throwing blame


As I headed out from an appointment on Wednesday, I walked passed a recently delivered newspaper on the ground outside the office building. It was folded up inside a clear plastic bag. The following headline jumped out at me:

ICE¹ sweep nets 5 local immigrants
Officials say those who commit crimes deserve ticket out of town

I bent over to get a better look, and to read the portion of the article² that was visible through the plastic. I was disturbed. The headline and the article seemed to suggest that immigrants are criminals.

A closer reading of the article revealed that in fact the individuals who had been arrested were charged with various crimes, some of them more serious than others, and in addition were immigrants. (Well, actually, they were tracked down because they were immigrants who had committed these crimes.)

At the same time, the article did contain various subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that illegal immigrants are somehow menacing. Take this section about the reactions of a local police chief:

“I don’t have a problem with them going around and trying to round up these illegal immigrants,” said [town] Police Chief [...]. “Illegal immigration just can’t be tolerated.”

With two convicted criminals from his town arrested, the chief said it’s high time the government start getting illegal aliens off the streets. The group has largely been overlooked in the past, “creating a problem on a couple of angles that people don’t want to look at,” he said.

[Town] Police are seeing some crimes increase with illegal immigration, particularly unlicensed automobile operation charges.

One overarching problem I have with the article is the way the discourse is framed. A careful reading of the article shows that the particular individuals arrested had been convicted of crimes. But let’s face it. Not everyone takes the time to read articles closely. It would be all too easy for a reader to be left with the impression that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes, and that illegal immigrants are particularly threatening. Consider this phrase, taken out of its context:

crimes increase with illegal immigration.

No discussion of the complexity of the issues and no contrary viewpoints were offered. The tone of the article is congratulatory towards the ICE. A casual reader would have the impression that the general public attitude towards this ICE sweep is of approval. That the issues are clearcut. Even that the arrest of these individuals is just the surface of the festering problem of “criminal aliens”.

The article, as well as many ostensibly neutral reportings of issues relating to immigration in the media, reflects a subtle undercurrent of anti-immigrant sentiment. (And don’t even get me started on the venomous hardcore anti-immigration set.)

This increased xenophobia quite honestly reminds me of other dark times in our world’s history. When things look dark, whether it’s because of plague or economic depression or threats of war, people look for someone to blame. When the issues are complex, it is hard to pinpoint the source of the problem. What it is easy to do is pick some group to shoulder the blame. Communists. Gypsies. Jews. Witches.

Our country is at war. Gas prices and living expense are rising. Homelessness and unemployment rates are high. Many people are finding it hard to make ends meet. People want answers. People want solutions. But because these are not quick or easy to achieve, people want to blame. It’s so much easier to blame the other, because blaming those that are too close to us seems not to accomplish anything. Lately, immigrants, especially those that have violated current immigration laws, have been offered up and targeted for blame.

The issue of immigration is one that I think about often, though I have not yet ventured to write on the topic. It’s been hard to work myself up it, even though I have many thoughts I’d like to write down. For the most part, though, I write about fairly lightweight topics on this blog. This is because I write primarily for my own amusement and for the potential entertainment of others. I like to write with humor, even when the topics touch on seriousness. But I just can’t find anything funny about the growing hate and intolerance evidenced in the discussion of immigration issues.

—————————————–

¹ US Immigration and Customs Enforcement

² Note: The online headline reads: Immigrants face deportation³

³ Note (added later): I forgot to mention that I stopped to buy my own copy of the paper on my way home, so that I could read the article more closely. Which is how I noticed the two different headlines.

