Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fighting Hatred with Compassion

With  nativist anti-immigrant fervor in full swing, I felt like I needed some solidarity.  So I finally got around to watching Sin Nombre tonight.  It's a beautiful, epic, tragic movie, and clearly demonstrates the socioeconomic realities behind illegal immigration.

The main two main arguments for a harsher stance on illegal immigration are economic strain and simple criminality.  The first is contentious, but I think one can reasonably say that at current levels, illegal immigrants present - at the least - a zero sum effect on the economy.  The non-profit website has just released a convincing article that shows immigration actually having a positive effect on the economy.
Most economists and other experts say there’s little to support the claim. Study after study has shown that immigrants grow the economy, expanding demand for goods and services that the foreign-born workers and their families consume, and thereby creating jobs. There is even broad agreement among economists that while immigrants may push down wages for some, the overall effect is to increase average wages for American-born workers.
The second argument, that crossing the border illegally is a crime and justifies harsh measures to "crack down" on lawbreakers,  begs the question: what kind of crime is illegal immigration?  Every crime has a supposed cost, and presumably we would be able to place it somewhere on a spectrum.  If, say, jaywalking presents the most minimal type of crime, with a very slight penalty commensurate with its slight social cost, and murder presents the worst kind of crime, and the punishment reflects its high cost to society, what kind of crime is illegal residence?

This is obviously going to be a contentious assessment.  But surely we can hazard some guess.  It isn't as bad as murder.  It isn't really stealing from anyone - abstract notions of economic damage aside.  It is certainly trespassing in a sense.  But then only in the abstract, as no individual is directly bearing the burden on their own property.  The real crime can be thought of against the state.  Although unlike a traffic citation, or a permit violation, no direct harm - or endangerment is occurring.

Yet whatever the actual crime ends up being, the definitional punishment is almost absurdly harsh: deportation.  (Exile, for all intents and purposes).  As a punishment, this would be seen as an inappropriate response to all but the most serious crimes.  Considering that as a sole offense, an otherwise productive, honest and valuable member of society could be thrown out of the country for nothing more than standing on the wrong side of a line.

The characters in Sin Nombre undertake the journey to America for nothing more than access to its economy.  And for this they expose themselves to incredible levels of risk and deprivation.  Had they been lucky enough to have enjoyed the social capital to find rarefied social mobility in their home countries - all desperately poor economies - they surely would not have had to make the choice they did.  But what kind of ethical judgment did they face?  They could have stayed home, facing almost certain wretched poverty for themselves and their families.  Or they could have made what seems a minor and abstract transgression by sneaking into America illegally?

Who among us, would not jaywalk daily for such opportunity?  Or speed down highways?  Or lie on our IRS form?  Or act in numerous other abstracted criminal ways in order for a shot at making something of our lives - as well as likely those back home for whom our monthly remittance might mean clean drinking water, money for school, starting a business, or health care?

A third argument against immigration is the one that may be the most powerful as a motivating force, yet will never be spoken or admitted to.  It is simple nativism and ethnic bigotry.  Like the other arguments it is based in authoritarian fealty to cultural insularity and fealty to authority.  It objectifies immigrants in dehumanizing terms like "illegals", and makes no attempt to sympathize with their plight.  It makes no attempt to imagine what life might be like in their shoes.  It has been around since the founding of the country.  It is hypocritical in that it holds certain people to different standards.  It favors the majority and those with privilege.  It is dangerous: rather than loving or rational, it is fearful and angry.

At this point I'm not sure what there is to do but stand for truth and compassion, and solidarity with our brothers and sisters to the South.  We shall prevail.  Somehow.

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