He is at the heart of a great culture war in Texas—and the nation, credited with bringing us prosperity and blamed for abusing our resources. How should we deal with this stranger among us?
He breaks the law by his very presence. He hustles to do hard work many Americans won’t, at least not at the low wages he accepts. The American consumer economy depends on him. America as we have known it for generations may not survive him.
We can’t seem to live with him and his family, and if we can live without him, nobody’s figured out how.
He’s the Illegal Immigrant, and he’s the 2007 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year—for better or for worse. Given the public mood, there seems to be little middle ground in debate over illegal immigrants. Spectacular fights over their presence broke out across Texas this year, adding to the national pressure cooker as only Texas can.
To their champions, illegal immigrants are decent, hardworking people who, like generations of European immigrants before them, just want to do better for their families and who contribute to America’s prosperity. They must endure hatred and abuse by those of us who want the benefits of cheap labor but not the presence of illegal immigrants.
Especially here in Texas, his strong back and willing heart help form the cornerstone of our daily lives, in ways that many of us do not, or will not, see. The illegal immigrant is the waiter serving margaritas at our restaurant table, the cook preparing our enchiladas. He works grueling hours at a meatpacking plant, carving up carcasses of cattle for our barbecue (he also picks the lettuce for our burgers). He builds our houses and cuts our grass. She cleans our homes and takes care of our children.
Yet to those who want them sent home, illegal immigrants are essentially lawbreakers who violate the nation’s borders. They use public resources—schools, hospitals—to which they aren’t entitled and expect to be served in a foreign language. They’re rapidly changing Texas neighborhoods, cities and culture, and not always for the better. Those who object get tagged as racists.
Whatever and whoever else the illegal immigrant is, everybody has felt the tidal wave of his presence. According to an analysis of government data by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, Texas’ immigrant population has jumped a whopping 32.7 percent since 2000, a period in which immigration to the United States has exceeded, in sheer numbers, all previous historical eras. Half the immigrants in the state—7 percent of all Texans—are estimated to be here illegally.
Though many would agree that the status quo cannot be sustained—more illegal immigrants arrive each year than legal ones, a sure sign that the system is a joke—neither Texas nor the nation seemed nearer in 2007 to resolving this complex crisis. We can’t deport 12 million people who already live here, but we can’t leave our back door open indefinitely. Compromise comes hard because the issue is tangled up with the most basic aspects of everyday life, down to the core of what it means to be American.
How Texas—and, by extension, the rest of America—reacts will be unlike how previous generations handled immigration, given how the nation has changed since the 1960s. Fair or not, core American culture and values have become a popular punching bag. Some have cheered that as refining the American character by embracing diversity, inclusiveness and empowerment of ethnic and other minorities. Others worry that America risks losing itself in the process, especially if it gives up on securing the borders.
Historians say that the distinctly American democratic and middle-class ideals grew out of a specific cultural tradition—the Anglo-Protestant. Changed slowly over time by immigrants from the world over, it’s now challenged by a strong competing culture.
If critics are correct, we could be seeing the advent of the kind of fractiousness that bedevils public life in Canada and other nations where peoples who speak different languages, and come from different cultural backgrounds, live together only with mutual suspicion and unease.
On the other hand, perhaps the alarmists are wrong. Maybe these ambitious, hard-working immigrants, whatever their documentation, will write the next great chapter of a story that’s still deeply American, though with a different accent. If the optimists are right, much work remains to be done to incorporate all immigrants fully into new cultural traditions.
We end 2007 no closer to compromise on the issue than when the year began. People waging a culture war—and that’s what the struggle over illegal immigration is—don’t give up easily. What you think of the illegal immigrant says a lot about what you think of America, and what vision of her you are willing to defend. How we deal with the stranger among us says not only who we Americans are today but determines who we will become tomorrow.