It had all the markings of being another of those angry, loud, public catharsis events where a great deal of heat is generated but precious little light; in other words, one of those Lou Dobbs or Fox News “examinations” of a topic that wind up disinforming the public while implanting anxiety.
If the national press is to be believed, the failed efforts of the Bush administration to achieve any sort of immigration reform have left this nation in the grip of an immigration dilemma of crisis proportions. Somehow we are being threatened by this situation and the people want answers—and they want them fast!
Yet if the Albuquerque town hall is any indication, the much-ballyhooed immigration crisis will eventually turn out to be the most oversold worry since the Y2K computer calendar sneeze.
The most striking thing about the Albuquerque town hall, hosted by the National Hispanic Cultural Center in a theater capable of holding 750 people, was that the room was only half-full. I arrived early for the 5 p.m. start because I assumed the place would be packed with vocal ideologues from the most extreme ends of the political spectrum.
Not so. There were very few angry white guys present and, aside from a couple of vaguely irate calls from telephone listeners, the general mood of this event was decidedly pro-immigrant. And not angry. The ambiance was as unlike that on the CNN and Fox News talking-heads shows as could be imagined. People were allowed to finish sentences. Insults weren’t exchanged. Neck veins did not pulse with passion.
By the end of the evening, the national radio audience must have been scratching its collective head and asking, “Where the heck is all the excitement?” In the grand history of opinion donnybrooks, this wouldn’t even have qualified as a belly bump.
Our state, unlike Arizona and a few others, generally doesn’t resort to inflammatory rhetoric. It isn’t that people don’t express fear or even anger over immigration, but the tone of the discourse here in New Mexico just doesn’t register as hot on the outrage scale as I hear expressed elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean New Mexicans are better than Arizonans. Instead, it may simply reflect our tradition of tolerance, of making allowances, of four centuries of absorbing newcomers and gradually sanding down their rough edges until they, too, like all the other newcomers who preceded them, eventually fit in … or decide to move on.
I didn’t get to ask my question at the town hall. The lines at the microphones weren’t all that long, but a “two-hour” program on commercial radio amounts to little more than 40 minutes of commercials and eight 10-minute, chopped-up mini-segments of discussion with slight continuity and not much opportunity to dip below the surface of any issue.
Hence, only a dozen or so local audience members got to pose questions during the event and I was one of those lined up who didn’t. So I’ll ask it now. I would have directed it to Gil Gross, the moderator, rather than to any of the panelists. And it would have been, “Why does the media call this a crisis, and when did it become one?”
I mean, if the presence in the United States of 12 million people who came here outside of the approved system for providing access is truly a crisis now, as Mr. Dobbs, Mr. Tancredo and others on television so frequently aver, was it one when there were only six million undocumented residents? One million? Fifty thousand? And didn’t we notice the growing numbers? Why is it suddenly discovered that we have 12 million “problem” residents?
Are they really a problem if their decades-long invisibility, their passage below the radar screen of public discontent, has been based on the fact that they quietly go to work every day; pay their taxes; keep our social security system afloat with “contributions” they will never be able to withdraw; pump up our economy with their buying power and their work ethic; obey our laws and send their U.S.-born citizen kids to school to learn how to be as American as possible?
Is it a “crisis” that entire industries in this country (agriculture, meat packing, roofing, hotels and restaurants) are completely dependent on the presence of this 12 million-person workforce? Why would we want to send them away? How would that benefit us? What is the “crisis” about enjoying, as we do now, the lowest unemployment rate in the nation’s history?
Immigrants are a source of the energy, the hope and the fresh infusion of ambition that this country has always relied on to renew itself. They have helped produce the vibrant economy and open society that for the past century made the U.S. the beacon for people from all over the world.
Over and over during the town hall, reference was made to the “illegality” of these people’s presence. If that’s the problem (and no one seemed able to substantiate any other real problem with their presence), then we can solve that easily: We should change the law and make them “legal.” Then we should get back to addressing some genuine crises instead of trumping one up.