Immigration and Family Values

Immigration and Family Values

If nothing else, the White House policy on immigration has been carefully crafted. The Republican presidential campaign cabal, led by Karl Rove, has made it clear that it will be satisfied with nothing less than total domination of national politics. One way it may be able to achieve this is through courting the rapidly growing Hispanic electorate and by appearing to sympathize with those trying to immigrate to the US. Its hope is to cancel the effect of the tradition of voting for Democrats widely followed among African Americans. Bush and Co. have encountered considerable opposition within their own party to their proposals for “immigration reform.” Their proposed legislation includes “guest worker” programs, “amnesty” for illegal immigrants (in a certain time frame and with monetary fines), and an increase in issuance of visas to certain categories of professionals. Reasons for opposing the immigration bills lately introduces, most of which the White House broadly supports, are as many and varied as their provisions, and they include technical, financial, and expressly ideological objections. The administration has had to treat the issues delicately, in order to keep Republican politicians and reactionary constituencies of theirs together as a functioning political entity. A recent widely reported example of such maneuvering is George Bush’s celebrity appearance at a fundraising gala for Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, despite Session’s vociferous campaigning against reforms to immigration law the White House favors. Gangs, Drug Dealers, & Terrorists Some gaps in Republican strategy on immigration reform are harder to bridge than other, Former Congressman Newt Gingrich is a case in point. Gingrich of the conservative American Enterprise Institute—infamous as the adulterous advocate for “family values” who left his wife while she lay dying of cancer—has lately been railing in public about the threat that immigration, especially from Latin America, poses to “our” way of life. He has described illegal immigrants broadly as comprising “gangs, drug dealers, and terrorists” (The National Review, 4/26/06), and he opposes state-sponsored bilingualism, despite English being only the de facto official language of the US, because Spanish is “the language of living in the ghetto” (Fox News Sunday, 4/2/07). Gingrich has declared that immigrants must come to an “understanding of the Founding Fathers and the core values of American civilization” (press release, 12/1/06, www.newt.org). Thus not only does he exhibit Anglocentrism, but he also touts Protestant virtues against supposed Catholic sloth and decadence. He is usually careful not to say this in so many words, but he comes close in major public addresses. Gingrich gave the commencement speech at Liberty University this year, shortly after the death of its founder, Southern Baptist preacher Jerry Fallwell. Fallwell had once declared that America’s straying from his very narrowly defined godly ways had brought the 9/11 attacks upon it. When Gingrich spoke, he referred approvingly before a sympathetic audience of the “true religion” of the Founding Fathers (5/19/07, www.newt.org), by which he clearly did not mean Roman Catholicism, the predominant religion among Latinos. Such statements put Gingrich in good company with such other religiously tending immigrant bashers as Congressman Tom Tancredo (R–CO). He warns that the US is “in mortal danger” of losing “civic virtue” and dedication to “family” and “community,” as well as becoming “lazy” in economic productivity and protection of “borders, language, and culture.” There are also those like CNN’s Lou Dobbs who has claimed that over 7,000 immigrants infected with leprosy are blemishing the complexion of “middle class” America every year. The Southern Poverty Law Center, among other civil rights organizations, has roundly criticized him for this insistent wild overstatement, as has been reported in The Nation (6/6/07), New York Times (5/30/07), and USA Today (5/15/07). Tancredo and Dobbs are repeating variations on themes heard before in political struggles over immigration in the US. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, demagogic warnings about the “Yellow Peril” and “Hindoo Tide” together with the “Typhoid Mary” stereotype alternated or ran in tandem with official discourse on how “useful” different categories of immigrant might be to “us.” Debate over Latino “family values” has provoked some genuine worry in the Christian Right in particular, since they exalt these ideals as the very crux of “American civilization.” On the one hand, Tom Tancredo has no qualms about inveighing against “left-leaning religious activists,” which to his mind include members of all major denominations (except perhaps traditional Baptists) that are older than the US itself: Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodist, and Presbyterian. The leaderships of these churches have declared that currently debated legislation on immigration does not reflect “Gospel attitudes.” “The faith community must step forward and tell left-leaning activists that undermining border security is not a religious imperative,” says Tancredo, himself a conservative “Evangelical Presbyterian” (press release, 2/21/2006). On the other hand, David Brody, commentator for the Southern Baptist-based Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), wonders whether the