10 July 2009

Deconstructing Negative U.S. Attitudes Toward Mexican Immigrants

Immigration is the worldwide phenomenon of people escaping oppression and or seeking a better life in a new country. I have taken a particular interest in the plight of Mexican immigrants into the U.S. and have often become brokenhearted when my fellow citizens take a negative view of their presence in general, and their humanity in particular. Back during a Republican primary debate, the subject of immigration reform came up. One of the candidates was speaking on his belief that all illegal immigrants should be shipped back to Mexico, a giant Berlin type wall should be built along the border, and English should be the exclusive national language. He reasoned this through his view that a level of homogeneity is what ties a country together, establishes a common identity, and reinforces a joint history. While some of the concerns are valid, I worry about the xenophobic tendencies that seem to be the implicit motivating force. I worry that they exist on a continuum of hatred, even if on the lower end, that finds its apex in the warped ideas of Hitler, who promoted exclusive racial identity to an almost metaphysical realm:

"The state is a racial organism"; "Nature... puts living creatures on this globe and watches the free play of forces. She then confers the master's right on her favorite child, the strongest in courage and industry...The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness..."

As a Baha'i, I understand that racial diversity is one of the most important assets that we have as humans. Having immigrants among us gives a golden opportunity to grow spiritually, especially in perceived zero sum scenarios. It can also help to expand and enrich our perceptions and cultural life. By reaching out and integrating our efforts with those of different conceptual and cultural frameworks, we can hasten the arguably inevitable realization of the unity of humankind and deeply integrated norms of justice. I do think that there needs to be immigration reform that promotes both fairness and lawfulness, but when the emotional justifications against Mexican immigrants in general are deconstructed, it becomes hard to see how they don't arise from some point on the continuum of prejudice and even racism. I will attempt to deconstruct three emotional justifications against immigrants in general, the religious justification, the economic justification, and the national/cultural justification. I will spend the most time on the religious deconstruction because that is where I am most familiar.

The Religious Justification:

Compared to most advanced industrial nations, the United States is highly religious. While there is a great religious diversity, many of its beliefs and traditions come from a Protestant Christian inspiration. Mexican immigrants are also very religious, but they bring a whole different tradition of Christianity, Spanish Catholic mixed with a good deal of local fermentation, complete with home grown saints and prophetic visions. This religious culture is very foreign to many mainstream protestant neighborhoods. Here's a biblical explanation of why this shouldn't be a problem.

"The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." - Luke 6:5

This was a profound and controversial statement made by Jesus. It was a response to the Pharisees who criticized Him and His followers for eating and drinking on the Sabbath. A curious statement considering that he fully upheld the law.

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For Truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" - Matthew 5:17-19

The key concept here is that while he did not come to abolish the law, he did come to fulfill it. This distinction is key. Like in so many other cases, he uses a parable to draw the distinction:

"No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the will will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins." - Luke 5:36-3

Jesus, "Lord of the Sabbath", announces that he is the new wine, and the grace and salvation that he provides is the new wineskin, the fulfillment of the law. The implication of this is that all humans now have access to salvation, not just the Jews who had controlled the physical means previously. As Paul is to state later:

"But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and the circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God." - Romans 2:29

To justify this concept, Jesus quotes the book of Isaiah:

"'The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every ravine shall be filled up, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough roads smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" - Luke 3:4-6

This means that the gates had been opened, and all flesh now had access to the salvation of God, not just the Jews. Elsewhere he states:

"And not for the nation only, but that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" - John 11:52

"And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold, I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd. " - John 10:16

Naturally this was not an easy thing for many to accept, even for many of his closest followers. Peter, whom Jesus proclaimed "you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my My church", was hesitant to allow non-Jews into the Church. If Peter was the rock of the church, then Paul was the vision. He consistently pursued the teaching of everybody, no matter the background:

"For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. for just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly..." - Romans 12:3-6

Eventually Peter did come around, but it took a direct exhortation from God:

"And on the next day, as they were on their way, and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he beheld the sky opened up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, 'Arise, Peter, kill and eat!' But Peter said, 'By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.' And again a voice came to him a second time, 'what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy...' And as he talked with him, he entered, and found many people assembled. And he said to them, 'You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean...' 'I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to him.'" - Acts 10:9-35

One of the most compelling teachings of Jesus is unity in diversity. Through the spirit, people of all different colors, races, cultures, and customs can become united. In this realm, nobody can be considered above anybody else, a revolutionary teaching 2000 years ago and even today. Imagine if Christians had truly followed this guidance. They would not have engaged in colonization, slavery, war, and subjugation. In fact, many Christians acted like the Romans and the Pharisees who discriminated based upon race and nationality, effectively missing the point completely.

