During a period of study in London in the early 1980s I was making daily use of the splendid library at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies. The library is in the main SOAS premises on Malet Place, but the school also has some overflow accommodation in the fine old Georgian houses around Bedford Square. I used to walk past one of these houses on my way to the library. You could look down at basement rooms, below street level, in which were desks, shelves and filing cabinets piled high with innumerable books and folders, all behind a door that said: DEPARTMENT OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN STUDIES.
One evening I happened to be walking past these premises with a SOAS staff member. He told me the following story about the place. I have no idea whether the story is true; but it might very well be, and in any case it’s a good story.
Back in the 1960s (said my informant) one of those basement rooms was the office of a little old English lady who had dedicated her life to the study of Cambodia. She was, he said, short and round, with coke-bottle glasses and unkempt hair, and her dearest wish in life was to be left alone in her basement room poring over 16th-century Cambodian manuscripts. For many years this wish was granted to her. Nobody else was interested in Cambodia. To judge from a famous remark by Sir Winston Churchill–”I have lived for 78 years without hearing of bloody places like Cambodia”–very few English people at that time even knew of the country’s existence.
Then, one day, an American president decided to invade Cambodia. In the course of making the necessary preparations, his administration discovered that nobody in Washington, D.C. knew anything about the country. Cambodia expertise was suddenly trading at a premium. Cabinet officers alerted their aides, the aides alerted their deputies, the deputies alerted their assistants, the assistants alerted their secretaries, and very soon U.S. bureaucrats were scurrying all over the world looking for Cambodia experts.
Thus it came to pass that one day the little old lady in Bedford Square heard her doorbell ring. Rousing herself from her scrutiny of the edicts of the Ang Duong monarchy, she went and opened the door. There she found standing two senior staff officers from the Pentagon, with a couple of civilians in tow. After some introductions and explanations, the little old lady was whisked away in a huge black car belonging to the U.S. embassy. She was flown to Washington on a specially equipped plane, and ushered into the war room deep beneath the Pentagon. There she dwelt for several months, while the movers and shakers of American diplomacy picked her brains and gave her documents in Cambodian to translate.
Eventually Cambodia sank in importance to the American president. The little old lady’s services were no longer required. The Pentagon laid on the special plane again, to fly her back to London. She returned to her cluttered basement room on Bedford Square, closing the door thankfully behind her. “And there she can still be found,” concluded my narrator. “Undisturbed for many years now, and close to retirement.”
I’ve been feeling a little bit like that old lady recently. I don’t know diddly about Cambodia, but I know something about immigration. Not enough to claim real expertise; but I have followed the issue for some years, have been through the immigration mill myself of course, spent my first few years in the USA among people for whom each other’s immigration status was a common topic of conversation, have read all the books, and am pretty familiar with all the arguments. I have even written occasional pieces for immigration websites. When, on January 7, the president put forward his proposals for a “temporary worker” plan, my ears perked up. Here was a topic on which I had a decently good background. I could join in the debate without having to do much homework.
My enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay. As commentary on the Bush plan began to appear, it became ever more obvious that most conservative commentators had never in their lives given more than a few seconds’ thought to immigration issues. The crassest falsehoods (“it is not actually illegal to enter the country without documentation”), the stalest fallacies (“jobs that Americans won’t do”), the hoariest myths (“Hispanic immigrants are natural conservatives”) came tumbling from their word processors. Theories long ago debunked (“immigration has no impact on poor Americans”) were tossed around with utter seriousness. An alarming number of my fellow pundits seemed to have the utmost difficulty distinguishing between
as issues. The word “illegal” was often casually omitted where it was necessary, so that I had to read a sentence twice to figure out if the word “immigrant” meant
There seemed to be a general vague feeling that it was churlish, or improper, or politically incorrect, or something, to distinguish between the two things. A very respectable commentator, the opinion-page editor of a large newspaper, who in fact has no clue what my opinion on immigration is, called me “anti-immigrant” because I had opposed the President’s proposal on illegal immigrants. (Note: I am myself an immigrant. My wife is also an immigrant. Half our friends are immigrants. “Anti-immigrant”–feu!)
