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What 'attack on our culture'? 

Three questions for immigrant bashers

The national debate over illegal immigration is close to careening out of control. Despite critics' claims to the contrary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have been rounding up undocumented workers in unprecedented numbers. Right-wing talking heads' language and tone have become more and more hateful. Physical attacks on Hispanics in the United States are spiking.

The government, as usual, can't help but look ridiculous. They "clean out" illegal workers at poultry plants, but leave immigrants' small children alone and unattended. ICE has detained and "deported" hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. citizens by mistake. In Fresno, Calif., the valedictorian of one of the city's high schools, Arthur Mikoyan -- whose 4.0 GPA helped get him into one of the state's best schools -- was told that as soon as he graduated, he and his mother would be deported back to Armenia; the Mikoyans have been seeking political asylum since 1992.

Sad to say, none of these developments are that surprising. Whenever hard times arrive, many people's first instinct is to look around for a foreigner (preferably a brown one) to blame for their problems, and conservative talk show hosts have been throwing those folks all the raw meat they can consume. Lou Dobbs is the "send 'em all home" movement's head cheerleader, but the right's drumbeat is all over the media these days. I recently heard the clownish Glenn Beck on CNN yell about how "the illegals" are "a scourge" that are "attacking our culture and our way of life." My first reaction was, "How in hell are they 'attacking our culture'? Are there too many Mexican restaurants to suit you, or what?"

I have three questions for folks who believe all 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States should be rounded up and deported -- and one of them isn't "How do feel about advocating a mass deportation on a scale that hasn't been seen since Jews were rounded up in Europe during World War II?"

The most frequently heard complaint about illegal immigrants is that "they're taking jobs away from Americans." My first question, then, is, "Can you show me one person who wanted a job that went, instead, to an illegal immigrant?" Personally, I can't imagine Lou Dobbs or his followers standing in line to snag a job trimming bushes or picking fruit.

You also hear the constant gripe that undocumented workers drain government resources while paying nothing into the system. So my second question is, "Do you think you could at least get your facts straight?" As Media Matters for America pointed out in a study of the issue, "even documented immigrants are ineligible for most forms of public assistance for the first five years they reside in the United States or until they attain citizenship." Never mind undocumented workers. As for paying taxes, the largest share of taxes paid by all low-income workers is in the form of sales tax, which, as we know, is impossible to avoid. Beyond that, as the Media Matters study notes, "most undocumented workers use false social security numbers to get jobs and, through paycheck deductions, pay taxes that they will never be able to draw benefits from."

My third question is, "Why do you bash the illegal immigrants who come here for jobs, and then grant a pass to the businesses who create illegal jobs to begin with?" We rarely hear criticisms of the employers who hire illegal immigrants. It's as if, in the midst of a national uproar over the issue, the business owners who are the driving force of the problem are somehow invisible.

Even if they were willing to concede those points, immigrant bashers would counter with their favorite mantra, "What is it about the word 'illegal' you don't understand?" or, "Why can't they come here legally like my great-grandparents did?" These critics, of course, never cheat on their taxes, drive over the speed limit or smoke pot, so their commitment to legality is ironclad and indisputable. As for the critics' European ancestors, most of those immigrants came here at a time when there were virtually no restrictions on immigration, so of course they came here legally. Plus, it was nearly impossible for them to do otherwise -- it's pretty hard to swim 3,000 miles, as opposed to crossing a river.

The dilemma, as I see it, is that when you have waves of immigrants coming into the country looking for work they can't get at home, you're looking at much more than a legal or economic problem. More than anything, you've got a human rights problem. How to deal with that dilemma is hardly even talked about amid the rants and hate speech.

The current controversy is more than a political issue. It's also a test of what kind of people we are. We Americans have always had crowds of immigrant haters in the form of Jew haters, Catholic haters, Chinese haters, Pole haters, Irish haters, Italian haters, and on and on. Because, make no mistake about it, what we're dealing with today is, at its root, nothing less than bigotry -- the old, dark, human impulse to reject and eliminate "the other." It happened to every previous wave of immigrants to the United States.

The fact that it's happening all over again, in our supposedly more enlightened era, is enough to make you hang your head in shame.

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