Walter Rhett

Immigrants and Mosques

In National Affairs, Perlo on August 16, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Some on the right are suggesting that “a xenophobic, suspicious, racist, reactionary vision is a wise approach to life in America.” Today, a New York Times columnist tried to bridge the divide with a “two America” theory.

This is Marxist logic by default that stands truth on its head. Truth be told, those who adopted American values and assimilated were not driven not by slogans or political rhetoric or vigilance of the “second America,” but by an inner will to embody the values splendidly seen and held out by the “first America.” By your reasoning, enslaved African-Americans were prompted to assimilate into the mainstream and middle class by the exhortations and prodding of America 2, when precisely the opposite was true. America 2 put up barriers and road blocks to progress and equality, then and now. The struggle between oppression and progress are not, benignly, opposite sides of the same coin.

Grace under fire has always been a longstanding American tradition. From the American Revolution when British officers were offered meals by American patriots, to the Civil War, when pardons and simple oaths of citizenship were given by the hundreds of thousands to soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, to the granting of citizenship to veterans of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, this extraordinary sense of justice and civility, of deep respect for the humanity of others and the willingness to embrace that humanity with an offer of freedom and warm welcome has been a bedrock American tradition.

Immigration reform should begin by reflecting these basic American values. It should offer a path to citizenship for those immigrant, though illegal, who have played by the rules, contributed to society, raised and educated children, worked hard, and obeyed the law.

Those who oppose a path to citizenship for those who have crossed US borders frame the issue as cut and dry and ignore the human costs to the longterm immigrants who are stable community members. Those who oppose also rise objections of dangerous increases in drugs and crime in border states, a claim not substantiated by statistics, and supported only by a few sensational crimes.

Moreover, these reasons seem to mask a xenophobia that is rapidly spreading among the broader population, articulated as concern for security, safety, and jobs.

Any system of oppression always has, as a key element, a system of denial. No oppressive system operates by saying it is wrong, but will use force and continue to operate. Oppressive systems justify their existence. But an important part of justified that existence is denying its oppression and unequal treatment.

Xenophobia based on ethnicity or religion is an element of America’s legacy of oppression, whether applied to the Japanese in World War II, to Africans during slavery, or once, to Catholics seeking national office, and now, to American Muslims seeking to build mosques for worship. In its extreme, raw xenophobia is a major narrative among white rights groups. In a more civil form, it occupies a central role in the immigration debate.

Its major role is deny its presence; to shift the debate to the hashtags of security, safety, and jobs, These are the traditionally cited reasons for creating laws that dramatically altered the status of large American minority groups–citizens or otherwise.

I fear xenophobia more than illegal immigration.

So, it is important to guard against xenophobic denial as immigration policy is reformed and devised. Its presence can be detected by comparing the policies put forth to see if they represent the longstanding American tradition of grace under fire. If the new policy and laws offer what we offered Germany in the Lend Lease Program, or British Officers during our war for freedom, or civil war veterans who fought against the Union, if by analogy or comparison I see the same hand extended to communities and families of illegal immigrants, than I will support the new laws and policies.

If the policies and laws, have at their heart, a xenophobic denial, a double speak, a justification of sensationalism, a failure to consider those affected, and becomes an effort “to starve our patriotism,” then I will work for their defeat. The marriage you suggest is not among equals and only offers half truths and false analogies woven into whole cloth.

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  1. This post, a revised NYT comment, received over 270 reader recommendations.

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