Readers Write: Immigration Debate

Over the last few weeks I have written a series of pieces advocating compassionate immigration reform that includes earned citizenship for this country's 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants. The first article, "Sí, Se Puede!" described the enthusiasm of the burgeoning movement for immigrants' rights. "Immigration Debate Creates Strange Bedfellows" looked at the strange political alliances created by the fracas, and finally, "Defining the Melting Pot" recounted the huge April 10 rally in New York.

The passion of the debate following these articles took me by surprise. Immigration had obviously struck a nerve with readers, inspiring responses to all three articles that were full of both venom and vigor. Illegal immigration quickly became one of the most hotly debated topics on AlterNet's pages and inspired everything from thoughts on economic history and international policy to conspiracy theories, accusations of racism and name-calling.

The majority of commentators voiced opposition to legalization for undocumented immigrants, and scolded me personally and AlterNet at large for supporting such a proposition. Metahope asked, "Alternet, why are you supporting illegal immigrants rights over the rights of American citizens?" Metahope, like many others, viewed undocumented immigrants as a major threat, saying that "illegal immigrant scabs are destroying unions in Brooklyn, N.Y., and all over the United States They work hard at undermining our economic security … They don't deserve our largesse … They are lower than saboteurs, they are infestations."

Many agreed, though in less harsh terms, that illegal immigration is a threat to blue-collar citizens. Clocksmith wrote, "I am tired of hearing that illegal immigrants do the jobs that Americans won't do. If these jobs paid a fair and decent wage, Americans would do them." Clocksmith summed up the most consistent argument against illegal immigration (and immigration in general) -- the belief that immigrants "keep wages depressed for the rest of us" and make life more difficult for American workers. Other readers armed themselves with sarcasm to get that point across. Zooeyhall penned an imaginary letter to Joe Sixpack, the all-American citizen who is competing for jobs with legal and illegal immigrants:

Dear Joe:
Really sorry to hear you lost that programming job to that H1B visa guy from India. But hey, every cloud has a silver lining. At least you know that you're doing your part to make America a truly multicultural Nirvana. Also sorry to hear that your son Joey won't be working that summer job this year with that lawn care company. It would really have helped out in your situtation. But just remember: Those Guatemalan immigrants the company hired are part of the poor oppressed masses, and it is our duty to welcome them with open arms! And we all know that Joey is part of the pampered white lower middle class …
The resentment was palpable in many readers' comments -- many accused pro-immigrant readers of being elitist. In turn, pro-immigrant readers accused those who disagreed of xenophobia and racism.

When Gma1 complained that he "heard one of the marchers for illegal immigrants speaking in Mexican" on CNN and accused immigrants of refusing to assimilate, pro-immigrant readers were quick to chastise and ridicule the comment. "Mexican people speak Spanish," responded Merly. "I can't think of anything more ignorant than not knowing that the people in the country next to you speak SPANISH."

Another reader's argument against immigration was swathed in a much thicker layer of prejudice. This reader, who identified herself only as gb, emailed me with this rationale for her anti-immigrant stance:
"I had a very bad experience with an illegal Mexican that lived across the street from me. He stole, lied, beat his wife or girlfriend, didn't work, laid around, and she shoveled the snow on the drive. One day in the eight years he lived here, I saw him mowing the lawn. I couldn't believe it!! I TOOK A PICTURE!!!!
My 80-year-old aunt had some Mexicans paint her house. My husband and I had to do it over. When we got to her house, these people had varnished over all the dirt on the woodwork. Never cleaning anything off. We had to take off all the varnish and do it over. So don't tell me how hard these people work.They do as little as possible."
Those against immigration weren't the only ones accused of racism, though. Medstudgeek felt that citizens who support illegal immigrants were insensitive to the repercussions on black American workers: "Notice that civil rights *leaders* are supporting immigration while ordinary blacks frequently oppose it. Why? Because, for sociological reasons, young black men always go to the bottom of the employment pile. Immigrants take spots ahead of them. The only way to help black people out of poverty is to create a scarcity of labor."

