Immigration and the Culture Wars

IMMIGRATION AND THE CULTURE WARS….Over at RCP, Brad Carson, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, argues that although raising the minimum wage and passing union-friendly legislation would be the best way to help the working class, goals like these are nothing more than “misplaced fantasies of egalitarian social policies” since Republicans are currently running the show in Washington DC. This in turn means we have no choice but to sign on to their solution for helping the working class instead. And their solution is a draconian crackdown on illegal immigration.

Now, the barons of the Republican Party have never been noticeably sensitive to the economic fortunes of the working class, but Carson thinks this time they really are responding to economic pain among the rank-and-file:

While the opponents of immigration no doubt include nativists and xenophobes, the vast majority of those who oppose illegal immigration do so on sound public policy grounds. Illegal immigration is seen rightly as a threat to their economic livelihood.

The vast majority? Really? Despite the fact that the economic impact of immigration is zero for most people and minimal even for high school dropouts? Despite the fact that working class whites don’t seem to be visibly fuming about their inability to get jobs picking grapes or working in sweatshops?

But if economics isn’t at the core of anti-immigrant sentiment, what is? John Tanton founded FAIR, the nation?s oldest and most influential immigration restriction group, in 1979, and for years he tried to preach an anti-immigration message based on economic and conservation grounds. But it didn’t work. Chris Hayes, who profiled Tanton recently in In These Times, tells us what did work:

Crisscrossing the country, Tanton…kept hearing the same complaint. ??I tell you what pisses me off,?? Tanton recalls people saying. ??It?s going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can?t read.? So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question.?

….So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a new group he created called U.S. English….The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their very identity was under assault. ?Feelings,? Tanton says in a tone reminiscent of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, ?trump facts.?

Indeed. Mickey Kaus says he’s astonished that an ex-congressman like Carson can bravely cut through the PC cant and “write clearly without cliches,” but in a 2004 piece that Mickey also links to, Carson had a rather different take on the motivations of his erstwhile red-state constituents: “For the vast majority of Oklahomans,” he wrote, “transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage.”

That’s exactly right. There’s probably some genuine job-based animus toward illegal immigrants in the construction industry, but elsewhere you barely need to scratch the surface to figure out that anti-immigrant anxiety mostly seems to revolve around crime, gangs, culture, language, social services, and bizarrely trumped up fears of reconquista. Can we stop kidding ourselves about this?