The Economic Justification:

A common argument against Mexican immigrants is that they push down wages of American workers, especially among high school dropouts. The evidence for this argument is inconclusive, and, in fact, there is a growing body of evidence against it. According to the 2000 census, immigrants made up 28 percent of workers without a high school education and 13 percent of total workers. George Borjas of Harvard University conducted a study comparing wage trends between groups with different education and work experience. By comparing groups with a large proportion of immigrants to groups with few immigrants, he concluded that, between 1980 and 2000, immigration caused wages to be 3 percent lower than they would have been. For high school dropouts, wages were 8 percent lower. Critics of immigration use this to support their case. They overlook what Borjas reports about immigrants' affect on investment. Firms who use cheaper immigrant labor use that surplus to invest more, creating more jobs in the process. Adjusted for capital stock, overall wages are unaffected and the loss of wages for high school dropouts is only 5 percent. Gianmarco Ottaviano of the University of Bologna and Giovanni Peri of the University of California-Davis point out that these findings should be adjusted, further considering that immigrants and natives often work in different types of jobs. Immigrants are often found doing construction, gardening and housework, while low-skilled natives often do logging and mining. Taking this into account, they conclude that Mexican immigrants' affect on the wages of high school dropouts is virtually nothing.

Much of the blame that Mexican immigrants get for taking jobs can be much better explained through the process of globalization. Freer economic trade has shone to produce net gains, but there are those who lose out in the process, especially those in the U.S. who are less educated. It is the role of the government to provide a safety net and promote retraining for a more advanced economy. By doing this Mexican immigration won't be perceived as much of a threat to employment. We should also be working to help Mexico improve its living conditions to the point that the desperate need to emigrate loses its salience.

The National/Cultural Justification:

I won't get too deep into this aspect because it is mainly philosophical. I have a firm conviction that no group of people can claim to have ultimate inheritance of any piece of land; clearly if we go back in history far enough, anthropological evidence shows that we all came from the same general region of Eastern Africa. That is not to say that one more powerful group has the right to displace another group, much like what happened to the Native Americans or Palestinians. There is clearly a direction in history towards greater cultural and political integration on a larger and larger scale. As technology and society advances, it becomes in peoples' economic best interest to engage with others on a larger and larger scale. If we think of nation states as fluid political, cultural, and economic constructs, then we must realize that the boundaries or composition of these constructs can and must change as realities on the ground change. Of course in the short term there is a natural need for the political jurisdiction by local authorities, proper documentation and regulation of the ebb and flow of population, property rights, the rule of law, and all the other good stuff of civil society, but that does not give anybody the inherent right to restrict the movement of others who are peacefully looking to find a better life for them and their families.

In conclusion, I am entirely convinced that it is necessary for all of us to shift a paradigm however implicit, that views diversity as a weakness, a deviation from some kind of over-romanticized cultural or national identity. By reaching out to all people, no matter how different they might seem to us, we can create a more unified world which is much greater than the sum of its parts.

"O contending peoples and kindred’s of the earth! Set your faces towards unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you. Gather ye together, and for the sake of God resolve to root out whatever is the source of contention amongst you. Then will the effulgence of the world's great Luminary envelop the whole earth, and its inhabitants become the citizens of one city, and the occupants of one and the same throne...There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are subjects of one God. " -Baha'u'llah


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  2. Yay Jason! Well said!
    I've recently become close to a family of immigrants and I've been seeing up close how wrong this idea of illegal is. The family has been in this country 10 years. For the kids this country is the only home they've ever known, yet they're made to feel like they're criminals here; Illegally breathing air that isn't theirs. Although the father is intelligent and hard working, he can only bring in enough money to sustain what to most Americans would be an unbearable standard of living.
    And what did I do to deserve my perfectly legit U.S. citizenship? I was born here. Good for me!!