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Morning Feature – The Not-About Race, Part II: Immigration

January 13, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – The Not-About Race, Part II: Immigration

Conservatives argue their opposition to illegal immigration is about not about race, but rather enforcing the law. Just like Jim Crow. (More)

The Not-About Race, Part II: Immigration

This week Morning Feature explores the influence of race in the 2012 elections. Yesterday we examined how government is framed in race. Today we look at the racial politics of immigration. Tomorrow we’ll consider how to discuss race and privilege with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

“We are not racist!”

So Arizona Governor Jan Brewer proclaimed last November on MSNBC. The topic, not surprisingly, was her state’s draconian immigration law. That state law was not about race, Brewer insisted, but about enforcing federal immigration statutes. Those who disagreed wanted to “shove that race card out there.”

Cameron Smith of the conservative Alabama Policy Institute echoes the same argument in defense of that state’s new immigration law. Rebutting a New York Times op-ed criticizing Alabama law, Smith writes:

The Times’ piece on Alabama’s immigration law calls for President Obama “to show stronger leadership in defending core American values in the face of the hostility that has overtaken Alabama and so many other states.” Other commentaries have likened Alabama’s immigration enforcement to the Jim Crow era where the evils of racism were given the force of law.

But is Alabama really such a cruel and inhospitable place that those who abide by the rule of law fear for their safety and economic security? Have Alabamians failed to learn from a tragic racist past such that they are willing to once again pass laws designed to penalize individuals based solely on the color of their skin? Or … have the majority of Alabamians simply had enough of the law being trampled right in front of their eyes?

Perhaps Smith didn’t intend the irony. The National Review made the same argument after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize:

For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together. With their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes – particularly the adolescents and the children – that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice.

It’s never about race, you see.

“It’s just law enforcement!”

That argument would be more convincing if law enforcement were uniformly just. But as Tim Wise eloquently argues:

After all, as my experience in the car demonstrated, violating minor traffic laws is something we all do regularly. Had the officer outside the restaurant decided to stop me, rather than continuing to eat his Scottish-named egg sandwich, he would have been perfectly within his rights to do so. The contact would have been lawful, even if a bit nit-picky. In Arizona, under the new law, officers who saw drivers they perceived as Latino/a, and who wanted to stop them, need only pick out some minor infraction (the kind we all commit every time we pull out of the driveway), and then use the infraction as an excuse for a stop the real purpose of which was to determine the lawful status of someone whose only reason for being stopped was their perceived ethnicity.

In fact, the law doesn’t even require a moving violation. Because SB 1070 includes municipal code violations as a legitimate reason for “legal contact” by officers, police would be able to use everything from failure to cut one’s grass often enough, to having too many cars in the driveway, to placing one’s garbage containers in the wrong spot on the street, as reasons for a stop and document search.

That is not a groundless hypothetical. Wise alludes to the widespread phenomenon called “driving while black” or, in immigration cases, “driving while brown.” While only 77% of America’s illegal immigrants are Latino, fully 93% of those deported under the Secure Communities program – after being arrested on some other charge – have been Latino. And last month, the Department of Homeland Security cut off Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s access to the Secure Communities program, after a two-year Department of Justice investigation found his office “committed a wide range of civil rights violations against Latinos, including a pattern of racial profiling and discrimination and carrying out heavy-handed immigration patrols based on racially charged citizen complaints.”

When law enforcement is racially unjust – and it often is – “it’s just law enforcement” becomes a mere cover for laws that privilege whites and disadvantage Others. The conservative argument then takes a different tack:

“They’re taking our jobs!”

In a 1999 Journal of Politics article, professors Jack Citrin, Donald Green, Christopher Muste, and Cara Wong examined Public Opinion Toward Immigration Reform: The Role of Economic Motivations. Specifically, they explored the perceptions that immigrants take jobs from and/or depress the wages of American citizens, and that states and municipalities must spend more to provide services for and protection from immigrants than immigrants pay in taxes.

Surprisingly, their study found low-income workers and people living in areas with more immigrants – i.e.: those most likely to be affected by immigrants – were neither more likely to fear job competition nor more likely to believe immigrants take more from than they contribute to society. Yet the authors found that economic downturns historically correlate to harsher immigration policies. How do they explain these seemingly contradictory findings?

The historical connection between restrictionist policies and economic downturns may have more to do with the mobilization of activists and interest groups than with the material calculations of the general public. And to the extent that public opposition to immigration is animated by economic fears, these concerns are traceable to perceptions about collective trends rather than to feelings of immediate personal vulnerability. Our findings also suggest that adverse economic developments stimulate anti-immigrant sentiment by engaging cultural anxieties and group identifications. Immigration policy thus provides a fertile domain for exploring the dynamic interplay between symbolic and economic policies.

Indeed, as Slate‘s Timothy Noah found, undocumented immigration has only a slight effect on income inequality. The difference is not enough to notice … until those “activists and interest groups” start playing on “cultural anxieties and group identification.”

But it’s not about race….


Happy Friday!

  • Gardener

    Thank you Crissie! Looking forward to learning to talk to Fred about this……

    • Gardener

      Oops, I’ll take that extra h back, if I may. 😳

      • NCrissieB

        De-h-ified. 😉

        Good morning! ::hugggggs::

    • NCrissieB

      As addisnana noted yesterday, race can be a thorny discussion topic. But there are some less-threatening ways to discuss it and we’ll explore one idea tomorrow.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • trs

    Of course it’s not about race – why, some of my best friends are [black, Latino, Japanese, whatever]. There was a scene in Blazing Saddles that really brought that home. The Sheriff brought the railroad workers to help build the fake Rock Ridge. A townsperson with an obvious Irish accent says, “We’ll take the [African Americans] and the [Chinese], but we don’t want the Irish!” Mel Brooks made a lot of subtle points with the outragesness of his movies. There was usually something in them to offend everyone, but that was to make people think about why they were offended, and own up to their own prejudices.

