Sunday, October 18, 2009

Welcoming the Stranger: Reflections on an Anti-Immigrant Initiative in Arkansas

And as a counterpoint to my posting a moment ago about the Arkansas State Fair, I want to take note of a piece of legislation pending right now in Arkansas. The Arkansas Times noted this week that a group calling itself Secure Arkansas has just succeeded in getting approval for a constitutional amendment to be placed on the 2010 ballot, to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits.

One of the leaders of the movement to target undocumented immigrants has been logging into the Arkansas Times blog this week to ask why people are upset about what she sees as an eminently fair proposal to divide the state’s resources among its own citizens. Though she has invited responses to her questions, I haven’t chosen to enter the discussion on that blog.

But I have certainly thought through the issue, and would like to share my reflections with the readers of my own blog. Since attacks on immigrants transcend the boundaries of my state, some of these reflections may be of interest and use to others who are dealing with similar initiatives in other parts of the country. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

First, it’s interesting to note that many of those spearheading this attack on immigrants are the very same folks who, in the previous election, worked hard to place on our ballot an initiative that denied adoption to unmarried couples. Search the list of names of those who signed to place the adoption initiative on the ballot (an initiative widely regarded by political commentators as aimed at the gay community, though it actually outlaws adoption by any unmarried couple), and you’ll find an overlap of names.

The same folks who pushed a gay-bashing initiative on the last ballot are now working hard to target immigrants. In fact, several of those fighting for the anti-immigrant measure have been active in their local communities trying to stir trouble in libraries and schools, with claims that children are being indoctrinated with pro-gay ideas and that libraries are buying books that introduce children to the gay “lifestyle.”

And so the first significant question that arises when one looks at the attempt to target yet another marginalized minority group in yet another election is, Why? Why keep targeting one vulnerable group after another—and why keep doing so in the name of Christ? (Another overlap: some of the key leaders in the anti-gay adoption initiative who are now leading the anti-immigrant initiative have also pushed hard to divide the generally gay-supportive Episcopal diocese in Arkansas over issues of inclusivity.)

The best answer I can give to these questions is that these “Christian” groups deliberately trade in hate to bring folks to the polls—to bring them to the polls to vote “right” in each election. In a sense, the specific group being targeted does not matter to them so much as does the utility of that particular group at a particular moment, to assure that conservative voters go to the polls in large numbers and vote for conservative candidates.

Immigrants may be more useful than gays right now because they are in the spotlight nationally with the health care reform initiative. Right-wing operatives are working adroitly around the country to fuel fires of nativist discontent with charges that “we” will all be paying for “them”—for the brown-skinned poor who are not even American citizens—if health care reform passes.

Most of these hard-line right-wing operatives pushing the immigrant-bashing initiative in Arkansas are in the area of the state that has experienced the largest influx of Latino immigrants in the past decade or so—the northwest part of the state, where chicken processing plants and the boom caused by Wal-Mart, whose headquarters are there, have brought large numbers of workers from Mexico and Central America to take jobs no one else is clamoring to take. Jobs for which we need workers. Jobs that these immigrants perform with great skill and a strong work ethic, for the most part.

But nativism is also very strong in that largely white, largely Anglo corner of the state. And immigrant-bashing plays well when folks feel that “their” nation and “their” culture are being overtaken by foreigners.

This initiative is, to my mind, all about urging people to fear, hate, and target. These crusades may use the name of Christ to promote themselves. But they have very little to do with the gospels, in the final analysis. They certainly have nothing at all to do with Matthew 25, with the Jesus who tells us we will be judged at the end of our lives by love, as we are asked whether we made the stranger welcome, visited the sick, clothed the naked, etc.

The second point I’d make, in response to questions about what is reprehensible about the anti-immigrant initiative, is that we don’t build a good society when we build around fear, hate, and abuse of vulnerable minorities. Our energies as a society could be far better used. It would be healthier, and we would create a more vibrant society, if we recognized the valuable contributions that targeted groups like Latino immigrants (yes, including undocumented immigrants) bring to all of us.

And that’s my third point: those being targeted by this initiative provide valuable services to all of us. We all benefit economically and in manifold other ways by their presence among us and by their labor. The jobs they take are generally jobs no one else wants. And they work hard at those jobs, and generally perform them well.

When I drive around the city in the evening, I routinely see crews of workers mending the streets and making improvements on them. These are almost always Latino workers. They work into the dark to make sure that the streets on which I drive every day are kept in good repair.

When ice storms come to the city in winter, as they tend to do with greater frequency in recent years, trees topple and power lines are downed. The men I see working long hours to cut up those trees and remove them from roadways and powerlines are almost always Latino. They work very hard to keep this city functioning in times of crisis. They do work I do not see others rushing to do.

Why target them? Why make them unwelcome?

I understand why, of course. I understand what the groups targeting first gays and then immigrants hope to gain by targeting those vulnerable minority groups around which there is social discontent today.

But I think that what those groups gain in the short term is not worth the long-term cost of this malicious activity. The society we build when we build around hate is never a healthy society. The energies these groups are putting into making others unwelcome could be far better spent building an inclusive, welcoming society that celebrates the differences of others, and the gifts we all receive through those differences.