Friday, November 22, 2013

Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day

So, the University of Texas chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas ended up cancelling an event previously scheduled for today that was supposed to feature a mock sting.  Students were to receive $25 gift cards for "apprehending" students who were to be wandering around campus wearing "illegal immigrant" labels on their clothing.
Needless to say, the idea was poorly received when news of it reached a broader audience.

Conservatives across the country decry the loss of American jobs to undocumented workers.  They seem, in general, to take offense at the idea of people entering the United States through illegal means, and yet they oppose most proposed measures for legislative reform that would stream the process for legal immigration and make it more efficient.  They see illegal immigrants as a drag upon the American job market and upon social services.

Texans, even conservative Texans, seem to recognize that the relationship between legal residents and undocumented immigrants/illegal aliens in Texas is a little more complex than people in other parts of the country seem to understand.  For one thing, we have a lot of Latino Texans living in our state.  Their attitudes about illegal immigration vary, but we have a significant number of Latino Texans who are sympathetic toward the situation that illegal immigrants find themselves in- needing to financially support themselves and their families but lacking the time and the resources to navigate the byzantine system that might allow them to legally gain their residency in the U.S.  For both the undocumented immigrants and for Texas citizens, the relationship between Texas and our population of illegal immigrants is a complicated one, with a long history and many facets. Texans, proud of their history as a former nation which fought to gain its independence from Mexico, remain somewhat keenly aware that many of the Latinos in Texas never immigrated here at all.  For the most part, the white folks were the immigrants.  History is what history is, and  I don't think most white Texans would go so far as to apologize for the way that things played out, but for the average Texan, I think there's still a little collective memory about how our state was a homeland to a large Latino population long before the gringos started showing up.  In fact, by its very culture, most of Texas is a very "Tex Mex" state.  We eat Mexican food, listen to Mexican music, celebrate Mexican holidays, and incorporate the Spanish language into our vocabulary.  These facts fact don't define the debate on illegal immigration by any means, but I think that they do factor into the discussion on some level, whether plainly stated or implied.  Even more important to the modern debate on illegal immigration is probably the fact that undocumented workers in Texas help to perform part of the bedrock of the economy, constituting very significant portions of the construction, agriculture, and service industries. While some might argue that illegal immigrants  consume a disproportionate amount of health care, education, and other services, progressives respond that many illegals contribute to the economy through tax witholding, sales, and other taxes, and that, in any case, they would contribute more if the law would allow them to do so.  The relatively cheap labor provided by undocumented workers helps keep down the prices of food, housing, and a variety of services. Texas companies and citizens have long benefited from the work of undocumented aliens who have been willing to work at wages that would be considered unacceptable to many legal citizens.  Consequently, right or wrong, the work of undocumented immigrants in Texas has long subsidized the cost of living for Texas citizens.

So the citizens of Texas have peacefully co-exited with our Latino neighbors, both the citizens and the non-citizens, for a long time.  I think that most Texans, regardless of their particular stance on illegal immigration, don't see their day-to-day interaction with undocumented aliens as a huge problem or a big priority.  Sure there may be problems with drug smuggling, human trafficking, or other criminal activities at the border, and most Texans would agree that these problems need to be addressed by the justice system or Homeland Security, but, by and large, we're not too concerned about Mexican nationals who travel into Texas to take jobs.  These things have been happening for a very long time, and they just haven't been a cause for alarm.

