14 December 2007:

Ryan Lizza on "the Republicans' Anti-Immgration Frenzy," in The New Yorker.

"You've got to do what's right, OK?" he told me. "But, if you want to succeed, you have to adjust to the American people's desires and priorities."

Thus John McCain rationalizes his buckling on immigration, to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. Mr Lizza's piece in this week's issue, "Return of the Nativist," goes a long way toward explaining something that has been a mystery to me — and I'm not happy about clearing it up. Why are so many Americans so vocally insistent on a clampdown on immigration? There has always been a loud anti-immigration chorus in the Southwestern states, but now the issue seems to have gone national. Well, so have the immigrants. No longer confined to the Southwest or to the big cities, Latin-American migrants now pop up in every corner of the country, ready to do the jobs that the locals deem infra dig — and to do the job for less. As a result, old folks in the Midwest are steamed because they have to press "1" now on the telephone, if they want to hear an automated message in English. What a grievance!

And, since 9/11, those pesky dark-skinned people might be dangerous. Here is Dean Allen, director of Spirit of Liberty,

“Some of these people may be coming in here to get jobs washing dishes, but some of them are coming in here to hijack airplanes,” he explained. “If you’re down there trying to look at the people coming across the border, maybe a lot of them are just motivated by economics, and they want a job washing dishes or cutting grass. But I can’t tell Jose Cuervo from the Al Qaeda operatives by looking at them, because they cut their beard off. It’s like trying to get fly manure out of pepper without your glasses on, you know? I mean, not a racist thing, but they’re all brown with black hair and they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic or Spanish, so if they don’t belong here and they don’t come here legally, I want to know who’s here.” He echoed McCain’s observation that the anti-immigrant feeling is strongest in states with new Hispanic populations. “The illegal Hispanic population, it’s definitely growing,” he said. “I can tell you just from how many you see when you walk in Wal-Mart, and you drive down the street and you see buildings now with writing in Spanish that says ‘tienda,’ which is Mexican for ‘store.’ You didn’t see that even a year or two ago.”

It's not a racist thing. Mr Allen comes from that magic land where saying something makes it so. For the rest of us, his racism is as clear as can be. It doesn't matter that Mexicans and Arabs alike are at least partly Caucasian — "Caucasian" is just a fancy leftover from old-fashioned bad science that nobody pays attention to anymore. Today's racism is more candid: it marks the distinction between people who look like me and people who don't. And the people who don't look like me all look alike. That wouldn't be racism, because "racism" refers to discrimination against African-Americans, right?

Then there is the small-state phenomenon — that deformed stepchild of the Founders' elitism, which bristled at the thought of big-city mobs. (Why does no one ever ask what might have happened if New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia had resolved to forge ahead with their rebellion against Britain, without or without the cooperation of Delaware and Rhode Island?) When it comes to the selection of Republican candidates, a handful of primary voters does the deciding.

Anti-immigrant passion also owes much to the disproportionate influence of a few small states in the nominating process. National polls show that, as an issue, immigration is far behind the Iraq war, terrorism, the economy, and health care as a concern to most Americans; a recent Pew poll shows that, nationally, only six per cent of voters offer immigration as the most important issue facing the country. But in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the three most important early states, it is a top concern for the Republicans who are most likely to vote.

What's disturbing is the power that hysterical demagogues like Tom Tancredo have to control this discussion. This power has been ceded to them by Republicans at large, for the simple reason that the Republican Party has been in the business of stirring up primitive anxieties at least since Willy Horton days, creating a climate that is hostile to rational discussion. John McCain's 2000 campaign seven years ago was mortally wounded by the preposterous claim that he had fathered bi-racial children. (In fact he adopted one.) How could such a preposterous claim stick? How did the Bush campaign get so many South Carolinians to swallow their stupid pills? And who's responsible for that disgusting metaphor involving pepper and fly manure?

The passage that riveted my attention, however, has nothing to do with the color of anybody's skin. According to Mr Lizza, one cause of the anti-immigration push for a brutal wall along the border with Mexico is a lack of faith in the government's ability to run a reasonable immigration program, given that "the government failed to act effectively after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast." Call me paranoid, but that observation stopped me cold, because I don't think that the government "failed to act effectively" at all. It simply depends on what your idea of effective action might be. What it meant to the hegemons of New Orleans, it seems, was blocking federal aid to homeless blacks. The Bush Administration took advantage of tensions between competing agencies and jurisdictions to create a very effective wall to keep proposed largesse out of the hands of needy recipients. What the Bushies couldn't quite accomplish with Grover Norquist's "starve the beast" diet (being unwilling to follow it), they may have pulled off by exploiting the country's already endemic administrative sclerosis. Bad big government!

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