Opinion » Viewpoint

The "Lie" on Immigration

Congressman Joe Wilson's shout during the president's speech was only a symptom.



President Carter was correct to characterize Congressman Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's health-care speech as racist. Racism is at least part of the fuel that detonated the reflexive, angry two words —"You lie!" — shouted at Obama during his nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9th.

But few commentators have reflected on the 16 words spoken by Obama immediately prior to Wilson's reaction. The president, in attempting to win over moderate Republicans and independents to his health-care-reform proposal, said, "There are those who claim our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants; this too is false."

Let us not forget that it is the "Latin factor" that forms much of the racism represented by Wilson. Brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people, who make up 78 percent of all undocumented aliens in the U.S., represent the real challenge to the South Carolinian legislator and his allies. In Wilson's world, denying 13 million people health care becomes a political virtue rather than what it really is: divisive, cruel, and completely against the founding principles of our nation.

We've tried this before. In 1994, during a period of anti-immigrant activism, voters in California passed the Proposition 187 ballot initiative, which sought to deny education and any health care (except for emergency) to the undocumented. Proposition 187 was never implemented, and by 1999, the California Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. California voters then rebuked some of the politicians who supported the anti-immigrant legislation. (Governor Pete Wilson was one such politician; he is now a political afterthought.)

The question for President Obama is clear: If he can manage to squeak through some sort of health-care reform in the next few months, will he then have the political capital needed to begin the fight for comprehensive immigration reform? Considering the current political climate, real immigration reform might elude this president, just as it did his predecessor. And that's a shame.

With unemployment in the U.S. hovering at about 10 percent, many claim that illegal immigration is responsible. In fact, the undocumented laborers who work in occupations that U.S. citizens abhor (in chicken processing plants in the Carolinas, in the strawberry fields of California, in the apple orchards of New York) have brought vitality and relative economic prosperity to many cities and towns across the nation. New Orleans after Katrina; Galveston and Houston after last year's Hurricane Ike; Riverside, New Jersey, Hartford, Connecticut, and hundreds of other communities have recently witnessed the direct economic benefits of immigrant labor.

With our economy in crisis and our overall sense of American exceptionalism seriously challenged by recent economic realities, it's time to act on comprehensive immigration reform by recognizing the economic and social contributions immigrants (documented and undocumented) make to our society. Regarding health-care reform, it's clear that forcing people to visit the local emergency room as a last resort is grossly inefficient and cost-prohibitive.

Comprehensive immigration reform would make life more peaceful and secure for millions of people who live and work in this country and contribute their energy to our society. The reform legislation must include the "Dream Act," which would regularize the immigration status of hundreds of thousands of young people who are citizens but are effectively denied both the dream of education beyond high school and true social mobility in the U.S.

Frightened racists sit in the hallowed halls of our legislatures, but racism is far more complex and insidious than the two-bit words used by a white Southern congressman. Millions of Hispanics among us have felt unkindness and prejudice in a nation that prides itself on celebrating diversity and supporting the ambitions of those who hope to make a better life here. Comprehensive immigration reform must become a national priority. President Obama should tune out the shouters and haters and move a more rational nation forward on this critically important enterprise.

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