Guest column: Uninformed hate blinds scope of recent immigration column

This guest column is a response to Immigration reform does not mean ending deportation (by David Weissman, March 21):

There’s hate, and then there’s uninformed hate. David Weissman’s recent op-ed on undocumented immigration is a clear example of the latter.

Indeed, most of the numbers he calls to his defense come from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and whose founder, John Tanton, is a proud white supremacist. I took issue with most of Weissman’s piece, but because of space constraints I will only address two of the author’s most noxious views.

The first: “This country is built on immigrants — legal ones.” This is just tired, nativist rhetoric, and also dead wrong. Take large-scale agriculture: It is estimated that at least half of the seasonal workforce that picks this country’s fruits and vegetables is undocumented. Twelve percent of restaurant workers are undocumented.

In construction, an industry whose primary task is literally to “build America,” 17 percent of the workforce is undocumented, according to Pew Research Hispanic Center. I wonder if Weissman is aware of the degree to which his daily existence is dependent on “illegals.”

I think perhaps he meant to use the past tense: “This country was built on immigrants — legal ones.” But even this is wrong. In the not-so-distant past, the United States – Mexico border that the author wants to see even more militarized was criss-crossed countless times without authorization by tens of thousands of people going to mine, build railroads, harvest crops, etc. “To build this country,” in other words.

Borders have been essentially open for most of this country’s history and it was not until the stepwise criminalization of unlawful entry in the early 20th century, coupled with the creation of the Border Patrol, that the subject of the “illegal immigrant” meaningfully came into existence.

Even after Border Patrol was created, one of their principal tasks was to manage undocumented workers, not prevent their entrance into the country. This was most starkly illustrated by the Bracero-era practice of “drying out the wetbacks,” in which agents would take “illegal” immigrants to the border, have them take one step over the line, and then allow them to return to the fields “legally.” Given this history, it really doesn’t make sense to apply the legal/illegal dichotomy to immigrants before the early 20th century. But historical nuance is rarely the forte of nativists.

The second: “In 1980, federal and state prisons housed fewer than 9,000 undocumented immigrant criminals. Today, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, 55,000 immigrants account for one-fourth of prisoners in federal prisons.” It’s been quite some time since I’ve read a more contextless fact. It is indeed the case that undocumented immigrants now represent an extraordinary proportion of the federal prison population. However, by presenting it this way, the author seems to hope the reader concludes that undocumented migrants have become significantly more criminal, presumably preying upon the decent white folk that people the suburban dreamlands of nativist utopias more frequently.

But this would be wrong. Rather, the dramatic rise is explained by the recent unprecedented criminalization of undocumented folks, which has proceeded largely through increased criminal prosecution of illegal entry and reentry and the steady expansion of the legal category “aggravated felony.” Indeed, when you look at the U.S. Government Accountibility Office study that is the source of the 55,000 figure, you will see that the top three crimes committed by so-called “criminal aliens” were immigration infractions (65 percent), drug offenses (48 percent) and traffic violations (39 percent).

Not exactly hardened criminals.

These were also the top three convictions of fully two-thirds of all 188,382 so-called “criminal removals” in fiscal year 2011. Before singing the praises of mass deportation again, I would encourage Weissman to spend an afternoon in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico listening to the stories of recent deportees. Maybe then he would learn that behind words like “illegals” and “criminal aliens” are complex lives upended by one of our country’s most dramatic, disturbing and far-reaching policies.

As for the Daily Wildcat, a newspaper based at a leading public university, I would encourage its editorial staff to reach out to the dozens of professors and students with more edifying things to say about this critical issue.

— Murphy Woodhouse is a Latin American Studies graduate student. He can be reached at murphywoodhouse@email.arizona.edu.


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