In the upcoming presidential election, the defining issues for the Democrats seem to be the economy, health care, and Iraq; and, for the Republicans, the economy, taxation, and immigration. Turn these into a single list and immigration might seem to fall to last place. Take a closer look, however, and immigration begins to seem the “wedge issue” on which the election is likeliest to turn.

I say this recalling a story I wrote for the October 1992 Atlantic Monthly, “Blacks vs. Browns: Immigration and the New American Dilemma.” That article appeared just after a massive Los Angeles riot that seemed at first to be a race riot. A white jury had acquitted white policemen caught on videotape savagely beating a black drunken driver. When news of the verdict broke, a group of younger black men angrily smashed display windows and torched buildings in South Central Los Angeles. But after the Los Angeles Police Department chose, rather stunningly, to pull its forces out of the affected area, something quite unforeseen ensued, something that Los Angeles historian Mike Davis would later call a bread riot. As millions watched, courtesy of the TV choppers hovering overhead, African Americans were quickly, visibly outnumbered by Latin Americans who joined them on the unpoliced streets and proceeded peacefully but happily to empty the shelves of every supermarket in the riot zone.

For white Los Angeles, South Central had long been the earthbound equivalent of flyover land. One drove past it, or over it; one never drove into it. Watts, in the heart of South Central, had become a national symbol of urban violence back in 1965 when one of the largest race riots of the 1960s exploded there. For those old enough to remember, 1992 brought 1965 vividly back to mind—but with a huge surprise: during the intervening years, while no one was watching, Watts had quietly turned brown.

The Rodney King riot in 1992 was not by any means a riot of blacks against browns but rather, for a brief moment, of blacks alongside browns. The one group that the rioters targeted as a group consisted of Korean-born shop owners. But for anyone who had been watching the progressive replacement of blacks by browns in menial and low-skill employment in the city, it was already conceivable that tension might be growing between these two contenders for the city’s bottom rung.

And grow it did. Last November, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a veteran black journalist and radio commentator in Los Angeles, wrote in the Los Angeles Times about a social animosity he called “the worst-kept secret in race relations in America”:

For years, Latino leaders have pointed the finger of blame at blacks when Latinos are robbed, beaten, and even murdered. Blacks, in turn, have blamed Latinos for taking jobs, for colonizing neighborhoods, for gang violence. These days, the tension between the races is noticeable not only in prison life and in gang warfare... but in politics, in schools, in housing, in the immigration debate.... In fact, even though hate-crime laws were originally created to combat crimes by whites against minority groups, the majority of L.A. County’s hate crimes against blacks in 2006 were suspected to have been committed by Latinos, and vice versa, according to the county Commission on Human Relations.

Hillary Clinton’s success in taking Latino voters from Barack Obama in California’s primary election had something to do with this tension, but immigration as an issue this election year neither begins nor ends with simple racial prejudice.

In the subtitle of my 1992 article, I meant to allude in the article’s subtitle to Gunnar Myrdal’s epoch-making 1944 book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. In the slave-holding societies of the Old World, Myrdal had noted, the slaves were typically of the same race as their masters. Once freed, they and their children could easily disappear into civil society. In New World slavery, by contrast, Negroid appearance announced slave ancestry and became the grounds for white prejudice that prevented integration. This prejudice, Myrdal argued, constituted a particular dilemma for the United States because this country had no identity other than its political identity. More than Old World nation-states, it could not remain itself, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” unless and until it turned its Negroes into full social and political equals.

Myrdal was cautiously optimistic that America’s political identity would prove stronger in the long run than its racial prejudice, but he warned that gradual, cumulative economic progress for black people would be essential to resolving the great dilemma. This was the process that had barely begun with the Civil Rights Act in 1964 when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, intended only to end immigration quotas and permit family reunification, unexpectedly triggered an influx of new, ill-educated, unskilled immigrants who joined the poorest of America’s newly enfranchised blacks at the bottom of American society. By 1992, that influx had become a flood.

The new American dilemma was thus a cruel choice between closing the door of opportunity so recently opened to American blacks or closing that other, “golden door” illumined by the Statue of Liberty in Emma Lazarus’s immortal lines:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

I hasten to add that the Immigration and Nationality Act did not license illegal immigration. And yet the sudden increase in legal immigration that it enabled would prove a powerful stimulus for illegal immigration as well. Governors of the most affected states tried to make Congress assume the cost of the huge demographic shift that the Immigration and Nationality Act had brought about, but to no avail. As years passed, liberals embraced “diversity,” the social cause that had largely replaced “equality” as sought by the 1960s civil-rights movement. Meanwhile, if social conservatives of the “English only” sort resented the ever-greater intrusion of Spanish, business conservatives, especially in the agricultural sector, welcomed illegal immigration as a way to keep labor plentiful, docile, and cheap.

Such was the status quo as late as 2006. It was then, with new Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, that immigration liberals (AKA “admissionists”) hoped—and a good many immigration conservatives (AKA “restrictionists” or “exclusionists”) feared—that a significant liberalization in immigration law was imminent. They were mistaken. What exploded, instead, was a sudden and powerful white backlash against unchecked immigration, especially in places like Arizona where classic conservatism coincided with spiking illegal immigration.

