Historians may well look back on last week's defeat of the immigration bill as a watershed moment. It was, for good or ill, a milestone in America's transformation into a "normal" country. Normal countries have arguments about their national identity and immigration's effect on it. In normal countries, it's not illegitimate to suggest that too many immigrants, or too many immigrants of a specific origin, may upset the social peace or do damage to the national culture. In America, however, to raise such concerns is to open yourself to charges of racism, bigotry, nativism and all-around hate.
Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the recent immigration bill was how its opponents managed to win despite having the deck stacked against them. Any reference to cultural objections to mass immigration from Mexico was automatically deemed reactionary and bigoted by proponents of the bill in the news media and on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, supporters of legalizing some 12 million illegal immigrants were free to use the cultural card as much as they liked. We are a nation of immigrants, we were told constantly. Immigrants make American society better. Anyone who disagreed with this was automatically lumped in with the forces of bigotry and hate. Referring to opponents of the bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, "We've been down this road before. No Catholics, no Jews, Irish, need not apply. That's not the America I want."
One could get bogged down in pointing out that few people have problems with immigrants applying. It's the part where they skip the application process and illegally jump the line that rankles. But the real point here is that even Southern conservative Republicans have bought into the idea that cultural arguments are legitimate only when employed in favor of massive Mexican immigration, never in opposition to it.
This is one reason why the economic impact of immigrants became such an outsized issue. At one point, the White House trumpeted a new study showing that immigration contributes about $30 billion a year to the economy. Even assuming the numbers are accurate, and leaving aside how it includes legal immigration, which was never at issue, that's still a trivial amount in a $13 trillion economy. But arguing about the numbers is a safe harbor for liberals and conservatives alike because you can't be called a hatemonger when you're debating dollars and cents. Similarly, hype about everything from leprosy to terrorists crossing the U.S.-Mexican border can be chalked up, in part, to a desire to talk around what's really bothering lots of people.