The Strangers Among Us

Illegal immigrant: A loaded political term used by beneficiaries of globalization who are caught up in the fog of "culture war." While referring to immigrants who violate the letter of the law as "illegal" is technically correct, the terminology sheds more heat than light.

Talking about the effects of globalization in terms of "illegal immigrants" truncates debate and narrows options because what's really going on is migrant workers following mobile capital. That some folks, who consider themselves in favor of "free trade," are focusing on their own fears, while ignoring the effects of the free-trade agreements at the heart of the issue, speaks volumes.

When the open-toe, sandal-wearin' protestors of corporate globalization were trying to make a statement about the consequences of "free trade," the Tom's of the world (Thomas Sowell and Thomas Friedman) were lecturing us about Econ 101 and the depth of "isolationist" ignorance in not seeing that NAFTA and CAFTA benefits everyone.   Arguing that immigration is a national security issue is both right and wrong. It's right to the extent that nation-states must have some way of knowing who's coming and who's going. It's wrong because denying flesh-and-blood human beings rights given to corporate capital is morally perverse, especially for a nation that claims to be based on biblical Judeo-Christian values.  

"If a stranger (foreigner) sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex (oppress) him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself (Leviticus 19:33,34)."  

Add numerous "Old Testament" verses like that with Jesus' Good Samaritan story and you do not get an immigration policy. But it does put punitive anti-immigration positions outside the spirit of traditional values undergirding this great nation.  

Technically, the word "illegal" refers to any violation of law (even if it's a violation of administrative law and not a violation of the moral order). But because people tend to associate "illegal" with "criminal," the word evokes images of rapists, thieves and murderers, not some exploited worker so desperate that he or she leaves home and family to survive.  

Another problem with the "illegal immigration" debate is the 800-pound gorilla lurking in the corner.  

Mark Potock of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate-groups nationally, told me last week, "the immigration debate is very much driving the increase in hate group numbers. We've seen a rise from 602 hates groups in 2000 to 803 in 2005. That's a 33 percent rise over five years.  

"These hate groups (neo-Nazis, etc.) see there is a lot of fear and insecurity and they are very much trying to capitalize on that. It's an issue of great resonance but also a debate with strong racial overtones because at the end of the day we're talking about brown-skinned immigrants and not Irish, German or Canadian."  

Professor George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist, offers interesting insights on the inextricable connection between language and thought.  

In his book "Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea", he explains how language "frames" political debate and, therefore, the options citizens tend to think are the only ones available.  

But frames have boundaries. "When you think within a frame, you tend to ignore what is outside the frame." And, when "frames" are repeated over and over again, "the neural circuits that compute its meaning are activated repeatedly in the brain. As the neurons in those circuits fire, the synapses connecting the neurons...get stronger and the circuits may eventually become permanent, which happens when you learn the meaning of any word in your fixed vocabulary."  

President Bush is right to reject calls for massive deportation and push for immigration reform that seeks to keep better track of who's coming and going while making it easier for undocumented migrant workers to become U.S. citizens. Morally and economically, it's the right thing to do.

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