The thing that's disconcerting about the "Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day" is that it sort of underscores a mindset in which these university students have come to believe that there's an entire class of people out there whom they can ridicule and publicly mock without any fear of public condemnation.
On a surface level, it's not all that difficult to see how they arrived at this mindset.  Entering our country without legal permission is a crime, and part of the punishment for being a criminal comes with knowing that society does not condone, tolerate, or support your actions.  Knowing that people will think less of you for being a criminal is part of the deterrence process that has traditionally gone along with our basic theory of criminal justice. 
But, unsurprisingly, there's a little more nuance to the situation than these young college conservatives were willing to admit.  For starters, all crimes are not equal, nor is the social condemnation that goes with them.  Crimes of conscience or politically motivated civil disobedience, for example, have rarely met with the same level of disapproval that other crimes have garnered.  I'm not trying to say that unauthorized entry into the U.S. is the same thing as getting arrested in a protest march and writing A Letter from Birmingham Jail, but both arrests arguably stem from a refusal or inability to comply with an arguably flawed governmental system.  Both acts arise from an unwillingness to comply with rules that could be seen as unjust, and neither act is performed with an intention to cause harm.
As a matter of fact, I think most progressives would argue that this young conservative group, by sponsoring an event which attempts to denigrate an entire class of people, has done more to harm their neighbors than any harm that's been caused by illegal immigrants in the act of unlawfully entering the U.S.  Entering a country in order to earn a livable wage or to support your family seems far less offensive to most progressives than hosting a mean spirited event in which a group of people is systematically hunted down because of a non-violent crime and legal status.

Anyway, I think one thing is clear.  Until the Texas-Mexico border is locked down completely or immigration reform makes illegal immigration much less common, Texans are going to be living in and around a fair number of undocumented people.  As has been the case for a long, long time, these people are often are employees, co-workers, neighbors, and, not infrequently, friends of Texas citizens.  Questions regarding immigration policy and the law are wide open for debate.  The way that we treat the people around us should not be.  Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  If people aren't disrespecting you, you shouldn't disrespect them.  If they aren't hurting anyone, the law and the justice system should be the organizations concerning themselves with the matter.  We don't need to feed notions of a caste system or socially acceptable prejudice.  Doing so just isn't American.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Muddled Intro

I'm a Democrat.  I consider myself to be a pretty staunch Democrat, and I consider myself to be progressive, if not outright liberal.  I live in Texas.  More specifically, I live in Austin, Texas.
It's an interesting time to be what I consider to be a moderate Democrat in Austin, Texas.

Texas, of course, on the whole, has been a very conservative state for decades.  When I was growing up here, Texas still had some of its traditional Democratic roots.  Mark White was a Democratic governor when I was in junior high, and Ann Richards was governor while I was in college.  By the time I was graduating from college in 1995, Karl Rove, George W. Bush, and their campaign team had begun to seize upon and foster a shift in public perception in which the Republican party became associated not only with fiscal conservatism, a robust military, and aggressive foreign policy, but also with a conservative Christian outlook and value structure.  In the culture clash between conservatives and liberals, in the gross oversimplification and debate of issues on a range of topics ranging from prayer in schools to abortion to gay rights to the war on drugs, Texans seemed to seize upon the notion that the Republican party represented "traditional" religious values while the Democrats (and liberals in general) consisted of a confused, misguided, and potentially dangerous group which had lost their way in terms of protecting the American way of life.

George W. Bush, by almost all accounts a party animal in his youth with an admitted drinking problem, ran for office as a born again Christian, and his entire party took on an evangelical tone as they sought to draw in voters who felt an affinity for their candidates by way of the Republican party's new affiliation with conservative Christianity.

So I live in a state which has been pretty conservative for a long time,  but it hasn't always been solidly Republican.  There are those of us who still remember the days when Texas wasn't a GOP stronghold (although I'm not old enough to remember the days when Texas had about a 100 year run of back to back Democratic governors).
Since 1995, though, it's been tough going for the Democrats in Texas.  Statewide elections consistently and repeatedly put Republicans in office, with the runs for most major offices being decided during the Republican primary.