Similarly, Feller wrote, " racism has nothing to do with the majority of players in this game. It's money. MONEY. Bucks. The practical effect of a successful Latino immigrant movement will be additional misery for young African-Americans. Similarly for many poor white high school and college dropouts."

A few readers attempted to bring the tenor of the debate down. Sln70 pleaded, "Don't let this turn racist." Zooeyhall exclaimed, "Opposition to illegal immigration by thoughtful Americans IS NOT A RACIAL ISSUE, IT IS AN ECONOMIC ONE!!!" YogiBear insisted, "We do not hate the immigrants, we're worried about our own economic suffering because of it. It's true our plight is nothing compared to theirs. But is the solution to that to make our plight equal to theirs? To slowly depress wages in this country to the point where we have the same type of underclass that Mexico and other Latin American countries have? … For people who are against illegal immigration, it is a simple equation of survival."

This debate on policy, though, rarely veered away from the most sensitive of issues, entering at a few points the treacherous terrain of both identity politics and authenticity.

Responding to the article titled "Sí, Se Puede!" one of the first threads of commentary seemed a simple issue of grammar. Prophit noted a missing comma in the rallying cry "Sí, Se Puede!" (which was corrected a few hours after the article was posted) and argued that the comma placement was significant because "if these are true native tongue immigrants, then they wouldn't make that mistake."

Disagreeing with my pro-immigrant stance, one reader attributed my politics to a personal identity crisis. "Maria's a wannabe," gotmyeyeonyou wrote. "Tucker has written articles before about how she's pissed that her parents were 'forced' into speaking only English, so she's been reduced to pandejo status among the 'real' Hispanics this grave injustice of being denied her true destiny of speaking Spanish as a native is now the basis of her entire political/social outlook."

The subtext, of course, was both a questioning of my own ethnic authenticity and a tendency to characterize nonimmigrants who supported the immigrant rallies as elitists, hyperpolitically correct "faux liberals," corporate sympathizers or, more simply, sheep following some party line. Which party line, however, was up for debate, proving just how tangled the immigration debate has become:

"Are you all dupes for the Democratic Party?" asked jyork. "They sold out to their corporate money base and here you are doing it too." Yet, in another thread JPHickey wondered if I and/or AlterNet at large were "covert Bush administration spin doctors."

The questioning of my own authenticity as a "real" Latina and AlterNet's "real" agenda trickled down into readers' attacks on one another's authenticity as "real" leftists. Reader Ratskii wrote, "Any real leftist knows that we don't move forward by pitting one group of oppressed and hungry people against another." Fairleft responded with this: "Real leftists use the democratic process to aid the working class of their country. They respect the sovereignty of other countries and hope their leftists will do the same. This has nothing to do with pitting groups against each other …"

Accompanying the rancorous banter, readers did solemnly consider a variety of root causes of massive immigration from Latin America, and wondered who to blame. lclark wrote, "NAFTA is one cause of promoting massive illegal migration, but its continuation promotes the goals of corporatist, not people, migrants or citizens." Meanwhile, malcolmartin said the culprit was more broadly the capitalist system which, "by its very nature turns the world into a giant slave labor camp," and called for a people's uprising. Wli blamed capitalism as well, noting that "the innate advantage of capital over labor is capital's far greater mobility. Workers are confined by a myriad borders while capital moves at will. Illegal immigration is, in effect, a response to this, where workers in desperation try to achieve some measure of mobility in order to match capital." An extension of this argument came from pomes who blamed corporations. "Between a legal citizen, an illegal immigrant trying to feed their kids, and a business increasing their profit margin on the backs of the other two groups, it's pretty clear to me who the true source of societal sabotage and infestation is."

Among possible solutions was Baal_Labs idea to "criminalize their employers with mandatory, unavoidable jail time." Vivasanchez thought the United States should "rescind NAFTA and CAFTA and work toward building up the economies of the Latin world." Meanwhile, Uncle Tupelo proposed a blanket amnesty and raising the federal minimum wage.

While we still don't know if Congress will pass any meaningful immigration reform, it appears that AlterNet readers can be assured of one thing: The debate certainly won't be boring.

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