Saturday, November 19, 2011

Individual versus collective guilt in the public mind (immigration)

Here's one more "log to put on the fire", a sort of a double standard

One point that a lot of the discussion about immigration misses is the difference between individual culpability and collective presumed guilt. The former is judged by the courts. The latter is judged by the court of public opinion, and this court has a vastly far lower standard for placing blame. And, it is this court of public opinion to which all political representatives and servants must answer, at peril otherwise of losing their jobs and dignity (and cushy benefits and retirement plans... speaking of DeeDee's José Julián Martí Pérez quote about torches vs. jaws).

...To illustrate this, an immigrant who overstays her visa may in the eyes of the law be guilty of only an administrative violation. But, if fearful members of the public see that visa overstays are common, they will assume that at least some of the overstayers did so on purpose, and deliberately entered the country with unlawful intent. And, public opinion will be even more savage against those who actually entered illegally, by eluding immigration agents and inspection or use of false documents. This remains true even if none of the individual immigrants were found guilty of illegal entry, and all were simply found guilty of the administrative violation of unlawful presence. In the court of public opinion, however, many US citizens will judge them as criminal.

...Individuals in real courts usually get presumption of innocence. Groups, especially minority groups, in the court of public opinion get few if any breaks. Is the court of opinion always fair? Hell, no. It makes plenty of mistakes and can be swayed by racist fears and demagogues. But is it real? Yes -- and it doesn't need no stinking badge or law books or due process.

...Immigration/immigrant advocates have to thread a very narrow passage between, on the one side, educating Americans about what is and isn’t criminal and fighting against unfair laws and procedures; and on the other side, seeming to trivialize or be misleading about violations of laws and the concerns and fears of opponents. Overselling can cost credibility and hardening of public opinion. Underselling misses a chance to educate people and grasp opportunities for fairer treatment of all.

Illegal or undocumented?

Here's what I think is a crux of the language debate between pro- and anti-immigration supporters over the use of the terms "illegal alien" versus "undocumented immigrant".
-- Those who want tighter borders are convinced that immigrants who cross illegally are committing a serious crime, endangering US national security, and harboring and supporting criminals (coyotes, mules, etc.) or perhaps even terrorists in their midst. Sensationalized reporting of events on both sides of the border adds to the fear factor. Residual prejudices, tribalism, language and cultural differences stoke resentments further. Besides, it's easier to fear an "alien" than an "immigrant". Just try to count the number of bad science-fiction movies starring aliens with bad intentions.
-- Immigration supporters see only a minor administrative violation by economic and political refugees frustrated by a complicated, expensive, and cumbersome system for legal immigration.
-- Immigration supporters see immigrants as vital to the US economy and taking jobs that others don't want, as well as risking their lives by serving in the US military.
-- Unions and anti-immigrants paint immigrants who cross illegally as taking jobs away from citizens and as a drain on the economy.
(Note there is an important distinction between illegal or fraudulent entry and visa or border card overstays -- the former is an actual crime, but the latter is only a civil infraction. Thus someone who doesn't get caught at the border isn't treated as a criminal -- unless they have been convicted of other crimes or are repeat offenders of immigration laws.)

Some people see guarding borders as one of the highest functions of a government. Some see freedom of travel and immigration as a fundamental human right. These two camps will not be reconciled easily.

Those who are anti-immigrant tend to be extremely suspicious of and likely to lash out at those who want to use "undocumented" instead of "illegal"; they think that the change is an attempt at trivializing what they fear and trying to force people into believing that immigrating without permission of the destination country is okay -- when, to them, it is very definitely not okay, but rather one of their great fears. They feel that users of the term "undocumented" are trying to trick them and force their support for illegal immigration. Obviously, whether the fear is fully valid is not the point -- people's feelings and prejudices are.

And those fears can only be addressed person by person via education, positive examples, and strong well-principled leadership, which last is lacking at the national level in both the executive and legislative branches and in both major parties.