Christian Right can rise to the challenge Hillary Clinton issued when she decried the lack of “family values” in proposed immigration legislation that would not take into account kinship between prospective immigrants and legal residents (5/25/07). He is afraid that the Democrats have hijacked the rhetoric of conservative Christians, while many Republicans, including to some extent the President, and some Democrats support legislation that would diminish the importance of familial relationship as a criterion for immigration and instead extend “guest worker” programs in agriculture, services, and industrial “training,” as well as H-1B visas to “specialty occupations.” Republicans, Democrats, and the Impact of International Trade Agreements It is significant that Democrats have done at least as much as Republicans to contribute to the conditions underlying the political controversy over immigration. Clearly Democratic politicians are trying to take the “moral high ground” in the eyes of conservative and Christian voters supporting the immigration priorities that were instituted in the 1960s (see “Chronology”). They have proved more hypocritical than Republicans in some instances. The great majority of people who immigrate to the United States do so in search of work that will pay them enough so that they and their dependants can survive, if nothing more. The Democrats promoted and supported multilateral international trade treaties in the 1990s: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and World Trade Organization (WTO), among others. These coupled with forced opening of markets to foreign investors, using the bait of the World Bank and the switch of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have the effect of permitting capital to travel wherever its possessors desire. Simultaneously they have restricted the right and ability of human workers to cross national borders. Even in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate before the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME) on June 17 of this year, Clinton equivocated about the impact of NAFTA on workers. She said, “Like anything, NAFTA had some positives, but unfortunately had a lot of downsides.” The moderator, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, replied “So we’ll leave that as a non-answer.” That much was the triteness of the “at least the Nazis made Volkswagens too” variety. To be fair, she also alluded to the loss of manufacturing jobs to places south of the US border. However, she also asserted that jobs have been lost to Canada as well, as if the figures were equivalent. In fact, NAFTA and similar treaties have a detrimental effect on American workers as well as on workers from south of the border. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the net loss of jobs from the US between 1993 and 2006 was nearly one million (“Economic snapshots,” 10/4/06, www.epinet.org). Furthermore, immigrants desperate enough for employment to travel to the US, often under the most brutal conditions, bring the average wages down in jobs that they are capable of performing. They provide employers with a workforce that accepts low pay and no benefits and has few legal rights. This situation is ripe for the politics of divisiveness. At the same time that wage laborers of one nation can be pitted against those of another, the extension of H-1B and related visas to certain “highly qualified” persons widens the divide between those who are “needed to run the global economy” (contributing to the “multicultural” fantasy of the managing class) and those deemed only “temporarily” or “occasionally” useful (the kind of precarious existence that well paid pundits like The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman think we should revel in). Such efforts as are made to justify this distinction are often framed in terms of “cultural” disposition—for example, Latinos being “willing to do those jobs that Americans refuse”—or an almost natural order—for example, the counter-claim that some Americans are willing to do those (dirty) jobs too, because they recognize that sacrificing themselves will allow others of “us” to succeed. It is historically noteworthy that the recent trend toward structuring immigration legislation principally according to the purpose one can serve in the official economy is reminiscent of the trend in the late nineteenth century (see “Chronology”). What Kind of “Global Village” is this? Still, Hillary Clinton thinks she can persuade us, for her own political ends, that she can square circles—for instance, by reinserting “family values” into discussion of immigration. Ten years ago she published a book called It Takes a Village, appropriating for its title an African proverb. She espouses in it an idealistic communalism, global in scale—“a brave new world,” in her words, in which familial relations are extended to every part of a social whole, not only for rearing of its children but also for its reproduction more broadly. Would her world today be the cliché “one big happy family”? The question deserves careful thought. Economic relations already resemble a paternalistic family of global scale—one in which daughters and sons accept their lot for fear of retribution or abandonment, “the help” is expected to show gratitude for crumbs, and neighboring elders arrange marriages of convenience, when they are not goading their dependants to kill one another.

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