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21 responses to “throwing blame

  1. honestly, i have trouble with this. illegal immigrants are, by definition, criminals. they have committed the crime of being in the country illegally. perhaps most are hardworking, otherwise non-criminally-minded individuals, but that simple fact – that they have skirted the nation’s immigration laws – makes them deserving of closer scrutiny. i do not know enough about the state of our immigration laws to cogently discuss whether their prosecution to the fullest extent of the law is ethical, but my gut feeling (which is not always right) is to round them up, ship them home, and prosecute those who employ them in the u.s.

    while i will admit to being fairly classist (something i am coming to terms with in my oh-so-advancing age), i don’t have an issue with immigration to the united states per se. i am very resistant toward the notion of a neutral approach to illegal immigrants, however. there are legal ways of entering the country; millions of people have become permanent residents or naturalized citizens after entering legally. but i think what often gets overlooked is that turning a blind eye toward illegal entrants denigrates the work and effort of those who have entered legally.

  2. i challenge any of us to live in third world conditions, to bury our children when they die of malnutrition of the lack of clean water, eat out of the trash and then not do whatever is in our power to come to the “land of the free” and try to do right by our children.

    i’d break that law in a hot minute.

    besides, and this makes me so, so angry. we use up over 70% of the world’s resources and then expect to also keep people away. it’s staggering, all of it.

  3. alejna- The immigration issue has been a hot topic on that yfu yahoo group that i told you about. I still think you would be a great addition to the discussion. I’ll forward you some of the posts.

    It’s too much of a complex issue for me to tackle– on the one hand one can say there is a symbiotic relationship between migrant workers and businesses (ie: construction, hosptiality, food service, and agriculture) that it keeps our prices low because migrant workers will work for sub-minimum or non-union wages. On the other hand, many feel this is another way to exploit others from 3rd world origins and that it lowers wages for legal American workers. I can see both sides of the issue, and I don’t have any answers. With our market-driven capitialist system, I don’t have any real-world kind of solutions. But it’s true, historically when the economy takes a downturn, a culture tends to look for scapegoats. The article that you referenced sounds very biased.

    jen- well put by the way.

  4. jenny:

    While you make some good points, especially about prosecuting those who employ and exploit illegal immigrants, I have to question whether our current response is proportionate to the crime. (It’s a long article, but well worth the read. Dave Neiwert is a great resource on immigration issues, and much more, including hate crimes, white supremacy, and local orcas.)

    In the current atmosphere, certain parties are doing their best to monger fear by conflating immigrants with terrorists. They talk about “porous borders” and “suitcase bombs” as if every person who speaks with an accent is immediately suspect. Any criminal act committed by a foreigner (with or without a green card) becomes an indictment of all (non-tourist) foreigners on our shores.

    I do not believe that this kind of response is doing anything better than pandering to the worst among (and within) us, and I do believe that we will not be able to formulate an effective, humane immigration strategy while this kind of scapegoating is going on.

    (And do please read the Orcinus link… It documents only a few of the excesses and extremes that our immigration policy has led to.)

  5. Just one more link: an interesting articleontheeconomicimpactofillegalimmigration.

  6. Wow, wordpress really mangled that last comment.

  7. What jen said. Exactly.

    I know people who have a post-secondary education and are very well off who find it difficult to jump through all the hoops required to obtain legal immigrant status in my country. Imagine trying to pull all that off without all of those advantages.

    I’ll have to follow the references jwbates left at another time, but I’m interested to read them.

  8. I’m with Jen too. I think the author of that article clearly framed it as he sees it, which is unfortunate. But then again, that’s how I’ve seen much of the media lately, sometimes not much more than a glorified ad for ______ .

  9. jen – your argument sounds an awful lot like the ethical dilemmas we used to have to discuss in third grade (is it okay for a broke husband to steal medicine for his sick wife?).

    while i accept that the u.s. is complicit in many of the problems in LDCs, as well as having a voracious appetite for energy and natural resources totally out of proportion with its size, as a sovereign nation the u.s. is well within its rights to restrict immigration as it sees fit. i fully reject the notion that the u.s.’ failings make the criminal behavior of foreign nationals somehow acceptable. (or to quote my mother, “just because your sister did something bad doesn’t mean that you should, too.”)

    jwbates – thanks for the links. i found the orcinus article fascinating (especially b/c it addressed exactly the gap in my knowledge i noted above). i’m going to digest it some more, so my initial comment will be very brief: the lack of judicial discretion under IIRIRA may well be the most problematic part of the law.

