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20.6.06

Not-So-Veiled Xenophobia

In theory, a purely procedural concern over the illegality of illegal immigration is a valid one. And perhaps one could be such a committed legal positivist* as to focus solely on the fact that the laws actually on the books are being broken, without also being disturbed by how little those laws correspond to any notion of justice. Nevertheless, one most often encounters procedural claims acting as a respectable veneer on xenophobia. The slip between the two motivations is a clever one, as the idea of "illegal immigrants" evokes ideas that certain people are inferior "criminal types," prone to all sorts of mischief and unsuited to a good society, while the rest of us -- who did things the hard way by being born in a rich country -- are different.

Take, for example, Hazelton mayor Lou Barletta's statement justifying his city's proposed crackdown on illegal immigrants. While Barletta superficially puts the emphasis on "illegal," it becomes clear from reading his statement that his real concern is about "immigrants." He doesn't want Those People, who are Different and hence Bad, coming to His city.

Barletta opens with some standard glurge about how Americans are just so nice and so wonderful and so open and so tolerant, but gosh darn it those ungrateful immigrants have just pushed us too far by abusing our remarkable generosity. Generosity that appears to consist of things like allowing them to pay for a place to live.

Take a look at Barletta's list of the problems that illegal immigrants cause:

Illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, subjects our hospitals to fiscal hardship and legal residents to substandard quality of care, and destroys our neighborhoods and diminishes our overall quality of life.

... Illegal Immigration is a drain on city resources. Every domestic incident, every traffic accident, every noise complaint, each time we send our police department, fire department or code enforcement officer to respond, it costs taxpayer dollars.


These are not problems caused by some Hazeltonians' lack of green cards. These are problems caused by increased population, or at best increased low-income population. Replace every illegal immigrant in Hazelton with someone whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower or the Bering Land Bridge, and those problems would still exist. At best, lack of immigration status provides a convenient way to target a group for being thrown out in order to reduce class sizes.

The fact that Barletta's real motivation is xenophobia becomes clear when he goes on to propose making English the city's official language. Many illegal immigrants do speak English. Many legal immigrants do not. But non-Anglophones are Different, and Barletta doesn't want people in Hazelton who don't fit in, who don't bear all the burden of crossing the cultural divide themselves.

* I hope I'm using this term right -- I'm referring to the view that the law is what the law is, and there's no point in asking what the law should be.

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