December 15, 2017
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Arizona and the politics of immigration

By John Buell

Arizona, a U.S. state for only about a century, serves as microcosm of our national experience. Most of our ancestors are from away, do not share a common heritage and have seen themselves as God’s chosen. We experience an especially strong need and temptation to affirm the unity and simplicity of a set of core values.

Paradoxically, portraying ourselves as uniquely open often serves to strengthen our sense of ourselves as a chosen few and to justify new forms of repression of those who are different. There is a long tradition in the U.S. of treating even domestic dissidents who suggest the limits to or the difficulties in attaining the “American dream” as “foreign inspired.”

President Barack Obama’s tepid and overhyped stimulus package, leaving unemployment at extraordinarily high levels, occasions poverty, insecurity and scapegoating. Democrats must return to a vigorous jobs agenda. But building support not only for job creation but long-term safety nets requires addressing scapegoating directly.

Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman maintains ethnic diversity must be limited to maintain support for the safety net. But perhaps the very repetition of such sociological generalizations helps to entrench the problem. It may give undue solidity to the very murky notion of ethnicity and freeze existing group boundaries.

In addition, Krugman assumes that enactment of a just safety net depends on what is happening within the society. A dynamic between internal and external may play a more vital role than in earlier eras. Rather than build commitment to the safety net — especially in our globalizing world — on cultural or ethnic homogeneity, the best foundation may be far more pluralistic.

Such a coalition might spring from multiple ethnicities, concerns about gender justice, labor, and social gospel and secular sources, all of whom recognize or can be induced to see the danger to each from repressive agendas. Minimally, they develop a greater appreciation for civil liberties. On this basis, some cultivate among themselves and others a willingness to risk challenge to the certainty of their identities in an effort to have a fuller life together. The most alienated will likely reject such overtures, but others confused and disturbed by the drift of our politics may respond.

In Arizona even as activists oppose a new immigration law both through the courts and boycotts, they can reach out to some police officers who see the cost and inequities in the law. Not all supporters of the new law are racist or unmovable. Collaboration between sympathetic members of the police and Hispanic community leaders can show how community cooperation has already reduced crime. And within the Hispanic community itself, new alliances may be built as some who have shared opposition to the undocumented (perhaps because they or their parents came legally) come to see that demonization boomerangs back on them.

At their best, participants in such coalitions are willing to concede that some of their deepest beliefs about God and truth are not or have not been fully proven. They admit their participation in historic injustices. (Mexicans who break laws by crossing our borders are returning to land stolen from Mexico.)

A pluralistic politics on the international scene may be equally vital, especially as walls between inside and outside become more porous. In an earlier column, I cited the World Social Forum’s motto, “Another world is possible.” The emphasis is on initiatives from the bottom up. The WSF rejects not only the corporate-dominated model but also even the underlying assumption that the world can be united through one underlying ideology, philosophy or worldview. Its only membership requirements are opposition to corporate domination, an international outlook, nonviolence and open participation, terms whose meaning it continually re-examines.

The WSF, the sister cities movements and the recent global climate summit all recognize that justice among as well as within nations is central to both economic sustainability and to constructive alternatives to the forced population flows.

Undocumented immigrants can be a catalyst to transformations — precisely because they are less rooted. Coming from a variety of Christian and indigenous perspectives, many value cultural, religious and family commitments more than endless material growth. Many also share a greater appreciation for the centrality of political participation both as a value itself and a means to a more dynamic pluralism. Many have engaged at great personal risk in public demonstrations. They may help us enact a more generous society.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may reach him at

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