When extremists hijack the immigration debate

A friend of mine asked me, during the height of the pro-immigrant demonstrations, “So what’s the problem? What does Mexico need? More jobs, huh?” He believes like most people that all you have to do is put salve on a sore spot. He wants a quick-fix answer.

Ronald Reagan once said, “There are no easy answers, but there are simple ones.” It’s that kind of flashlight perspective that’s needed now. Away from my Texas home, I am more concerned about how the U.S. presence of undocumented immigrants, as a public policy issue, got hijacked. It has been turned into something frightening, even before hard issues concerning future U.S.-Mexico relations are addressed seriously. Take, for instance, Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist’s scary threat to the Orange County Register: “I will not promote violence in resolving this, but I will not stop others who might pursue that.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org) reports that elected U.S. officials were targets of death threats after the Senate Judiciary Committee backed President Bush’s guestworker plan. Still other threats were made against the protesters and even Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Postings to a Yahoo user group called “Close Borders” advocate killing young, pro-immigration protesters. One nativist wants nuclear weapons to guard our border.

Some of these agitators are linked to white-supremacist groups. Some insist there’s a Latino “reconquista” conspiracy to take back the Southwest.

You might say the above threats come from the nut and violent fringe. But consider that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano just had to veto one bill that would have allowed local police to arrest migrants on “trespassing” charges and another measure to put more U.S. troops on the Mexican border by taking away the governor’s “commander in chief” authority over the National Guard.

Reporting on the spreading U.S. backlash, Mexico City media note a disappointment in the further erosion of the moral high ground the United States held previously. Hate acts and extreme measures are stealing the spotlight.

Extremists are helping put the United States in the tradition of the Great Diaspora when Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492; the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by the U.S. Congress in the late 19th century; and forced expulsions by the United States of “Mexicans,” including many who were U.S. citizens, during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The “authoritarian personality” has re-emerged in U.S. public affairs, not from common sense but from “an emotional response,” writes Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Such people “identify with the strong and are contemptuous of the weak.”

Because of relative prosperity and need for labor, U.S. businesses, weekend gardeners, carpenters, small contractors, and others have procreated a bastard in the family.

What if we apply Reagan’s “simple but not easy” answer to the undocumented immigrant issue and demonstrate the moral grit to take responsibility for our complicity? What if we make these workers and their families legitimate, not as a bad thing but a good one?

For our own society’s sake, it’s important to come clean by denouncing extremist nuts. After that, we can address the “jobs” thing in Mexico.

My friend listens to hard-right talk-radio as entertainment. There, hosts edge up ratings with inflammatory words about the weak. Somehow, the toxic information has invaded his discernment. He needs relief from their grip.

(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. He may be contacted by e-mail at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)