There are some notable exceptions, though.  Austin, the state's capital, has remained solidly blue despite the Republican shift that has occurred in the rest of the state.  I'm not really sure of the reason for this.  We have a fairly well educated population (a 2010 study by the Brooking Institution had the Austin metro area ranked as the 8th best educated city in the country, using college degrees as a measure), we have a major university located in our city, we're the center of state government, and we serve as a technology center.  We have a population which is heavily involved with education, government, and technological innovation, so maybe the combination of these three things results in a higher than average number of Democrats.
But we're a blue island in a sea of red.  The rest of the state is mostly Republican.  We have some Democratic strongholds down in South Texas, where the Latino vote tends to keep the GOP at bay, but mostly we're Republican.  Austin remains staunchly, defiantly Democratic- a political character which often put the city at odds with the conservative state legislature and the various elected leaders who hold statewide political office.

Interestingly, in the metro areas, we currently have quite a few Democrats serving as mayors.  Julian Castro in San Antonio, Mike Rawlings in Dallas, Annisse Parker in Houston.  All Democrats.  Although the Republicans in big cities may still choose to vote for conservatives in national elections or for statewide offices, they seem to have been ceding the management of local political systems to Democrats- a group that often seems drawn to the wonkiness and minutia of operating governments at the city and county level.

Annnyway, it's an interesting time to be a Democrat and to be living in Austin.

Texas has been doing a pretty good job of luring companies to relocate to our state for a number of years now.  With lower business taxes, no state income tax, taxpayer generated business enterprise stimulus funds, lax regulatory policies, and union busting right-to-work laws, Texas has been fairly successful at encouraging companies from other parts of the country to pull up stakes and relocate to the Lone Star State.  Conservatives have touted this corporate relocation and its accompanying job growth as proof positive of the surefire benefits that are to be reaped by fostering a business-friendly culture.
Progressives, for their part, point out that in many parts of the state, the success of corporations and businesses relies upon a economic and political system which provided a lower quality of life for the state's residents.  Texas ranks 49th in the nation in terms of funding its public schools.  In 2012 Texas ranked worst in the nation in terms of delivery of health care services both for emergencies and for treatment of the chronically illIn 2012 Texas had the highest number of uninsured people in the country and ranked 8th in the nation in terms of having the most povertyTexas also has the highest percentage of minimum wage workers in the nation.  We also have some of the worst greenhouse gas emissions in the nation.
To progressives, Texas is a state with fantastic opportunity for the wealthy, built upon a corporate infrastructure which doesn't have employers paying their fare share to support the social infrastructure.  The working class and poor are essentially exploited in the name of corporate profits.  Companies move here because they feel fortunate to have found a place where they aren't asked to make a fair contribution to the state in which they're going to be operating.  They aren't being asked to educate their potential workers or to keep them healthy.  The tax dollars which are being spent by the Texas legislature are being spent on things like highways and infrastructure so that corporations can carry out transportation and shipping unimpeded.  Texas doesn't provide a lot of financial support for things like congestion-fighting commuter rail systems or other sustainable transportation options.  Any system that's designed to carry commercial cargo and freight, though, is bound to get some love.

Anyway, Texas, as I keep saying, is an interesting place. 
I'm a progressive.  It's my home, and I've been here since I was a very young grade school kid.  I love the place, warts and all.
I have to say, even though I'd categorize myself as a liberal, I have some respect for certain aspects of the Texas conservative agenda and methodology.  I respect the way that they aggressively pursue job creation and constantly struggle to keep business flowing into the state.  I respect the way that they're wary of creating a culture of dependency.  I'm a progressive, but I'm still a "teach a man to fish" sort of guy.  You can't grow up in Texas and not come away from the experience without a lot of respect for ideals associated with self reliance, independence, a strong work ethic, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
The issues in Texas, and the places where many progressives would like to see things change, has to do with balance.  We want corporations to come to Texas, but we don't want the companies that move here to have to do their fair share in terms of helping to support the social infrastructure of their new home.  We don't think that allowing companies to poison our air is really such a great way to encourage job growth.  In short, I guess we want businesses to feel welcome to operate here, but we want them to be good neighbors.

Well, that's it for now.
I hope that's a good start.  I have a lot more to say, for sure, but I need to learn to say things a little bit at a time.  Probably best that way for everyone, right?