    the nyt link on the cost of illegal immigration brought up a very different issue for me, though. two points stand out in the article’s argument regarding the benefits of illegal immigration:

    For instance, the availability of foreign workers at low wages in the Nebraska poultry industry made companies realize that they had the personnel to expand. So they invested in new equipment, generating jobs that would not otherwise be there.

    i wonder if this is the same poultry industry that engages in wholesale worker intimidation and abuse, resulting in increased workplace injuries and OSHA violations, because the companies can exploit the precarious situation of illegals? this article from human rights watch sets out the problem nicely.FN1

    the nyt article goes on to write,

    In California’s strawberry patches, illegal immigrants are not competing against native workers; they are competing against pickers in Michoacán, Mexico. If the immigrant pickers did not come north across the border, the strawberries would.

    this makes no sense to me whatsoever. is the article really arguing that we should accept illegal immigration because if we didn’t, we’d have to buy imported strawberries? while my grasp of economic theory is admittedly shaky, i have to question why imported strawberries would be problematic – especially if they came from countries that are sending illegal immigrants northward. if california didn’t have an immigrant-supported strawberry industry, there would be greater demand for mexican strawberries – and, i would assume, a greater demand for strawberry pickers inside mexico. more mexican jobs is somehow a bad thing?

    finally, there’s something that i didn’t see in the nyt calculus, and i would imagine to be important. that is the burden placed by illegal immigrants on the public school system and the public health system (such as it is). as far as i’m aware, illegal immigrants generally don’t pay income or property taxes and do consume social programs such as public education and public health care (through hospital ERs). i don’t know if this would contribute a net gain or loss to the economy, but this seems to be rarely addressed in pro-immigration pieces.
    __________________________
    FN1 i also have something of a personal interest in the exploitation of immigrant labor, whether legal or illegal. my great-uncle, a 1909 arrival to the u.s., worked as a young teenager in the chicago stockyards. the conditions and abuses my grandmother documented in the 1910s are very similar to those documented by HRW in the 2000s.

  10. jenny-

    (note: I’ll just respond to your first comment here. I haven’t had a chance to digest your second one yet.)

    I appreciate your viewpoint, though I disagree with you on several points. As I mentioned, all of the issues are complex.

    One of my points about the article was not so much arguing against calling illegal immigrants criminals, though I’m not comfortable with that due to the violent and threatening connotations of the word, but that it seemed to suggest, through its collocation of terms, that all immigrants should be more suspect of criminal behavior. It promotes fear and fans the fires of xenophobia.

    Other commonly used terms in discussing immigration issues also disturb me, like “rounding up” and “sweep”. Both strike me as dehumanizing, with “rounding up” making me think of cattle or sheep, and “sweep” reminding me of, well, sweeping dirt.

    I’m not even necessarily opposed to the ICE actions described in the article above: arresting people for the crimes mentioned seems, without knowing the full story, like an appropriate action. (Though it was not clear to me, actually, whether these were new crimes. The article mentions that people were “convicted” of crimes, which makes me wonder about the history. It actually could be the case that some of those arrested had gone through official channels to enter and live in the US, but whose records were discovered to have convictions.)

    I’d like to think that there are solutions somewhere in between “turning a blind eye” to illegal immigrants (many of whom are not actually illegal entrants, but illegal “stayants,” by the way, whose work or student visas have expired), and treating them all like dangerous criminals.

    I take your point about the work of those immigrants who have worked hard to live here by going through legal channels. However I don’t agree that finding solutions to allow “illegal” immigrants to become “legal” necessarily would denigrate the efforts of those who have already jumped through the hoops. I can see how people would find it frustrating, as it is always frustrating when some other group has gotten privileges that you didn’t get, but for me, the humanitarian concerns outweigh this.

