What Will Civil Dialog Look Like?

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A native of Tucson, Ariz., Geraldo Cadava teaches United States history at Northwestern University. Harvard University Press will publish his book on Tucson and the Arizona-Sonora border region since World War II.

After all of last week's calls for civility, we should wonder how they will translate into action, particularly in Arizona.  We were moved by President Obama’s words, and inspired by his vision, but we cannot expect his speech alone to sweep away the challenges we face.  He gestured towards a healing process, but what comes next will be up to us.

Over the past year, we’ve measured the heat of national politics by focusing on developments in Arizona.  During the next several months, we will gauge the nation’s response to calls for civil dialogue by again looking there, to see how the state will approach politics in the wake of tragedy.

The immigration debate tore Arizona apart, and it will remain a challenge when Arizona’s politicians get back to work.  Immigration also most clearly demonstrates how Arizona is a bellwether for the rest of the nation.  Debates about health care or the economy have no epicenter from which aftershocks ripple outward to the rest of the nation.  But in the wake of S.B. 1070’s signing, Republicans in more than a dozen states called for immigration laws similar to Arizona’s.  Last week, most of us took pause to grieve, hardly remembering the news that brought national attention to Arizona in the first place.  But Republicans in Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, and elsewhere reiterated their support of Arizona-style immigration laws.

For civility, anti-immigrant activists have to move beyond their popular slogan, “What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand?”  That black-and-white view misses the fact that American employers often recruit workers from Mexico, promising them jobs when they arrive in our country.  If it upsets anti-immigrant activists that undocumented workers take jobs Americans want—a charge that remains completely unfounded—they might more appropriately blame a global labor system that devalues workers and their rights.  They can help solve this issue by voting for politicians who will not send jobs overseas and who favor stronger labor protections, instead of those who create a smokescreen by taking aim at Mexican immigrants.

At the same time, immigrant rights advocates should move beyond the slogan, “No Human Being is Illegal.”  It rings true as a response to the degradation that many immigrants experience, but it doesn’t answer the charge that nations have immigration laws that people seeking entrance are bound to obey.  Even if many injustices are committed in the name of enforcing these laws, we live in an imperfect America, and in a world governed by nation-states.  We also rarely acknowledge fears of the few Arizonans who experience Mexican drug violence firsthand, or whose property immigrants damage.  Furthermore, we fail to understand the real anxieties some Arizonans experience in the face of changing demographics trending swiftly toward a Latino-majority, perhaps because we ourselves don’t think of it as something to fear.

If immigration debates are to become more civil in Arizona, Arizonans must decide to treat Mexican immigrants with civility, lest we decide that only U.S. citizens deserve humane treatment.  Border Patrol and police officers generally respect the rights of individuals they encounter, though some have been cited for abuse.  But Sheriff Joe Arpaio has carried out controversial immigration raids that separate mothers from their children.  He has chained Mexican immigrants together, forced them to wear pink socks and underwear, and marched them before news cameras to tent cities that segregate them from the general prison population.  In the name of civility, such treatment must stop.

In his utterly disarming speech, President Obama called for empathy, asking us to become better people by placing ourselves in others’ shoes.  The version of empathy expressed by many anti-immigrant activists is that they’d expect to be arrested, too, if they entered another country illegally.  That may be true.  But if they traveled with their small children, would they expect separation from them?  Would they expect to be systematically humiliated, and subjected to cruel treatment?

Some immigrants enter the United States illegally in the process of trying to reunite with family or seek work in the United States.  But the treatment they receive denies their basic humanity—the fact that they live, breathe, and feel just as citizens do.

We should sit down and work towards solutions together, but in our quest for civility we should not sacrifice truth.  During her gubernatorial campaign, Governor Jan Brewer “misspoke” and fed fear when she said that state law enforcement officials had discovered headless victims of Mexico’s drug wars in Arizona.  It took continued prodding by her opponent, Terry Goddard, to get her to retract the statement. We should hold our politicians to higher standards.

Anti-immigrant activists—politicians and ordinary citizens alike—also blame Mexican immigrants for draining school resources, burdening the health care system, and helping to create Arizona’s $3 billion budget deficit.  They make such assertions even as state politicians cut budgets for schools because they believe government should have no role in education, slash funds for critical health care programs—including mental health—and oppose temporary sales tax increases that create jobs for teachers.  While immigrant rights advocates refute these economic claims by noting how even undocumented immigrants pay sales taxes, pay into social security without benefiting from it, and make the goods we buy less expensive, we might also take a more comprehensive look at immigration’s impact on the economy and acknowledge that it has costs in addition to benefits.

Finally, in the name of truth, we should all slow down, think, and evaluate facts before we speak.  In Arizona and the rest of our nation, truth, justice, righteousness, and, yes, civility, will be measured by how we treat other human beings, not by how forcefully we pronounce our opinions, shame our opponents, and wave our flags.  Arizona’s GOP leaders—whose party controls the state government and the makes up the bulk of Arizona’s congressional delegation—have failed to approach the immigration debate with civility.  Who among them will answer the bipartisan call for civility now, and turn words into actions?

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 1/26/2011

Every country has an undeniable right to legally protect itself against illegal imigration - no argument here.
<It's very difficult to argue with someone whose brain has been infested with the disease of political correctness - to the point that he would exploit the Tuscon Massacre for political gain, to blame those who had nothing to do with it.>
I second you on the latter, too. However, your correspondent has a quite compelling role-model to follow: this country's governments (both - Republican and Democrat) and
corporate propaganda machine, who more than often blame the wrong people or/and countries for something those have nothing to do with.
So, we have to blame most of all the social and political culture and principles (or the lack of thereof and corruption of the latter by the corporate capital) imposed on the American nation and maintained by the so-called managerial class for corruption of many minds.

Mike R Bav - 1/24/2011

Illegal immigration is illegal.
Let me say that again: illegal immigration is illegal.

Since when is it an act of bigortry for a nation to enforce its laws and protect its borders from invasion?

What an incredibly foolish, pointless article.

In your view, racists, bigots, and Islamophobes are lurking around every corner.

But what more can I say? It's very difficult to argue with someone whose brain has been infested with the disease of political correctness - to the point that he would exploit the Tuscon Massacre for political gain, to blame those who had nothing to do with it.

Of course, all human beings have certain rights, but to say that illegal immigration is legal ... is just outrageous. And it's not fair to those who follow the rules.