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How Hate and Fear Underscore the Immigration Debate in America

The murder of a working immigrant in a small, suburban town exposes a larger American problem.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Beacon Press

 
 
 
 

The following is an excerpt from Mirta Ojito's new book Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town ( Beacon Press, 2013): 

Global movement—how to stimulate it and how to harness it—is the topic of this century. Few issues in the world today are as crucial and defining as how to deal with the seemingly endless flow of immigrants making their way to wealthier countries. Even the war against terrorism, which since 9/11 has become especially prominent, has been framed as an immigration challenge: who comes in, who stays out.

The relentless flow of immigrants impacts the languages we speak (consider the ongoing debate over bilingual education and the quiet acceptance in major cities, such as Miami and New York, of the predominance of Spanish), the foods we eat, the people we hire, the bosses we work for, and even the music we dance to. On a larger scale, immigrants affect foreign policy, the debate over homeland security, local and national politics, budget allocations, the job market, schools, and police work. No institution can ignore the role immigrants now play in shaping the daily life of most industrialized countries of the world.

In the United States immigration is at the heart of the nation’s narrative and sense of identity. Yet we continue to be conflicted by it: armed vigilantes patrol the Rio Grande while undocumented workers find jobs every day watching over our children or delivering food to our door. In 2011 members of Congress considered debating if the US-born children of undocumented immigrants ought to be rightful citizens of the country, while in Arizona Latino studies were declared illegal.

While the federal government spends millions of dollars building an ineffective wall at the US-Mexico border, the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States wonder if the wall is being built to keep them out or in. In fact, 40 percent of undocumented immigrants, or more than four million people,  did not climb a fence or dig a tunnel to get to the United States. They arrived at the nation’s airports as tourists, students, or authorized workers, and simply stayed once their visas expired.

The immigration debate affects not only Hispanic immigrants, who comprise the largest number of foreign-born people in the United States, but all immigrants. The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, DC, think tank, reported in August 2012 that the number of immigrants (both documented and undocumented) in the country hit a new record of forty million in 2010, a 28 percent increase over the total in 2000.

In a 2007 report researchers at the center generated population projections and examined the impact of different levels of immigration on the size and aging of American society. They found that if immigration continues at current levels, the nation’s population will increase to 468 million in 2060, a 56 percent increase from the current population. Immigrants and their descendants will account for 105 million, 63 percent of that increase.  By 2060, one of every three people in the United States will be a Hispanic. Another study, released in 2011 by the Brookings Institution, revealed that “America’s population of white children, a majority now, will be in the minority during this decade.” Already minorities make up 46.5 percent of the population under eighteen.

As a nation we remain stumped over immigration. Are we still a nation of immigrants? Or are we welcoming only to those who follow the rules and, even more, look and act like us? In Suffolk County, the answers are complex.

The county likes people who have legal documents, who speak English, who don’t play volleyball in their backyards late into the night while drinking beer with buddies, who don’t produce a lot of garbage, who pay taxes, who know when and where to put the garbage outside and keep the lid on it, who support—or at least don’t interfere—with school sports programs, who don’t urinate  behind 7-Elevens, who don’t look for jobs on the sidewalks, and who keep bushes trimmed and fences painted, preferably white. “As I often say to immigrants,” said John F. “Jack” Eddington, the grandson of Irish immigrants and a former Suffolk County legislator, who lives in Medford but kept his legislative office in Patchogue, “When you move to a new town, the moment you walk in your new house—in fact, before you walk in—stand on the front steps and take a look around. The way people maintain  their homes, their lawns, their cars: that’s what you must do.”  Paul Pontieri, the mayor of Patchogue, said almost the same words to me in two separate interviews. Others in Patchogue have given similar answers to questions of assimilation. It is clear that in this town—if not the entire country—the notion of what it means to be an American is tightly woven with the idea of home ownership: how to get it, how to keep it, and how to protect it from strangers. And nowhere is home a more sacred, almost sanctified, concept than in suburbia, the very place where, for decades, the middle class has sought refuge from urban blight, despair, poverty, and the kind of social ills that cities confront and subur bia—mythically, at least—narrowly escapes. In the last decades, though, immigrants have been following

 
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