Crossing the Border

Thursday, May 4th, 2006

Four hundred thousand people coursing for miles through Chicago streets on May 1 — laughing, clapping, chanting joyously, bearing signs as heart-breakingly plaintive as “We Are Workers, Not Criminals” and “No Human Being Is Illegal” — came down, for me, to the image of one middle-aged woman walking beside her husband, silently signaling that the future has arrived.

Poking out of the knot of hair at the back of her head were two plastic flags, America’s and Mexico’s. Her wordless announcement — I am of both countries, and I’m proud — may have been the day’s most radical statement.

Certainly this is what the exclusionists and border-obsessives fear most: that America could change, that the definition of what it means to be an American could broaden. They fear an invasion by denizens of an inferior culture.

“Let’s take a look at some of the many benefits that illegal aliens have blessed our great country with,” one foaming, anti-immigrant e-mail making the rounds recently put it. “Street gangs, graffiti, drugs, skyrocketing health care, depreciation of property value, illiteracy. The list could go on. What they actually have to offer (cheaper labor) pales in comparison to the problems they have given our country to deal with. I’ll take expensive vegetables over expensive health care any day!”

So that explains why those tattooed losers in the Minutemen put up a quarter mile of ugly tin fence along the California-Mexico border last weekend and prowled the terrain with their hunting rifles. They were striking a blow for literacy. They were keeping insurance costs down.

More razor wire for America, please, for the sake of the children!

Oh, Lord. Forgive my disparagement of fellow Americans, but I do not want them running the country, or defining our nation to the world. I’m sick of their need to scapegoat some segment – any segment – of the population, and conjure an enemy to explain every last problem that bedevils us.

Immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, are not our enemies. As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg wrote: “The anti-immigrant crowd burns up the talk radio airwaves describing the horrors of our being invaded by hordes of humble, decent, hard-working people. But that doesn’t mean we should yield the field to them.”

I watched for an hour as the marchers in Chicago surged around me on a drizzly afternoon, filling the city with the energy of a new civil rights movement. “We Love America,” their signs proclaimed. “We Pay Taxes Too. Give Us the Opportunity To Stay Here.” “We Work Hard for This Country.” “Deportation Equals Broken Families.” “We Also Have a Dream.”

The nationwide “Day Without Immigrants,” in which a million or more invisible people in dozens of cities came out of the shadows to demand basic respect — sheer recognition, my God, as human beings — was anything but the “mobocracy” that Jim Gilchrist, one of the Minutemen founders, proclaimed to the media that it was. As is so often the case with “us vs. them” extremists, his description of the marchers was more a description of his own movement.

What bothers me is the hypocrisy at every level of this debate, and the fact that, even among moderates, “rational” arguments — particularly economic arguments — to justify draconian policies, including the breakup of families, are just a cover to mask a reptile-brain fear of outsiders and the human impulse to exclude.

While most people don’t blame graffiti or illiteracy, or even “terrorism,” on the undocumented, they will display a compassion for America’s working poor that’s seldom visible otherwise in their standard lament that illegal immigrants are keeping wages low and stealing unskilled jobs from U.S. citizens.

Such an argument is a convenient oversimplification — solution by scapegoat — of complex economic forces. Last month, Eduardo Porter examined the economics of immigration in a New York Times article. He noted, for instance, that while wages for high school dropouts in California, which has a huge immigrant population, have indeed fallen 17 percent in the last 25 years, the wages for dropouts in Ohio, which is largely free of illegal immigrants, plummeted 31 percent.

“Across the entire labor force,” Porter wrote, “the effect of illegal immigrants was zero, because the presence of uneducated immigrants actually increased the earnings of more educated workers, including high school graduates. For instance, higher-skilled workers could hire foreigners at low wages to mow their lawns and care for their children, freeing time for these workers to earn more. And businesses that exist because of the availability of cheap labor might also need to employ managers.”

What futility to criminalize the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Let’s document them and ease the road to citizenship for those who want it.

Let’s also look unblinkingly at the future symbolized by the woman whose hair adornments expressed her dual loyalty to the U.S. and Mexico. This belies the absoluteness we are accustomed to ascribing to the meaning of borders and nations. But these borders are breaking down in the global economy and the Border Patrol can’t stop the process no matter how many vigilantes augment their force. Our best alternative is to pledge allegiance to the whole planet.