C-SPAN Interview with "Undocumented" Author Shows Why the NYT Doesn't Get It on Illegal Immigration

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on October 26, 2015

Thanks to C-SPAN, I now have a new Exhibit A for the case that the New York Times is incapable of understanding why many Americans are upset about illegal immigration. C-SPAN performed this public service by inviting Times immigration reporter Liz Robbins to interview Dan-el Padilla Peralta, author of the memoir Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League.

Padilla's story is indeed remarkable, in large part because it illustrates the tension between a key American myth and a core American value. The myth is the heroically upward arc of the tenacious and talented striver in a land of opportunity. The core value is the ethic of playing by the rules in a democratic country of kaleidoscopic diversity.

Padilla is a brilliant scholar, but he shows no understanding of the history of U.S. immigration policy and another tension that underlies it. It is a tension between idealism and pragmatism, between utopian dream and human reality. As historian Arthur Schlesinger noted in The Disuniting of America, "America has so long seen itself as the asylum for the oppressed and persecuted — and has done itself and the world so much good thereby — that any curtailment of immigration offends something in the American soul. No one wants to be a Know-Nothing. Yet uncontrolled immigration is an impossibility; so the criteria of control are questions the American democracy must confront."

One of Padilla's principal aims in his book is to denounce those who do not want a path to citizenship for him and the millions of other illegal immigrants now living in the country. He is a moral absolutist, perhaps because it is difficult for someone whose family ignored immigration laws to say that others should be required to respect it.

He never explains just why it is unjust for the United States to set limits on immigration. That argument is his starting point. He shows no regret about his mother's decision that the family would seek free medical care for a problem pregnancy, overstay their visitor visas, and then — because Dan-el's younger brother was a citizen by birth — use that status to claim welfare payments and subsidized low-rent housing.

Robbins raises none of these matters in the interview. That is because she, like nearly everyone else at the Times, practices the religion of inclusiveness and equality, according to which our borders should be open to anyone because anything else is unfair and unjust.

The most off-putting feature of Padilla's book is that despite the author's impressive credentials as an intellectual — with degrees from Princeton and Stanford and a fellowship at Oxford — he repeatedly engages in simplistic rants about the hidebound evil of those of us who oppose illegal immigration in the belief that it is damaging to our country.

As T.A. Frank put it in the New Republic, we want a country that is "prosperous, cohesive, harmonious, wealthy in land and resources per capita, nurturing of its skilled citizens, and most important, protective of its unskilled citizens, who deserve as much as any other Americans to live in dignity." Frank said the problem of giving into the demand for sweeping amnesty — which Padilla issues loudly and angrily — "is that it sets in motion the next waves of millions."

Padilla seethes with contempt for those who dare to hold this view. His world-view, aggressively defended in the New York Times, is that those who hold it are small-minded provincials warped by xenophobic hostility. With Olympian disdain, Padilla describes them as "anti-immigrant zealots who invoked the law as a cover for their xenophobia" and as "the chauvinistically minded few" and — of course — as "haters". Heaping scorn on a fellow Princeton student who fails to endorse illegal immigration, he labels her the "immigrant-hater chick".

Robbins doesn't raise any of these intolerant and intemperate excesses, probably because she finds them perfectly understandable and right-minded. She holds true to the New York Times ethic of serving as advocate, promoter, defender, and enabler of illegal immigrants. Like many well-intended liberals, she is part of the team.

Robbins reflects the views of her publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who sees illegal immigrants as waging a righteous battle in the progressive crusade for expanding individual freedom. In an infamous commencement speech, Sulzberger unfurled the banner of "fighting for fundamental human rights, whether it's the rights of immigrants to start a new life; or the rights of gays to marry; or the rights of women to choose." He admonished the graduates about their moral duties, telling them that as they faced fateful decision points, "You will choose at each point whether to be bold or hesitant, inclusive or elitist, generous or stingy."

Sulzberger is passionate in his defense of diversity — provided, of course, that no one should expect him to bring ideological diversity to his paper's examination of immigration. There are times when the Times simply must rise above its principles. Caveat lector.

Sulzberger provides a wrinkle on John Updike's observation that the "true New Yorker" is someone with a "secret belief that people living anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding." Sulzberger, Robbins, and company are smugly confident of their moral virtue as they inform the world that those who want to limit immigration have to be, in some sense, racists or xenophobes, or maybe just rubes from the provinces.

To borrow a line from Tennyson's Ulysses, Padilla joins Robbins and Sulzberger in the self-admiration of "one equal temper of heroic hearts" struggling nobly and determined not to recognize any legitimacy in efforts to limit immigration. And so, at the end of their hour on C-SPAN, Padilla declared that the interview had been "delightful" and Robbins enthused that it had been "much fun, much fun".

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