  11. jen-
    It does seem that in such cases there is a gap between doing what is right and doing what is “legal.”
    I also have a lot of anger and frustration over these issues. I wish that more resources could go towards preventing the need for people to uproot themselves and leave their homes, rather than further punishing people who are victims of circumstance.

    maja-
    Thanks for thinking of me for that discussion. I’m sure I’d be very interested. And yes, it is a hugely complex issue. Thanks also for your input on the migrant worker/business relationship.

    jwbates-
    Thanks for those links. I’ll have to read them when I have a chance.
    The fear-mongering you mention, the conflation of immigrants with terrorists, is exactly the kind of thing that worries me about the framing of the immigration discourse. The article I read, while it made no such elaborately paranoid suggestions, might make people who have heard such claims more inclined to believe in them.

    Sage-
    Good point. And even those who have the way “paved” for them, such as those refugees who are awarded permanent residence visas and who have agencies working with them, still find it hard to jump through the hoops.

    KC-
    Yes, the flavor of the article is, unfortunately, not a rarity. That is in part why I’ve finally been moved to start speaking out, in spite of my trepidation about broaching a topic that has become so controversial.

  12. Jenny:

    The questions you raise are good ones, and I’ll point you at a couple more links: Orcinus, again, and a study by the Urban Institute summarizing the use of the US welfare system by immigrants (doesn’t seem to be specific to undocumented workers). This link, from the same site, is also interesting.

    Regarding strawberry picking chickens, I’d respond that the people most deserving of criminal treatment are exactly the ones that you point at: the companies who exploit illegal workers to lower production costs and boost profits. And *they* are the ones would find Mexican strawberries problematic: because they are *not* Californian strawberries, or Nebraska chickens. Overall, I regard it at as an economic and societal problem to be importing significant amounts of our food supply, but that’s a different discussion. I *do* think, though, that we should regard it as a fundamental responsibility of our corporations to provide decent working conditions and wages to their workers, and we should treat as grossly criminal their attempts to skirt that responsibility.

    In fact, I saw an interesting policy proposal: offer green cards to whistle-blowers. If you are undocumented, snitching on your employer gets you a “Stay in the US” pass, free. To me, that gets the criminality equation almost right, although I have concerns about how effective it would be if snitching on your employer also resulted in snitching on all of your fellow undocumented workers.

    Immigration is something we’ve dealt with as a country for more than two centuries. I do not believe that we are in any kind of “crisis” or are facing any kind of existential threat that needs to be neutralized. Alejna’s got it exactly right: our discourse is being poisoned, not just by the big headlines, but by the little articles in small-town newspapers that casually demonize immigrants.

  13. alejna – good point on the illegal entrants v. illegal stayants distinction. i should not have used the specific term “entrants” when that is not the source of the violation of law.

    moving on from the illegal v. legal distinction, as that doesn’t really seem to be the issue that you’re commenting on. (and thanks for pointing that out to me; i often focus on trees rather than forests.)

    i realize that the temper in the u.s. seems to be, once again (and this is a significant point, i believe), trending toward the anti-immigration. this is nothing new, however – while i don’t have the time to dig out my own bibliography, this article appears to be well-annotated, both on the history of anti-immigrant sentiment in the u.s. and on u.s. government and corporate behavior that is complicit in creating an economic climate that promotes increased latin american immigration to the u.s.

    is anti-immigrant sentiment any more dangerous now than it was earlier in the nation’s history? the u.s. weathered earlier storms; those of irish and german and bohemian and italian descent don’t seem to be subject to marginalization by the mainstream. is the discourse, as jwbates put it, really any more poisonous now than it was a century ago?

    or is it simply writ larger, involving greater numbers of people (both foreign- and domestic-born), and faster communications? this would, i think, lead to the appearance of a deeper problem.

    or perhaps to approach it slightly differently, post-industrialization-spasms, post-WWII, has the bar of acceptable treatment of our fellow humans been raised? it seems to me that popular concepts of basic human dignity, basic human rights, and the level at which (or even definition of) basic human needs should be met have changed greatly over time, particularly in higher-income, western nations. or is it that the concepts haven’t changed all that much, but that with increased wealth the gap between philosophical ideals and attainable goals has narrowed to the point that injustices, such as those pointed out by jen, loom larger and seem more acute?

    regardless of our different approaches to the issue of illegal immigration, i know i’ve benefited from your focus on the impact of language, and on how issues are framed. my own interpretations tend toward the literal: for example, to me there is no inherent violence or threat in the term “criminal” – it is simply a word that identifies an individual, behavior or action as violative of a particular type of law.

