens working in restaurants have been screened for infectious diseases? (I am not aware of a single incident of customers catching an infectious disease from an undocumented restaurant worker in all of history.) As for welfare, I'm sorry to have to disabuse Ms. Sakellaris, but innumerable legal immigrants and their descendants have indeed received welfare. However, illegal immigrants cannot. As everyone knows, what is going on is that desperate people are coming across the Mexican border looking for work. They no perfectly well that they cannot receive welfare. It's just like the man from Fishtown told me back when I was a community organizer: They're all on welfare, and they're taking all the jobs.

Finally, Sakellaris raises the issue of security, Sept. 11, yadda yadda yadda. This is something I have a hard time imagining: Islamists terrorists decide to get into the United States by going to Mexico and then trekking across the desert. It would make more sense to do it the way they did it in reality, which is to come in on student or tourist visas. If they can't get one, it would probably be a lot easier to enter the U.S. via Canada -- which some have in fact done (viz. the guy who came through Vancouver in 2000 hoping to attack the LA airport), although none has ever, to my knowledge, tried to come in via Mexico. So why aren't people worried about the Canadian border? Obviously, the Latino immigrants who are the target of the hysteria are Christians, typically more devout than most Americans, and they certainly aren't terrorists.

Here's a Thomas Nast cartoon from 1889 depicting an Irish immigrant.

I could have shown you cartoons of Jews, and Slavs, from the same era, but that's enough bandwidth for one day. You can see lots of cartoons here.


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