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The New York Times on “The Great Immigration Panic”

4 June, 2008

One of yesterday’s editorials in the New York Times laments that U.S. immigration policy has been turning towards a view “that illegal immigrants deserve no rights, mercy or hope:”

Immigrants in detention languish without lawyers and decent medical care even when they are mortally ill. Lawmakers are struggling to impose standards and oversight on a system deficient in both. Counties and towns with spare jail cells are lining up for federal contracts as prosecutions fill the system to bursting. Unbothered by the sight of blameless children in prison scrubs, the government plans to build up to three new family detention centers. Police all over are checking papers, empowered by politicians itching to enlist in the federal crusade.

The editors’ feeling is that “the true cost is to the national identity: the sense of who we are and what we value. It will hit us once the enforcement fever breaks, when we look at what has been done and no longer recognize the country that did it.” Of course, this is precisely an opposite to Samuel Huntington’s sense of who we are: in Who Are We?  he talks about the urgency to stop illegal immigration so as to preserve America’s sense of self.

This article made me reflect once again on the different standards, in many ways, that immigration opponents and supporters operate with in the U.S. compared to almost everywhere else. In Australia, immigration raids are so uncontroversial that they are the weekly subject of the most popular non-fiction TV show, Border Security. I confess that this show puzzles me. I don’t think Australia is a xenophobic country; and I think Australian public television is fairly good and careful in its reporting (there is even a TV watchdog programme that runs in prime time). And yet here is this show, where cameras follow immigration agents who take people out of the queue at the airport because they “look suspicious.” They offer comments like “This guy is clearly very uncomfortable.” Then the narrator behind the camera says things like “Absence of cash and presence of a bank account number is often indication that the individual plans to work illegally. But the officers must also ensure they are not carrying drugs.” Then these two frightened Asians are filmed as they are searched.

Now, I don’t think this programme is outright racist (the immigration crews filmed have non-white members as well) but it is certainly suggests that we must be careful, we must be worried about who we let in — especially if they are Asian or African (there are notably few white “suspects”). But what is far worse is the intolerable offence to human dignity that these images present. The officers do not nearly always find the “suspects” guilty; but paradoxically, this seems not to lead to the conclusion that perhaps these efforts to protect the nation are overblown, but on the contrary, that we must be even more alert because — as Comrade Virag famously said in the Hungarian film The Witness about the show trials of the 1950s — “those who don’t look suspicious are the most suspicious.”

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