Book on Arizona Immigration Is a Missed Opportunity

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on August 18, 2010

Near the end of her beautifully written new book, Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, Terry Greene Sterling makes a case for the Dream Act. That is the colloquial name of the legislative proposal that would provide legal status to many young people who were brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents and have shown a commitment to education.

Greene, who has had a distinguished career as a journalist and now is the writer in residence at Arizona State University's journalism school, tells the story of a gifted engineering student named Viri, who was brought across the Mexican border illegally at age eight.

She asks this rhetorical question: "Would it make more sense for Viri to become a professional engineer who helps shore up the American middle class, or should Viri be relegated to the undocumented underground, working in a fast-food restaurant?"

That's a strong argument. Young people like Viri have the talent and determination to make a major contribution to our country. I think it's self-defeating for our society not to embrace and encourage them. I support the Dream Act.

But there's a corollary argument about the illegal immigrant population that gets no attention in this book, whose pages are filled with rich and sympathetic portraits of persons identified as "illegal" only in Greene's dramatic title. In the rest of the book they are the "undocumented," while Arizonans upset about the massive illegal influx of the past 15 years are called "anti-migrant."

By the same pragmatic standard that Greene invokes on behalf of the Dream Act, it makes sense to be worried about the large majority of Latino illegal immigrants who lack the human capital that makes Viri so admirable and promising. While Greene correctly notes that those like Viri "would shore up America's shrinking middle class," she doesn't engage the fact that the poorly educated and unskilled millions are vastly expanding the underclass.

Moreover, about 50 percent of the Latino young drop out of high school. Their extraordinarily high rate of out-of-wedlock births is a burgeoning national crisis. As the New York Times noted last year, "Children born out of wedlock in the United States tend to have poorer health and educational outcomes than those born to married women."

But Greene's book, which portrays the full and complex humanity of a population that is often demonized, offers no discussion of the downside. She gives no voice to reasonable concerns.

Illegal would have been enriched with a voice like that of Christopher Jencks. Writing in 2001 for the New York Review of Books, the Harvard sociologist called the immigration of recent decades "a vast social experiment" in which "we are betting that we can admit millions of unskilled immigrants to do our dirty work without creating a second generation whose members will have the same problems as the children of the American-born workers who do such jobs."

We get no such discussion from Greene, who certainly has the journalistic skill to offer it. Her work over the years included a sophisticated 1998 expose of white-collar crime, self-dealing, and greed at the Phoenix-based Baptist Foundation, which won her recognition as Arizona's Journalist of the Year. (Full disclosure: I met Terry Greene when I was a reporter for the Arizona Republic. I admire her as a journalist and as a human being).

But instead of digging into the social, fiscal, demographic, and cross-cultural complexities of illegal immigration, Greene studies the tactics of such figures as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. She writes that Arpaio "looked tall and fierce on television" but really "was short and had a paunch." Greene does a fine job of describing Arpaio's obsession with publicity and self-dramatization.

But for most Arizonans, anger about illegal immigration is not about bigotry. Greene laments "the racism that had swept over this desert city." She wants nothing to do with the argument that, for most, illegal immigration is about being overwhelmed.

It's about schools and hospitals and neighborhoods strained and drained by the enormous influx of the past 15 years. It's about the anxious realization that employers who can never get enough cheap labor have rigged yet another system whereby government inaction has the effect of privatizing gain and socializing loss.

It's a said irony that Phoenix, ground zero in the immigration debate, gave us Charlie Keating, the poster boy of the national savings and loan scandal that showed us how the system works: fight off regulation with the claim that you are demonstrating entrepreneurial genius and creating wealth; then grab all you can before the system collapses.

Here's another fundamental disagreement with Greene's case.

Sure, the dislocation that the North American Free Trade Agreement caused in the Mexican countryside had something to do with the influx. But to suggest as Greene Sterling does, that NAFTA was a major factor is a big exaggeration. There is plenty of scholarship that shows two things: 1) the big influx of the 1990s was super-charged by 1986 legislation that offered amnesty to three million immigrants who quickly spread immigration networks across the nation, and 2) the Mexican countryside has been emptying out for decades, an inevitable evolution in a country where the 20 percent of the population that lives in the "campo" produces five percent of GDP.

Terry Greene Sterling could have produced a book that would have had much broader relevance and appeal. Instead, its audience is likely to be limited to those who believe that concern about illegal immigration is rooted in racism and a paucity of spirit. The book does not create room for civil discussion. It will not inform dialogue in the rapidly vanishing space called the sensible center.