  14. jenny, great dialogue. but again, i disagree.

    why are these other countries in the predicament they are in? what contributions did the US make to the destabilization of other countries via public and private entities? What debt have we saddled these small countries with? What unreasonable terms have we placed on the repayment of that debt? What has that done to the ability for third world countries to sustain themselves?

    We take. We keep taking. We create desperation and then turn and point fingers. You noted our complicity. When do we pay the price for that?

    If it sounds like a third grader argument, I’d argue because it’s as simple as that.

  15. Alejna, on a somewhat different note, I just finished The Devil’s Highway. It’s a horrifying look at illegal immigration from a personal perspective.

  16. jenny-
    Thanks for your interesting comments and contributions to this discussion. I’m hoping to have a chance to respond to you in more depth, but I haven’t had much time today. And tonight, I have some vegetables to wrestle with (I’m running behind) and then some work work to do. (Plus I only got about 4 non-consecutive hours of sleep last night. So I’m not sure I’m capable of too much coherent writing/thinking at this point. Whine whine whine, blah-de-blah blah. Excuses, excuses.) Anyhow, my point is that I do want to continue this discussion, but probably won’t have a chance until late tomorrow at the earliest.

    jen-
    Thanks for your additional points, and for the pointer to the book. (Book, yes?) It’s probably something I’d be very interested in, though I expect it would leave me feeling bruised and traumatized.

  17. Jumping in the discussion late- Jenny, it seems like you’re saying that it’s not so bad that immigrants are treated badly now because they were in the past, and survived. Maybe I’m misinterpreting your words, if so I’m sorry. I rather think that anything defined as “anti- ‘people group’ sentiment” wasn’t any less wrong then than it is now, regardless of whether people recognized that it was wrong or not. I think basic morality transcends culture, though I know many people would not agree.

    I know the immigration issue is a complicated one and I’m not really sure who’s right but the first thing I thought of when I read this post was how chillingly similar the article in question was to newspaper articles from over a century ago in a book I’m reading. Then, the articles were about black people living in southern towns and they usually preceded “racial cleansings” of a type and magnitude that I had no idea had ever existed in this country. Horrifying.

    The book is called Buried in the Bitter Waters.

  18. Jess-

    Thanks for stopping by, and adding to the discussion. Thanks also for the book referral. It is chilling to see the parallels to the way groups have been targeted in the past.

  19. jenny-

    Sorry I’ve been so slow to respond to your comments. I appreciate the thought that you’ve given the topics, and you’ve brought up a bunch of interesting points.

    There are a couple of points I’ve been wanting to respond to in particular. First, you said:

    finally, there’s something that i didn’t see in the nyt calculus, and i would imagine to be important. that is the burden placed by illegal immigrants on the public school system and the public health system (such as it is). as far as i’m aware, illegal immigrants generally don’t pay income or property taxes and do consume social programs such as public education and public health care (through hospital ERs). i don’t know if this would contribute a net gain or loss to the economy, but this seems to be rarely addressed in pro-immigration pieces.

    I want to point out that while illegal immigrants presumably don’t pay property taxes, neither does anyone else who does not own property. Namely, anyone who rents their home. I don’t have statistics, but I would expect that this would constitute a substantial percentage of all U.S. residents. I would also expect that a portion of rent collected would be used by landlords to pay property taxes, and so rent-payers indirectly do contribute. As for income taxes, there are actually some illegal immigrants who have paid back taxes (I saw a NYT article, but I’ll get the link later). However, most illegal immigrants would most likely fall into the lowest income brackets anyhow, meaning that they would likely not actually be required to pay Federal income tax. As for the Medicare and Social Security taxes that other low-income earners must pay, as things stand now, those who don’t pay those taxes will not be eligible to receive those benefits.