How large a swing issue is immigration likely to be? Few Hispanic voters who swung to Hillary Clinton in the primaries are likely to swing from either Democrat to John McCain in the presidential election, no matter how far he tilts in their direction. White independents are another matter. With them as well as with wavering Republicans and a few immigration-disgruntled black Democrats, immigration may be McCain’s most promising wedge issue, his best chance to divert the debate away from Iraq and the economy. True, any restriction on the family-reunification provision in existing law would cost him Asian votes, but the numbers may not be large enough to matter. In short, surprised by the potency of this issue in 2006, Democrats may just be surprised again next November.

The deeper American dilemma comes, however, in both a Republican and a Democratic version. The Republicans are prepared to militarize the border and begin a war of attrition against the 12 million illegal immigrants now within American borders, driving them—so the Republican scenario goes—voluntarily to return to the countries from which they came. But are Republicans willing to pay what their policy would cost? Contrary to liberal denials, the border can be sealed, but only at a price that would rule out using the National Guard for overseas service and possibly only at the price of a reinstated draft. The combined efforts of the Army and the Marines have not sufficed to seal the borders of Iraq. What would it cost to seal not just the U.S.-Mexico border but also the coasts and the Canadian border? Moreover, a climate of deportation-fear among illegal immigrants, rather than inducing voluntary emigration, would create an instant underground of savvy, deeply embittered recruits for domestic sabotage. The historic grievances of Latin America against the United States are scarcely smaller than those of the Middle East. Agressive, hunt-and-deport enforcement of immigration law could imperil the good will that, at the moment, rests on the foundation of literally millions of Anglo-Latino friendships. Are “Homeland Security” Republicans prepared to jeopardize all that?

The Democratic version of the new American dilemma is equally acute. Democrats seem prepared to leave the border no more aggressively policed than it now is and to seek ways, quite possibly including amnesty, to integrate the millions of illegal immigrants already within our borders into American economic, cultural, and civil life, thereby encouraging even heavier immigration in the years ahead. The problem with this policy is that it puts the Democratic social-welfare agenda definitively beyond reach. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, the United States may just possibly manage to provide its citizens with universal health care. But it cannot afford to provide health care—much less free quality education or affordable housing or paid leave or unemployment insurance or any of the social goods that American liberals recite when comparing American society unfavorably with other major industrialized societies—for the whole world. Every last one of those European democracies that liberals hold up for comparison with the United States has, by U.S. standards, a fiercely exclusionist immigration policy. Where moderately liberal immigration policies survive, they are quickly being revoked. None of these states has had or will have immigration comparable to ours: 10.3 million since 2000, the highest seven-year tally in U.S. history, of which 5.6 million, or more than half, are estimated to have entered illegally.

In sum, Republicans have to choose: Do they want to halt immigration and, by an ongoing, aggressive police campaign, drive 12 million illegal immigrants to emigrate or go underground? Or do they want, instead, low taxes and a “forward-leaning” military posture around the world? They can’t have both.

And Democrats have to choose as well: Do they want “justice for immigrants,” as defined by, among others, the Catholic bishops in their 2003 pastoral letter Strangers No Longer?* Or do they want, instead, universal health care and an array of social services worthy of France or Germany? They can’t have both.

The centrality of the immigration issue to the election as a whole comes into sharpest focus when one begins to imagine the wrenching tradeoffs that could forge an epoch-making bipartisan policy from the mega-gridlock that now threatens.

Strict, military control of America’s borders could be exchanged for a much lower international military posture and a sharp reduction in expenditures for high-cost, high-tech weapons.

• Amnesty for illegal immigrants now in the United States could be exchanged for a revision in American immigration law, restricting family unification to the nuclear family alone and thus sharply reducing line-jumping by adult legal immigrants—most of them Asian—who would have to take their place at the back of the line if they chose to apply on their own.

• Citizen welfare benefits—and eventually citizenship itself—could be extended one last time to illegal immigrants already in the country in exchange not just for the mentioned militarization of American borders but also for a shrinkage in the package of entitlements that would otherwise be within reach of native-born Americans, among whom those with the most to lose would be American blacks.

• Immigrants now constitute one-eighth of the American population, a portion equal to the entire population of California. Extending full citizen benefits to that population is a budget-blasting move comparable to adding another California to the population receiving federal benefits. But forcing 12 million illegal immigrants to emigrate against their will is comparable to forcing one Californian in three into involuntary emigration. At what point does deportation threaten to become civil war?

The closer we look, the more we seem to be in the realm of dueling deliriums, but it would be equally mad to suppose that the status quo can continue indefinitely. Sooner or later, something has to give. What will it be? We won’t begin to know until the next president’s inauguration day or, more realistically, until the end of his or her first hundred days in office—if then.


* The print version of this article incorrectly gave the title of the USCCB letter as Strangers No More.

This essay is part of the Issues 2008 series of commentaries on the important issues confronting the next president and Congress.


Related: Immigration Reform and Reasonable Reform, by the Editors
Borderline, by Ananda Rose Robinson

Jack Miles is the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography and, most recently, Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story (W. W. Norton).

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2008-04-25 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.