In Mississippi's first elections since the explosive national immigration bill debate, candidates across the political spectrum are lining up to take their best shot at undocumented immigrants. It's a no-holds-barred match. Public sentiment against "illegal aliens" is strong, and the targets are politically weak. Illegal immigrants—many of whom arrived to help rebuild the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—cannot vote, and few dare to speak up for fear of deportation. Unscrupulous employers have long exploited this weakness. Now politicians are taking their crack at the state's new straw men: undocumented Latinos.
The leap from "illegal alien" to "Latino," in the sphere of political rhetoric, is not a long one. Much like "welfare queen"—a darling phrase of conservative politicians in the '80s—"illegal alien" has powerful racial connotations. White women live on welfare in Brooklyn, too, just as undocumented immigrants from Vietnam also arrived in Biloxi, but politicians used these terms to target other specific groups (blacks and Latinos, respectively). One of the Mississippi politicians running in this year's race—Gov. Haley Barbour—helped devise this method of appealing to racism through coded language, now known as the "southern strategy."
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, compared the "illegal alien" rhetoric of today to dressed-up racism of the past: "You go back and look at some of the old editions of newspapers in the '50s and '60s, and you've got all this language relating to 'our Southern way of life.' Now, we have the new millennium version of that in 'Hispanics coming looking for jobs.'"
Consider some of Mississippi's "new millennium" candidates:
Phil Bryant, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, commissioned a report on the connection between illegal immigrants and crime, though he concedes no actual link exists. In the report, Bryant writes, "[T]here is limited or no comprehensive data available about criminal aliens." Bryant's solution to this non-problem? A "comprehensive safety plan" intended to combat crime nobody can prove actually exists.
Republican secretary of state candidate Delbert Hosemann continues to advocate for a voter ID system targeted at illegal immigrants, the same tactic politicians used in the '60s to prevent blacks from voting in Mississippi. Just like Bryant's imaginary illegal alien crime ring, the "problem" of illegal immigrants voting is a fantasy: There is no proof that a single illegal immigrant has ever cast a vote in Mississippi.
The strategy of xenophobia isn't exclusive to Republican candidates; Democratic candidate for governor John Arthur Eaves writes on his Web site that Mississippi would be in better shape without the labor of Spanish-speaking immigrants: "At the Mississippi Press Association's convention at the Beau Rivage Casino on June 22, 2007, (Gov. Haley) Barbour said, 'When I became governor, before Katrina, Mississippi had probably the smallest percentage of illegal or legal immigration by Spanish speakers in the country. We just had very few. Since Katrina there's been a gigantic influx and … I hate to think where the Coast would be if they weren't here.'
"I know where we'd be," Eaves stated. "We could have record employment instead of the highest unemployment in the South. We could be leading the region in job creation and recovery. We could have built homes for the 70,000 people still living in toxic FEMA trailers."
By quoting Barbour's nod to Latinos, Eaves ensures that his carefully articulated "issue" is not just about employment and immigration, but race, too. When he says "we," he means "non-illegal immigrant," but he also clearly means "non-Spanish speaking" and (with the possible exception of Equatorial Guineans) "non-Latino."
Eaves' argument—an apparent attempt to position himself as more hard-line on illegal immigration than Barbour—contains two major problems: 1) Record unemployment in Mississippi existed long before Latinos arrived. Blaming it on a particular ethnic group, aside from being misleading, prolongs the state's history of racism—something that is perhaps a more accurate reason for unemployment in the first place. 2) The Gulf Coast could not have been rebuilt at the rate it is without illegal immigrant labor. Eaves' perplexing argument—that eliminating all illegal immigrants from the rebuilding process would have not only achieved the monumental feat (without the monumental source of labor) but also accomplished the rebuilding of an additional 70,000 homes—is disingenuous at best.
Republican and Democratic candidates alike should resist the temptation of "illegal alien" talking points to win the election. This strategy, though it will appeal to some of the electorate, panders to fear, hatred and racial inequality—the sort of things "new millennium" campaigning should have left behind.
The leap from "illegal alien" to "Latino" is not a long one, probably due more to sheer geography and the resulting percentages than anti-Latino fear-mongering. While I can't know the true attitude of some of the referenced Republicans towards any other race, I'm willing to bet that neither can you. Established law being what it is, "illegal aliens" are not "immigrants". But all semantics aside, it's perfectly possible to be supportive of legal immigration and opposed to illegally being in this country -- all without taking race, culture, or country of origin into consideration.
Everyone's got their favorite statistics to quote on the impact of illegal aliens to local and regional economics. I don't believe any of them, at least not in their entirety. Why? Because illegal activities are never thoroughly reported or documented. To paraphrase many a statistician, "Tell me what results you want, and I'll give you the numbers you need to support it." Don't you believe any of them. Yet, don't entirely dismiss any of them either.
Being an illegal alien is not accidental. Neither is it a disease, disorder, stroke of bad luck, or related to skin color or medical history. It is a voluntary situation. Why must there be a gray area between what is illegal and what is legal? Even those people of questionable principles can usually draw a line in the sand between these two, and recognize that one has repercussions and one does not. If you can start there, then we're on common ground, and then we can discuss things like changing federal immigration laws, and offering some of the same advantages and protections afforded to those here legally. Until then, declarations of cultural bigotry (at least in a wholesale fashion) aren't going to get anything accomplished.
I just went back and reread the NYT article, which admittedly I should have done before hitting the Submit button the first time.
You know when you start reading an article that you just know you're going to disagree with over every other word, you step back in the spirit of intelligence and unbiasedness, and begin the article again. This time with a clear head. You tacitly agree to some points thinking "Okay, that's a valid opinion," or even "Ok, well we can agree to disagree."
But after I finished reading the article again, the only sentiment I got was something akin to this synopsis:
"Committing a crime doesn't make you a criminal, it just means that you did something illegal. And since I don't agree with the sentence (deportation) assigned to this one-time-illegal act, then we should consider the illegal act not-illegal." (To badly paraphrase)
Should we really debate the symantics of illegal vs. undocumented vs. unauthorized vs. next-week's-feel-good-word-of-the-week, and honestly assume that there is no attonement for crossing the border without permission? Calling someone an "illegal" is a status, and by definition can change. The conditions required to change said status is at the root of this debate, not the fact that "once an illegal, always an illegal", as the NYT article alludes to. That's just plain silly.
If you wholeheartedly share the sentiment of the NYT article you reference, then I must respectfully admit that we're farther apart than I originally considered, and I probably shouldn't have commented in the first place.