As just a single example of the kind of thing I mean, listen to all the talk about how it is unfair to prosecute employers who hire illegal aliens because it is “impossible” to devise any system that would check a job applicant’s status. Well, fiddlesticks. We need only make the Social Security card scannable, so an employer could run it through one of those $20 scanning gadgets the drugstore swipes your credit card through. It could be done very easily, if our government bureaucracies were capable of doing anything one percent as well as the private sector does. If my Visa card can be verified in ten seconds, why can’t my Social Security card?
(When my own immigration “case” was crawling its slow way through the system, it happened that I was involved in mailing a lot of packages and tracking them to their destinations. Companies like UPS and FedEx make this easy to do from your home computer. With a few keystrokes you can tell where your package has got to. So why couldn’t I do this with my immigration case? Track its progress as I track the movement of a parcel? Because the INS–now the BCIS–is too stupid, lazy, and incompetent to establish such a system, that’s why. There was in fact no way at all to know the progress of my case. I just had to wait till I was called. You can’t phone the Immigration Service. They don’t answer phones, or mail, or e-mail.)
I have come to the sad conclusion that American-born Americans simply cannot think rationally about immigration. This is true even of most conservatives. Liberals, of course, are perfectly hopeless. Here is what liberals believe.
There are two kinds of people: good, kind people who love immigrants, and bad, cruel people who hate immigrants.
That’s it, that’s the entire liberal mindset on the matter. No analysis or discussion is permitted. You can even see this cast of thought beneath the surface of some conservative commentary, in fact. All the nuances of this vast and tangled issue–legal vs. illegal (Yes: Legality as opposed to illegality counts as a nuance in immigration discussions!), domestic enforcement vs. entry control, overstayers, chain migration, border policy, “anchor babies,” skill sets, bilingual education, illegal-alien criminality, Fourteenth Amendment, and public-health issues and the rest–all are lost. One libertarian commentator noted with frowning disapproval that some conservatives “support limits on legal immigration.” Good grief! Do they really? What are they, some kind of racists? There should be no limits at all–doesn’t everybody know that?
And swirling around the whole issue is a thick fog of sentimentality and nostalgia, through which can be dimly glimpsed the grand old icons: the cabin and the shtetl, the famine ships and the Lower East Side, the olive groves of Sicily, and picturesque campesinos playing soft love songs on guitar in the old Southwest. If you look very closely you can sometimes catch sight of other, less pretty things: cold cash self-interest and naked racism. (“Let’s see, I can have my yard work done for $10 an hour by a cheerful small brown foreigner, or for $20 an hour by a surly large black American. Hmmm…..”)
Never mind. Not only is America incapable of thinking about immigration sensibly–much less of doing anything about it!–she is also incapable of thinking about the subject for very long. This present spasm of interest will blow over in a week or two. The arguments will all be forgotten. America will sink back into her sweet lotus dreams of “diversity,” of “cheap labor,” of “open borders,” of shtetls and cabins and Ellis Island and Hester Street. Politicians will reply to immigration questions, on the rare occasions they are asked, with emollient platitudes about us being a “nation of immigrants,” to approving nods and applause. A few more border-patrol officers will quit in frustration, a couple more Arizona ranchers will sell up in despair after their house is trashed by invaders for the 30th time, there’ll be a few more gang-initiation murders in Los Angeles, another sector of the low-wage labor market will bid goodbye to its last American citizen, and some deep-eyed silent young men carrying curiously heavy packages will slip across the border amidst the throngs of campesinos, heading for a large city.
And I, and other people who know about immigration, and care about it, will go back to our rooms and shut the doors, quietly thankful that the fuss is over. We knew, after all, as the little old Cambodia lady very likely did, that nothing much good would come of it.