Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Hardest Word

What's the term missing in Craig Crawford's analysis of the way in which various factions can benefit from the absence of immigration "reform"?
  • Obama fulfills a campaign promise to push for reform in hopes of stirring the Latino vote for November.
  • Republican moderates get a chance to favor reform in hopes of controlling the damage to their party among the nation's fastest growing demographic group.
  • Reform foes get a chance to provoke anti-immigrant sentiment in hopes of winning more seats in Congress.

All the above are probably better off not getting reform done by November. Preserving it as a live issue is a win-win for campaigning -- more so than actually passing it.

Of course, the immigrants facing discrimination and deportation don't stand to win if nothing ever actually gets done. And after the next election there will probably be even fewer votes for the big reform that Obama advocates.

Oh yes---illegal, as in the illegal immigrants facing deportation. Despite what Crawford's syntax implies, it is sadly true that both legal and illegal immigrants can face discrimination, but both do not face deportation. Many of the foes of immigration "reform" (notice how that word is so often applied here to obscure what many Beltwayers really mean: mass legalization) are much more strident in their criticism of illegal immigrants than immigrants as a whole. Indeed, many critics of "comprehensive immigration reform" go out of their way to praise legal immigrants and the contributions of immigrants to American society.

Crawford's language here offers that all-too-common conflation of concerns about illegal immigration with concerns about immigration. It implicitly paints opponents of illegal immigration as rabid xenophobes, and suggests that foes of a mass legalization of the "undocumented" are nativists of the worst sort.

This conflation muddies our political discourse. There is a huge distinction between wishing to enforce our immigration laws and having a rank hatred of the other. In reality, some of the people most hurt by illegal immigration are legal immigrants; illegal immigrants can often undermine the wage-earning power of legal immigrants.

Crawford's observations are not without merit. It is true that some Democrats and some Republicans have something to gain by talking about the controversy about immigration "reform." It is also likely that there would be fewer votes for "reform" in 2011 than there are now. But this slippery use of "immigrant" has troubling implications. In a civil society, distinctions are important, especially distinctions of language. False equivalences (e.g., illegal immigrant=legal immigrant) threaten our ability to think through and respond to problems. For a situation as complex and emotionally charged as the state of our immigration system, we need as much precision as possible.

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