    You are right that social programs are burdened, but I think the heart of this problem is in the system itself. Having schools rely so heavily on local taxes, for example, only serves to keep strengthen socioeconomic inequities. Kids who live in wealthy neighborhoods get better schools, those who live in poor neighborhoods get poor schools. You know the story.

    In general, I think the bulk of the burden is placed not on the social programs, but on the illegal immigrants themselves. Many are unable to afford healthcare at all, or may be afraid to seek it out. Someone benefits from their hard work, whether it’s the unethical employers or the consumers who buy the products that are cheaper due to the cheap migrant labor. Meanwhile, those who contribute the work have no voice in government. And they live under the threat of having their lives once more torn asunder, risk losing the property that they have worked for, and being separated from their family, some of whom may be legal residents. They have no insurance, literally or figuratively.

    The other topic I wanted to respond to is from your third comment. You are totally right that anti-immigration sentiment is nothing new. It has a history in this country (and thanks for that article, by the way) and in plenty of other countries. You ask:

    is anti-immigrant sentiment any more dangerous now than it was earlier in the nation’s history? the u.s. weathered earlier storms; those of irish and german and bohemian and italian descent don’t seem to be subject to marginalization by the mainstream. is the discourse, as jwbates put it, really any more poisonous now than it was a century ago?

    or is it simply writ larger, involving greater numbers of people (both foreign- and domestic-born), and faster communications? this would, i think, lead to the appearance of a deeper problem.

    More dangerous or poisonous? Is the problem deeper? I can’t say. But quite honestly, worse than the past or not, I don’t find it acceptable. I want progress. Sure, the U.S. will recover as a whole. Sure, maybe those groups aren’t marginalized by the mainstream now in the way they were decades ago. (Though off the top of my head, I suspect that there are residual effects of the marginalization. Are German-, Irish- and Italian-American groups represented in government at a rate that reflects their population, for example? I really have no idea, though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn otherwise.)

    Let me offer up a metaphor, because I am so partial to them. If a body can survive a wound, should the person tolerate the injury?

    Because the answer for me is no. The xenophobia that I see turning mainstream is injurious not only to the immigrant groups that are targeted directly, but to our country as a whole. I think that we will see scars, especially if things continue to follow this ugly trend.

    or perhaps to approach it slightly differently, post-industrialization-spasms, post-WWII, has the bar of acceptable treatment of our fellow humans been raised? it seems to me that popular concepts of basic human dignity, basic human rights, and the level at which (or even definition of) basic human needs should be met have changed greatly over time, particularly in higher-income, western nations. or is it that the concepts haven’t changed all that much, but that with increased wealth the gap between philosophical ideals and attainable goals has narrowed to the point that injustices, such as those pointed out by jen, loom larger and seem more acute?

    Has the bar been raised? I hope so. It should be. Perhaps you are right that the concepts of human needs, rights and dignity haven’t changed much, at least philosophically. But how I can reconcile this with atrocities committed within the last century, the last decades, and even the last years? Because I am appalled by the number of people who are not having their basics needs met, and are having their basic dignity violated.

    As for my middle-class self, your point about “the gap between philosophical ideals and attainable goals” certainly strikes a chord.

    For the question of the nuances of the term criminal, I see your point, especially knowing that you have a law background. It would be an interesting study to do, though, in the realm of psycholinguistics. Seeing how many people read the “dangerous” connotation into the term. (I feel like the two words are commonly collocated.)

    Thanks again for your comments, and for making me think in more depth.

  20. This is fascinating. I don’t have anything to add to the discussion, because it’s something I feel I know so little about, but I feel like I’m learning something here, so thank you.

  21. Pingback: the weekly pants « collecting tokens

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