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Readers Write: Meet the Nativists

AlterNet readers debate the growing public concern about immigration.
 
 
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An article reprinted from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report about leaders of the burgeoning "nativist" movement in the U.S. prompted some smart discussion that revealed -- to me, at least -- that AlterNet's audience extends well beyond the traditional confines of the liberal worldview.

The reader comments revealed that the concerns about immigration are not so much about the immigrants themselves as the larger economic and political processes that brought them there -- namely, that corporations have manipulated governments, American workers and foreign immigrants to sustain a cheap supply of labor, consequences be damned. I thought this description of what happened in reader zooeyhall's hometown in Norfolk, Neb., is a perfect example of how complicated the issue really is:

"I live in Nebraska in a rural area. In the '60s and '70s, work at the local packing plants paid a VERY good middle-class wage -- almost $22 per hour in today's money -- and they had a strong union. Sure, it was hard, dirty work, but that didn't bother farm kids used to such work and who were anxious for a job over the summer to earn some money. It also provided a good full-time job for those who wanted to work hard and move up. I had many farmer-neighbors who got a good income working there.

"Well, in the 1980s companies like Tyson cut the wages by 50 percent, boosted the line from 60 to 200 animals per hour -- and then started bringing in Mexican workers (even setting up employment recruiting offices along the border). They busted the local union when it went on strike, and then claimed they "couldn't find enough local workers" to justify their importing of illegals.

"So now little towns around here that used to be local farming centers are 60 percent Mexican. Local Andy Griffith sheriffs have to deal with Mexican drug gangs that make the Bloods and the Crips look like Boy Scouts. We had a bank robbery last year in Norfolk, Neb. (pop. 25,000), where a Mexican bank robber killed five people in cold blood."

Commenter dlf responded to zooeyhall with important points:

"Look, the problem lies in both our corporate-business class and the government who works with them. This link shows there is actually something to protect American jobs, but Americans have been trained to repeat the 'Jobs Americans Won't Do' line. We play into the hands of both industry and government by remaining ignorant of our rights and not exercising them. When was the last time the gentleman in Nebraska saw an ad for employment at that meat packing plant? These employers are in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because they now only rely on their immigrant help to supply them with labor. That means they are effectively cutting Americans out of the process, which is discrimination. Every time one of these stories comes out, Americans should be asking the reporters how many Americans have applied for these jobs, how many were interviewed, and how many hired. If they don't know the answer to those questions, they are simply spreading more propaganda and inciting people by calling anyone who disagrees with their pronouncements xenophobic.

As a black person I found it very interesting that they would try to make me angry about this issue by invoking George Wallace and other racists. Personally, I know that this issue will attract people of different stripes for different reasons, that has no bearing on whether it is a valid issue or not."

Reader marcinde's reaction to the article displayed how the issue cuts right to fundamental questions about nation-states, labor rights and economic power:

"On the issue of immigration, it seemed so cut and dried when I lived in New England. Liberal = pro-immigration, right? Then I moved to San Diego, and the same job I made $14 an hour for in Massachusetts paid $7an hour. Hmm. Then I lived in Phoenix for six years. I still see the human side; I have good friends who came here illegally. All I'm saying is that if you think you're either pro-open borders or you're an a**hole, go spend some time in a border state. I'm still figuring out the answer myself. How do we balance doing what's right for the world with what's right for the nation? Like many others here, I tend to think in absolutes. I'm just pointing out that this is a much muddier issue than you realize once you're in the thick of it."

Uncle Tupelo nailed the essence of who these nativist figures are -- opportunistic demagogues seizing on the racial elements of a massive social, economic and political issue: "Eighty years ago my great-granddaddies dressed up in white hoods to keep out the likes of people with names like 'Tancredo.' Now the Tancredos are railing against the Gonzalezes. I say, rather than casting blame on the people who come here looking for a better life for themselves and their families, we figure out what our corporations have done to those people and their land that made them pack up and leave in the first place. Blaming the problems associated with immigration on the immigrants themselves seems like a chicken-sh*t thing to do."

Finally, Radicalizer contributed one of my favorite comments: "It seems to me to be incredible that the person who compiled this article would lash out at Minuteman-esque individuals and groups for having these ideas while at the same time acknowledging that 'Others have contented themselves with trying to build a mass movement. Not all those who have joined the movement are extremists -- many are legitimately concerned about the ability of the nation to absorb large numbers of immigrants, particularly the undocumented.'

"Pardon me, but is that not the logic used by the Minutemen as well, that the U.S. would not be able to 'withstand' an influx of immigrants, and that the very fabric of this so-called great country would subsequently dissolve? I fail to see the difference between a 'legal' and an 'illegal' immigrant. The only difference is that one group of individuals is granted permission to enter by some higher authority that supposedly acts on our behalf. No one really knows how or why decisions are made. By stating that it is OK to have concerns about 'illegal' immigrants, AlterNet is basically saying it's OK to have xenophobic tendencies and a mistrust of anyone who may look, think or behave differently from us.

"The borders of nation-states are constantly being redefined as a result of wars, disintegrating federations, etc., so why should people be beholden to these arbitrary social constructions (especially since the free-movement of capital and corporations under the guise of the 'globalized economy' is seen as something positive)? These concepts do nothing but play into the hands of the rich and powerful, as they are able to draw support from those they are dominating under the guise of having something in common with them, a concern for their 'nation.'

"For example, people are more fearful of poor Mexican workers trying to make a living for themselves and their families by working in slavery-like conditions in Florida or California than people like Kenneth Lay, Bernard Ebbers and Jeff Skilling, who have done far more damage to 'American society' than the thousands of migrant workers who flock to 'the land of the free' in search of a better life. I would be willing to wager that the 'average American' has way more in common with the Chinese factory worker, the Indian farmer and the 'illegal' Mexican immigrant than with any of the suits and ties that run our governments and corporations, yet it is these powerful figures that are able conjure up support by purporting to defend the nation from unseen (and often imaginary) threats.

"If AlterNet is really concerned about the plight of immigrants in this country, then it should call reservations about ANY kind of immigration what it is -- a racist and xenophobic fear of the unknown and the 'other.' Humanity existed long before the creation of states and governments; we are all citizens of the world, not of nations."

Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.