While local TV news outfits last week were showing how world-class they could be during Bush's visit, fawning and gushing as if they'd never seen a war criminal before, the President's party was busy mauling itself in a bitter battle over immigration.
Congressional Republicans spent the week fighting each other while trying to work out an immigration compromise that would satisfy its two main bases of power: big business and bigots.
Business interests wanted an immigration bill that would allow most immigrants to stay in the US. That's because many businesses get away with paying illegal immigrants much less than they would have to pay pesky "regular" Americans with their grandiose expectations of actually making a living.
Satisfying big-business backers isn't usually a problem for Republican lawmakers, to put it mildly. The trouble is that these same GOP legislators have spent a lot of time whipping their yahoo base into a frenzy by tossing them the raw meat of anti-immigrant rhetoric. That includes Charlotte's Rep. Sue Myrick, whom many political observers believe plans to ride a wave of anti-immigrant fever (i.e., anti-Hispanic bigotry) to the governor's mansion.
By our deadline, Congress had come up with a plan that supposedly offers something to both parts of the Republican base. The proposed bill will beef up the border patrol, strengthen rules against hiring illegals and create ID cards for immigrants. Immigrants who've been in the country for five years will be able to gain US citizenship by paying a $2,000 penalty, plus back taxes, learning English, undergoing a criminal-background check, remaining employed for 11 years and, presumably, standing on one foot while singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" backwards. Illegal immigrants who've been here 2 to 5 years have to go home, apparently for a bed check, and then apply for a temporary work visa. If you've been here less than two years -- a group that numbers anywhere from 1 million to 2 million, depending on which experts you ask -- sorry, you're outta here.
I can guarantee one thing if the bill becomes law: Yahoos will moan that it's "too lenient" on illegal immigrants. Never mind that the US is setting itself up for a deportation on a scale not seen since Jews were rounded up in Europe during World War II. That's not "tough" enough? Why not? Because nothing you could do short of creating an Hispanic gulag will satisfy bigots. And make no mistake, what we're dealing with here is bigotry and ignorance. No matter how many times yahoos couch the issue in terms of economics, drunk driving, nationalism or what-have-you, the real root of their concern is much simpler, and much sadder. It's the old, dark, human impulse to reject and eliminate "the other."
It's an old story. When Chinese immigrants came to the West Coast during the gold rushes of the 19th Century, they were called the "Yellow Peril" and were generally treated like dogs. Finally, in 1882, Chinese immigration to the US was forbidden, a ban that lasted until the 1940s, when we needed them to help us build planes to fight the Japanese.
When the Irish sailed to America in droves in the 1800s -- on boats so crowded and terrible, they were called coffin ships -- they were widely considered animal-like brutes and drunks who spread disease in the general population.
Each successive wave of immigrants, whether Polish, Italian, Japanese or Haitian, has met with the same routine: They take the lowest paying jobs, after which "real" Americans (whose ancestors were, of course, immigrants) beat them up figuratively and literally, and finally, attempts are made to pass laws against their being here. It's a vile ritual whose never-ending recurrence is enough to make you ashamed to be part of the human race.
Many anti-immigrant advocates insist they're only concerned about immigrants who are here illegally -- "Why can't they come here legally like my great grandparents did?" That's easy. Most of the European immigrants came here legally because it was nearly impossible to do otherwise -- it's pretty hard to walk across 3,000 miles of water.
In any case, when you have unending waves of immigrants on a massive scale such as we've seen -- an estimated 12 million illegals in the US as of the end of 2005 -- you have more than an economic problem. More than anything, you have a human rights problem -- as well as a serious test of what kind of people we are. We've always had crowds of immigrant haters, just as we've had crowds of black haters, Indian haters, Catholic haters, and on and on. You have to hope that in the end, "the better angels of our nature," as Lincoln phrased it, will win out. Do we really want to be the kind of nation that would actually deport a million people?