New Yorker Goes Astray on the Border

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on July 21, 2010

William Finnegan is an accomplished journalist for the New Yorker. In the past year he has written penetratingly about Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and about a crime syndicate in the Mexican state of Michoacan. But his essay in the current New Yorker, under the headline "Borderlines," accomplishes little to inform public concerns about illegal immigration, especially in Arizona. His exasperation with my former home state will undoubtedly win nods of approval in the salons of Manhattan's upper west side. It won't win him many friends in the borderlands of Cochise or Santa Cruz County

Dismissing claims that the border is unsecured, Finnegan declares it is "better managed and less porous" than it has been for years. Border Patrol apprehensions were down to a mere 550,000 last year, he marvels. No mention of the common belief among Border Patrol agents, confirmed to me during my trip to the border last month, that for every person arrested, three or four make it into the interior of the U.S. When you've got numbers like that, "less porous" doesn’t mean much.

Finnegan notes Department of Labor estimates that "more than half the crop pickers in the United States are undocumented." He concludes the paragraph with the observation that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls the current immigration policy "national suicide." The implication is that Bloomberg has concluded that national survival is dependent upon the availability of a large workforce of unskilled field hands willing to pick fruits and vegetables for wretched wages.

Not quite. Bloomberg's complaint was about current obstacles to engineers and other highly skilled immigrants, not lettuce pickers. Here is his comment in context. "We're committing what I call national suicide. Somehow or other, after 9/11 we went from reaching out and trying to get the best and the brightest to come here, to trying to keep them out."

Finnegan's brand of liberalism pays scant attention to the decades of exploitation by growers. As Michael Lind of the liberal New America Foundation told C-Span's "Washington Journal" last Friday, these tireless and well-heeled petitioners of Congress insist that they "can't be expected as American businesses to hire Americans or legal immigrants and pay them decent wages."

Finnegan notes FBI statistics showing an impressive overall drop in violent crime in Southwestern border counties. But he fails to observe that the Border Patrol successes that have brought relative calm to the border around San Diego and El Paso have had the effect of pushing smugglers to Arizona.

As Southeastern Arizona's Democratic congresswoman, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, noted in a May 25 speech on the House Floor, "After decades of building up the U.S.-Mexico border in California and in Texas, there has been a systematic funneling of illegal immigration, the flow of traffic, illegally through southern Arizona."

Giffords went on to say: "So today, together, my constituents live in a situation on the front lines of a national border security crisis. We live and breathe the federal government's failure to secure the border with Mexico. Every day my constituents
are subjected to home invasions and to burglaries and to cut water lines and to graffiti, an unbelievable amount of garbage and trash that's left behind by illegal immigrants who are crossing through the border…"

Giffords read a letter from a constituent who had this to say about a few politicians' panglossian assurances that the border is on its way to pastoral tranquility: "The U.S.-Mexico border is out of control and has been for a very long time. We laugh out loud when we hear the politicians claim that the border is more secure. This uninformed view is a political fairy tale."

The same letter went on with this accounting of the chaos that bubbles from the border in Cochise County: "home invasions burglaries, multi-thousand-acre fires, some as large as 20,000 acres, ranching infrastructure and personal property destruction perpetrated by both illegal aliens and drug smugglers. They break into our homes and ranches, they steal jewelry and firearms, ammunition, money, small cartable electronics to fence in U.S. interior cities and Mexico, maliciously vandalize our property. They destroy our livestock and so on. In eight years, our home has suffered over 15 illegal alien and smuggling burglaries and four attempted home invasions; intolerable when you consider that I'm here most of the time. I gave up filing police reports. Why bother?"

What makes the situation in southern Arizona even more astonishing is that the area has been under siege for more than a decade. In May of 2000, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who joins Finnegan (and me) in opposition to Arizona's new anti-illegal immigration law, offered an assessment of fierce criticism of borderlands ranchers who had begun detaining illegal immigrants on their land. Dupnik was upset that "people who are being forced to sleep with one ear to the door and one eye open, in order to protect their property and their families from harm, are being labeled as some kind of radical group." He declared: "This simply is not the case."

As Tucson-based journalist Leo W. Banks wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, "Americans who do not live along the Mexican border often assume the antipathy to illegal immigration arises from racial or cultural concerns. But talk to people on the ground, and what they fear most is the loss of personal security. They are angry that the federal government is unable to provide them with this most basic of human rights."

Finnegan's worst distortion comes in his implication that the "groundswell of angry obstructionism and demagoguery" that have frustrated efforts to manage illegal immigration are the result of the same "nativist" forces he decries today for their "disingenuous calls for greater border security."

He could take a lesson from the foremost scholar of nativism, the late John Higham, author of the classic book, Strangers in the Land. Higham, who died in 2003, became increasingly alarmed in his last decades at illegal immigration. (See my May 2010 Backgrounder, "It's Not All About Nativism.")

In mid-1986, before Congress abruptly broke a logjam in the immigration debate, Higham lamented the obstructionism that thwarted efforts to reform immigration policy. The law that emerged, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, offered both the compassion and pragmatism of a sweeping amnesty and the firmness of penalties against employers of illegal immigrants.

While the amnesty worked – its ranks swelled by massive fraud that the government was unable to contain – the promised enforcement proved to be a joke. It was frustrated by the same combination of forces that had long blocked congressional efforts to cut off the job magnet for illegal immigration.

Higham put the problem into historical context. He observed that the obstructionism "closely resembles the rigid opposition in the first decade of the twentieth century to any scheme of immigration restriction. The inescapable need for some rational control over the volume of immigration in an increasingly crowded world was plain to see, then as now. But unyielding resistance from the newer immigrant groups, from business interests that exploited them, and from the traditionalists who feared any increase in the powers of government, blocked all action. The problem was allowed to fester and grow – until a wave of national hysteria brought into being a system that was extravagantly protective and demeaningly racist."

He located the obstructionism in those who saw in illegal immigrants a future source of political power, cheap labor, or a bulwark against regulation, he wrote: "Hispanic leaders, chambers of commerce, and civil libertarians should take note."

Here's one final beef with Mr. Finnegan. A paragraph that starts off contesting the national security concerns of "some of the more vociferous opponents of illegal immigrants," turns out to be an observation that, "Anti-immigrant groups, which have proliferated in recent years, are not racist by nature, but they certainly attract racists and give them a platform."

So what's your point for those of us whose concerns are non-racist, and in many cases rooted in progressive values? Shut up or you’ll be smeared?

The late liberal senator from Wisconsin, Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, had a bellyful of such intimidation aimed at efforts to reduce immigration in order to limit growth of the U.S, population. Sen. Nelson, a staunch liberal and civil rights advocate, was furious at the smear tactics: "People have been silenced because they are scared to death of being charged with being a racist," he said. "But racism has nothing to do with it. It's a question of numbers."

One wonders what Finnegan means by the "platform" provided to racists. The most prominent platform used by the wackos of the right is the Internet, available to anyone with a laptop and an ISP. It also provides plenty of platform for the wackos on his side of the immigration debate.