As today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision demonstrated, President Bill Clinton’s cold political calculation to sign the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) nearly 17 years ago put him on the wrong side of history. Even though he came to repudiate his actions, his signature on DOMA perpetuated bigotry. Symbolically, he linked arms with George Wallace, who, as governor of Alabama, 50 years ago this month stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama in an attempt to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from registering.
Just as Clinton’s and Wallace’s brazen attempts to perpetuate injustice have been discredited and overturned, those who stand in the way of meaningful immigration reform will eventually find themselves swept away by the steady rivers of change and justice.
Clinton and Wallace perpetuated the demonization of “the other,” in the same way immigration obstructionists use fear and contempt to erect walls and delay the inevitable.
The laser focus on “border security” is a throwback to the heated “invasion” rhetoric of 20 years ago when politicians of all political stripes rushed to militarize the border to keep out the “flood of illegal aliens.” The stepped up immigration enforcement didn’t work. Why? Because Americans valued cheap labor more than they did impregnable borders, and because immigrants decided the potential rewards outweighed the risk of illegal entry or visa overstays.
What the anti-immigrant crowd doesn’t appreciate or acknowledge is how much has changed in two decades. Most important, the “us vs. them” framing that might have had political currency at one time doesn’t stand up to scrutiny these days. Like it or not, America’s 11 million or so unauthorized immigrants are vitally entwined in American society, not only in the labor force, but in our communities, history, economy, culture, educational systems, religious life, you name it. As was the case with gay men and women who DOMA forced to the sides, as was true with blacks subjugated by Jim Crow laws, immigrants who deserve justice cannot be thought of as “aliens” inhabiting a separate world. We work together. Our children learn, play, and grow together, and sometimes fall in love. By history and by sheer force of numbers, migrants are not the “other;” they are part of us, spread throughout American society.
The facts speak louder than rhetoric:
- Most unauthorized migrants have been in the United States for more than 13 years.
- Unauthorized immigrants make up more than five percent of the U.S. labor force and a huge part of the underground economy.
- Illegal immigration between Mexico and the US is around “net zero,” meaning that about the same number of people are coming and going.
- So-called “circular migration” in which unauthorized migrants could move comfortably back and forth across the border has stopped. That’s because if they leave the country, they can’t return.
- U.S. households increasingly include members with different immigration status. One study showed that as of 2005, 14.6 million persons lived in a “mixed status” home in which either the head of the family or the spouse was unauthorized.
Acceptance of rights for gays and non-whites required struggle and time. As was true for Martin Luther King, Jr, immigrants’ rights activists might not get to the top of the mountain they’re climbing. But change will come. The immigration obstructionists will be pushed aside to join George Wallace and Bill Clinton who, later in life, came to realize they were also on the wrong side of history.