Getting Serious About "Getting Serious"

Why immigration hawks can never get enough


I want to call la migra on my neighbors.

It's not just that I hate the other tenants in my building, or that I want to see some upfront constituent service from noted blackface authority Julie L. Myers, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It's not only that I think I might get better treatment from my prick landlord if several units in the building were forcibly emptied. I'm not even sure how well calling in a raid from ICE would work: I have good reason to believe that the only family in the building I like is out of status.

It's just nice to share the popular feeling of being personally burdened by the invasion across our southern border. My fellow supporters of unrestricted immigration, who spend all their time being chauffeured between undocumented-nanny-cleaned mansions and illegal-janitor-tended Ivory Towers, forget the degree to which immigration-restriction pressure is driven by a feeling of injustice, in particular by suspicions of condescension and neglect from aloof authorities. That people in power refuse to get serious about illegal immigration is the essential premise of all immigration foment. That feeling gels in a sense that even when public officials do get serious about illegal immigration, they're really winking at the audience. And public officials don't do a whole lot to correct that impression.

Here's Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff giving a recent assessment of his efforts to seal the U.S.-Mexico border: "To me, the most important thing we're doing at the border is showing the American people that if we make a judgment that we need to do something and we promise to do it, we'll do it."

If you're passionate about stopping illegal entry into the United States, it's hard not to see that statement as a condescension: Chertoff's stated concern isn't catching illegal immigrants at the border; it's showing the American people that he wants to catch illegal immigrants at the border.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) specializes in the language of convincing voters and understanding their concerns. If, as is statistically likely, you augment your opposition to immigration with opposition to free trade, these clumsy attempts to validate your feelings can seem insultingly false: Who is able to believe Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) really opposes NAFTA when she's swilling down Canadian whiskey?

Sure, you could argue that restrictionists deserve no better. After all, when you go to a doctor for an imaginary malady, you should expect to be treated with a placebo.

But not all the complaints are as petty as my beef with my neighbors. In Los Angeles, the March murder of 17-year-old high school football star Jamiel Shaw has opened an off-topic but revealing controversy over a Los Angeles Police Department rule governing how officers are supposed to deal with illegal immigrants.

Pedro Espinoza, Shaw's accused killer, is an illegal immigrant who was released from county jail shortly before the murder, despite procedures that were supposed to have him referred to federal authorities and (presumably) deported. For various reasons (among them, that Espinoza was arrested by Culver City cops), the case doesn't bear on the LAPD's "Special Order 40," which was promulgated in 1979 by then-chief Daryl Gates and advises cops not to initiate inquiries about immigration status in most cases. But that hasn't stopped a fiery debate on the rule. That debate isn't strictly logic-based, but it expresses a general sense that local authorities don't want to bring any power to bear on crooks who flout their indifference to the laws of the land—and a detailed look at procedures suggests there is some validity in that view.

LAPD Chief William Bratton may be the most politically astute cop on the planet, but with his accurate, dismissive comments about the controversy, he's playing into the hawks' sense that nobody takes their concerns seriously. If you're that way inclined, you can draw a pretty compelling picture of a city where officialdom fiddles while illegals murder Stanford-hopeful athletes, slaughter interesting filmmakers, and ethnically cleanse the local black population. That kind of argument by anecdote is always cheap, but in this case it has a special piquancy. It's in the nature of all immigration to create concentrated costs and distributed benefits, and if you're the person who got beaten up by pandilleros or sent home from an overcrowded emergency room, you enjoy extra credibility on this issue.

Some immigration hawks really are driven by an honest sense of law and order, and fear of crime is particularly susceptible to anecdotal support (except when crime-rate statistics overwhelmingly argue against that fear, which, in L.A., they don't). It's an interesting paradox. Nearly all trends are going the way the restrictionists want. Some researchers say that border crossings peaked back in 2000. In any case, the current economy stinks, dampening the attraction of the U.S. for prospective border jumpers. Tougher enforcement has made the border quieter, while even professional immigration hawks applaud the superior "tone" of a nation with fewer migrants. In L.A., it's likely that Special Order 40 will be modified, possibly in ways that would allow cops to use gang members' illegal immigration status against them.

Yet the rhetoric about immigration remains as passionate and hysterical as ever. And so government officials respond to the hysteria, but since they know in their hearts that the immigration crisis is a solution in search of a problem, they do so with a vain, affected quality that reveals the very condescension restrictionists find so infuriating.

In the end, immigration hawks will never be happy because what they really want is somebody to say "I feel your pain"—and mean it.

Tim Cavanaugh is opinion Web editor at The Los Angeles Times.