  • LI Mike

    Thanks for this, Crissie.

    Governor Cuomo presents a dilemma for me, he has been terrific on social justice issues while warming the cockles of neo-liberals’ hearts. From last June on immigration deportation:

    WASHINGTON — New York will no longer participate in the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday, making the state the second to rescind its agreement with federal immigration authorities.

    There are concerns about the implementation of the program as well as its impact on families, immigrant communities and law enforcement in New York,” Cuomo wrote in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security. “As a result, New York is suspending its participation in the program.”

    The state will review whether the program is meeting its stated goal of deporting convicted felons, according to a press release from the governor’s office. “Based on evidence to date, it appears the program in New York is failing in this regard and is actually undermining law enforcement,” the governor’s office said

    A recent (Oct 2011) report from the Fiscal Policy Institute prepared by David Kallick presented a very informed view of the LI immigrant experience. For those who think Latinos don’t pay taxes, won’t speak the language, and are a net cost rather than a benefit to the LI economy, I urge them to read the report.

    One of the interesting demo facts presented in the report relates to the working age and the education of working age peoples on LI. Compared to 30 years ago when most Caucasians did not have a college+ degree, now many do. What that says about work expectations is important. Whites eschew many manual/service jobs because it doesn’t mesh with their skill set or education. Compared to the Latino population that has a different education experience and are willing to work service and manual jobs. Plus, compared to the White population, a larger % of Latinos are of working age. Thus, a large part of the LI economy works because of the age and skill set of the labor pool. Another interesting stat, a greater % of Latinos are entrepeneurs compared to the White population on LI.

    Add all this up, and the immigrant population is, as David Kallick says, “a vital 1/6th of the (LI) population.”

    • NCrissieB

      The Salon article by Timothy Noah found that undocumented immigrants had almost no impact on the wages of college-educated workers. Their undocumented status leaves them easily exploited at the bottom end of the labor pool, slightly depressing wages for workers who lack a high school diploma. But even that is only a small impact. Georgia farmers said the state’s new immigration law made it hard to harvest their crops, as almost no one else wanted to work in the fields for the wages farmers were offering.

      Simply, undocumented immigrants are not taking jobs that most citizens are willing to do for the pay being offered. And as David Kallick noted, many immigrants leave such jobs as soon as they can afford to start their own businesses.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    Think Progress has been following the Alabama laws on immigration and the untended consequences of crops rotting in the fields with no one to pick them. They are contemplating using prisoner labor to replace immigrants.

    Replacing skilled workers with virtually free (and sometimes actually free) prison laborers has become a trend in Republican-led states. Under Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-WI) anti-collective bargaining law, at least one Wisconsin county replaced some union workers with prison labor. And Georgia is considering replacing firefighters with prisoners to save money.

    • glendaw271

      And I’m just sure that Georgia will be training those prisoners like the firefighters have been trained. 😯

    • NCrissieB

      The push to use virtually-free prison labor – mostly people of color – to replace immigrants and union employees was satirized brilliantly at The Onion:

      My first question, of course, was whether or not these Union toilers could be replaced with vastly less expensive workers under the Confederate model, but I was informed that for various complex reasons this may not be feasible for several years.

      Simply, there has long been and remains still a proportion of business owners who think they’re entitled to employees, no matter the pay or working conditions offered. And anyone who disagrees is “lazy.”

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • LI Mike

    And Georgia is considering replacing firefighters with prisoners to save money.

    Now isn’t that the dumbest thing. Yes, prisoners, go put out that fire, and don’t forget to run into the burning house to save the endangered children.

  • winterbanyan

    Thanks for this article, Crissie. I think it’s important to note that of two people arrested in Alabama, within a week of each other, one was an executive scouting for a Mercedes plant and the other was a Honda executive in the country for the same reason.

    The Mercedes exec got stopped for a traffic infraction and was jailed because he didn’t have his passport with him. I’d like to point out that he was from Germany, thus from the EU, where a passport is almost never needed except when you fly into the EU from outside. Why in the world would he have thought he needed to carry it while driving around Alabama? He spent time in jail before it could get sorted out.

    The Honda exec was from Japan and stopped the very next week. After the hoopla over the Mercedes exec, they processed him rather faster, even though he didn’t have his passport. No jail time for him.

    A Missouri paper wrote an open letter to these auto manufacturer’s telling them that they’d find a lot more welcome and less hassle in Missouri. 😉

    As a coda, Honda is no longer considering building a manufacturing plant in Alabama. I haven’t heard about Mercedes.

    This law is clearly not designed to go after only lawbreaking illegals. It’s broader application to a German and a Japanese was merely the exception that proves the rule. It highlighted the dangers of this law to people who are absolutely no threat whatever.

    No excuse makes this pig look any better.

    • NCrissieB

      Those are two examples of the 7% of non-Latino undocumented immigrants swept up in the crackdown. Those and similar stories will doubtless be cited as “proof” that “it’s not about race,” despite the rhetoric and images used to hype the “immigration crisis”….

      But it’s not about race….

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • winterbanyan

        I don’t think either of these arrests can justify a claim that it’s not about race. My point was that the law is about race, not about people truly being illegal under the law. I guess these two cases don’t make the point very well, but I intended to show how this law can be used against folks who are very definitely here legally, both to harass and jail them.

        As to whether I think the law is barely concealed racism, you betcha. Never occurred to these idiots that anyone but Hispanics would get troubled by it.

        So much for that.