The Only Surprising Thing…

…is the tone of surprise.

“Sanctuary Bills in Maryland Faced a Surprise Foe: Legal Immigrants” the New York Times declared.

An excerpt, emphasis mine:

At first blush, making Howard County a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants had seemed a natural move: The county has twice as many Democrats as Republicans and a highly educated population, full of scientists and engineers. One in five residents was born abroad.

But the bill met stout opposition from an unlikely source: some of those very same foreign-born residents.

In passionate testimony before county legislators, and in tense debates with liberal neighbors born in the United States, legal immigrants argued that offering sanctuary to people who came to the country illegally devalued their own past struggles to gain citizenship.

Some even felt it threatened their hard-won hold on the American dream.

Their objections stunned Democratic supporters of sanctuary here and helped bring about the bill’s demise in March. A similar proposal for the state collapsed this month in the Maryland Senate, where Democrats also hold a two-to-one advantage. Some of the same immigrants spoke out against it.

The newspaper, the Democrats who proposed it, and supporters of the law, they were all shocked that legal immigrants opposed the support for illegal immigrants.

Now, I want to say this is a rather good article.  The reporters noted something odd (at least to her), and proceeded to investigate, collecting a large number of for-attribution interviews to use as case studies.  The result is both a human interest story and a policy story that, perhaps because of the journalist’s own surprise and confusion, is sympathetic to the nuances of the story without forcing the ‘view from nowhere’.

Perhaps we’d have more civil political discourse if more journalists were surprised and confused more often?

Anyway, this is to say that my comment is not that there is something wrong with the article, but, perhaps, something wrong with how supporters of the bill(s) were thinking.  Clearly, they were thinking of immigrants as a cohesive group – a ‘foreign born’ group that would vote to support each other.  This isn’t true.  There remains bad blood between Irish and British, or between Armenians and Turks, or between Koreans and Japanese, and this bad blood does not immediately vanish because members of both groups have immigrated.  The same can be just as true (if less vividly so) of pre-existing class or political divisions.  Most of the interviewees make a statement reflecting divisions in kinds of immigrants in referencing imported gangs or trailer parks and so on.

However, EVEN IF IT WERE TRUE that immigrants recognized each other as mutual members of the foreign-born group, that still does not explain the article’s surprise.  The more that foreign-born is a self-similar group, the more that members will be competing for the same job.  Again, the interviewees give statements congruent with competition to the journalist, such as Mr. Salazar’s complaints that more immigrants are straining teachers and the education system, or Mr. Pal’s conjunction of immigration with his own battle for a green-card slot.  Both suggest that illegal immigration is on some level ruining things for the legal immigrants.

Either as a group, or as a diverse and contingent category, then, one would expect tension between different immigrants.  The surprise, I find, is unwarranted.  However, even if the journalists and activists and politicians behind the bills mentioned in the article disagree with my theoretical analysis, they still must contend with history.  Does no one remember the ugly history of the Irish and Italian immigrants in the early 1900s?  Those two desperate groups competed for opportunities to reach the United States and, once there, competed for the same jobs, mostly miserable hard labor work.  How about the fact that if those two groups agreed on anything, it was that the poor desperate Chinese immigrants from the West Coast were a common threat?  The legal/illegal divide seems rather new, but the idea that immigrants might not necessarily support other immigrants is not novel, not unpredictable, and not at all surprising.

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