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.

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