The Extreme Takes Center Stage

Kerry Howley of the libertarian magazine Reason argues that the politics of 9/11 “dumbed down” the immigration debate, allowing virulent opponents of immigration like Rep. Tom Tancredo to take control of the terms of debate:

At the beginning of September 2001, immigration was much in the news. President Bush wanted to legalize more Mexicans who were working in America without documentation, and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) was loudly opposed. Business leaders said immigrants would bring economic growth; Phyllis Schlafly said they would bring tuberculosis.. Amnesty was a dirty word. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) told The New York Times, “Fences are going to go down between these two countries.” Republican conservatives opposed legalization, and President Bush started to hedge.

After the attacks, according to Howley, discussion of comprehensive immigration reform was dropped. Now that the “conversation has returned to immigration from Mexico,” she writes, the “debate is almost the same” except that “the Tom Tancredos of the world now counter with the lexicon of terror.”

Just as Iraqis and Saudis somehow became indistinguishable in the rhetorical aftermath of 9/11, Middle Eastern terrorists who come by air are conflated with Mexicans who come on foot. The skies are calm, but the desert teems with invaders. Immigrants are no longer poor people looking for jobs, or even unapologetic lawbreakers, but living symbols of the holes they slipped through.

We didn’t have a plan for immigration reform then, and we don’t have one now. The shift is conceptual, captured in language if not in law. When Joe Lieberman told The New York Times that “fences are going to go down between these two countries,” he was expressing a mainstream political position. The most illuminating part of this sentiment is not the hope Lieberman expressed but the cliché he chose to express it. Back in 2001, after all, the word fence was just a metaphor.

This last year’s succession of events – from the emergence of the vigilante Minutemen, to the draconian House bill that made status violations into felonies, to the House Republicans’ traveling hearings this summer, to the anti-immigrant ordinances in a handful of small towns – make the summer 2001 debate about Mexican trucks seem quaint. Today, Tancredo and Pat Buchanan continue their talk of the need to preserve white culture against Mexican immigrants, and it’s apparently acceptable for a congressman to bring to the House floor a model of the electrified fence he would use to shock would-be border crossers, and say “we do this with livestock all the time.”