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.
But if advocates of comprehensive immigration reform are going to make any headway toward their goals, they're going to have to learn how to speak to those worried about the cultural impact that Mexican immigration is having on communities around the country without calling them racists or reactionaries incapable of coping with modernity.
In a piece last week on small-town America's revolt against the immigration bill, The Washington Post chronicled how elderly residents of Gainesville, Ga., were taken aback by the transformation of their bedroom community by a huge influx of Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants, parking on the grass, failing to understand how flush toilets work and the like. Of course, the Post couldn't help but point out that the bemused locals still have a monument to "Our Confederate Soldiers." Still, the Post was better than The New York Times, which in an earlier story cast grass-roots opponents as barely one generation removed from the cast of "Deliverance."
Now, the offense some take to the seeming underside of Mexican immigration might seem uncharitable, snobbish or bigoted to Post reporters, senators and editors at the Times, but such people tend to live in buildings or communities that protect themselves from poor working-class Mexican-Americans, and every other kind of poor American to boot (except as the help). Not a lot of Mexican immigrants are going to park on John Kerry's lawn or get approved by Maureen Dowd's condo board.
In France, the French are free to worry about staying French. Indeed, throughout the industrialized world, it's considered normal to talk about one's national character and culture. Nowhere else is the desire to control your border considered an act of bigotry.
Well, "Americanness" is no less real than "Frenchness." But in America, the logic of diversity has completely swamped any conception of Americanness as anything beyond platitudes about "inclusiveness." Worse, Americans who think real inclusiveness requires learning English are told that their kind of inclusiveness is actually exclusionary. This merely exacerbates resentments because such policies are the only surefire way toward assimilation.
The point here is not to say that America has become "too Mexican." Though it's ironic that liberals who see nothing wrong with talking about America, the GOP or various universities as being "too white," "too Christian," or not black or Hispanic enough should recoil in horror at such a thought. Rather it's simply to note that such concerns are normal, human reactions to changes many Americans feel they were never consulted on. How could they be consulted when so much immigration is illegal? Americans are proud of being citizens of the most inclusive country in the world. But is it so outrageous for them to want it to be a bit more of a normal country, too?
This column originally ran in USA Today on July 3.