Friday, November 4, 2011

Andy, Opie, and The Third Rail

Andy, Opie, and The Third Rail

There’s a wonderful episode of the old Andy Griffith Show called “Man in a Hurry.”

It was first aired in 1963, and tells the story of a hard-driving businessman named Malcolm Tucker who’s car breaks down outside of Mayberry on a Sunday, and his furious (and futile) efforts to get it repaired so he can make it to his important meeting in Charlotte the following day.

Mr. Tucker is stymied everywhere; the garage is closed, no one is working, people are in their Sunday best, and the only long-distance telephone line in town is a party line (and that’s monopolized by the elderly Mendelbright sisters, who have their regular Sunday talk).  He blusters and pleads, and even resorts to stealing Gomer’s pick up truck, but the meandering pace of Mayberry on a Sunday is not going to be disturbed.

I sometimes think of this episode when I watch the arguments over immigration, which is the true Third Rail of American politics.

Immigration is at the confluence of a series of deeply visceral issues.  Entitlement programs, education, employment, race and ethnicity, assimilation, all the little fears and sometimes prejudices that creep into our daily lives. 

If you watch the GOP Presidential debates you come away with the sense that all our problems would be solved if we could only hermetically seal off our (Southern) borders.  They compete with each other over who can be tougher: fences, double fences, electric fences, barbed-wire fences, high tech surveillance, drones, boots on the ground, moats with alligators.  Immigrants need to be walled off, arrested, interned, deported.  The candidates also take potshots at each other’s sins.  Mitt Romney had an illegal gardener.  Perry, in a rare moment of humanity, supported the education of illegal immigrants.  Michelle Bachmann has no sin, but points out that President Obama has many (especially of the Kenyan relative kind).

And it’s not just in Washington-Arizona has Sheriff Joe Arapio and the relentlessly partisan Jan Brewer grabbing for microphones and a Fox News gig.  State legislators everywhere are competing with each other to be tougher, bolder, and more restrictive.  Alabama and South Carolina laws make transporting or harboring an illegal immigrant a criminal offense, create a misdemeanor for failure to carry registration documents and requires law enforcement to inquire about the immigration status of anyone stopped or arrested.  The Obama Administration has challenged several of these in court, but given the ideological split in the Federal courts system right now, the ultimate outcome is uncertain.

Although many Republican strategists see this as a wedge issue to pry away votes in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, it’s not purely party driven, nor is it entirely monolithic.  Republican-supporting business interests are quietly lobbying for guest worker programs, and the farming industry is desperate for (often illegal) migrant workers.  On the other side of the aisle, organized labor is more leery.  The New York Times had an interesting article about how immigration sometimes cuts across party lines in strange ways, such as Senator Schumer teaming with Senator Mike Lee of Utah (the Tea Party candidate who unseated incumbent Republican Robert Bennett for being insufficiently conservative) to support visas for foreigners who buy real estate, and Representative Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) who sponsored a bill for visa programs for tech and highly skilled workers.

But, nevertheless, the loudest cries seem to emanate from the conservative side of the aisle, including the radio and television shock-jocks, and are often coupled with voter suppression legislation on a state-by-state basis which is clearly intended to limit minority (and particularly Hispanic) voter turnout.

But why all this?  What are the philosophical (as opposed to political) underpinnings beneath all this passion?  One thing we can say with absolute certainty; with the exception of Native Americans, we are all immigrants, or at the very least, from immigrant stock. My grandparents and their extended families immigrated-I can see their records in the Ellis Island archives. Every DAR member’s ancestors were immigrants.  African-Americans have their own tragic history with immigration.  And, while we’ve had nativist and anti-immigrant movements before, including an entire party, the Know Nothings, we’ve had wave after wave of immigrants from every part of the world.  So why now for the moats, the alligators, the fences on fences?  What are we saving ourselves from?

Of course, I’ve just engaged in a type of solipsism.  My personal history and my present world are filled with immigrants.  I live in New York City, where public school students speak over 130 languages at home. The cab driver is South Asian, the physics teacher from Jamaica, the dry cleaner Korean, the real estate broker has a deep Irish brogue, the doorman is Ecuadorean, and the gentlemen down the hall on my floor are respectively, Spanish, Iranian, and Scottish immigrants.  So, when I look around my town, the place I live, this diversity is my reality. 

It may be my reality, but it is not necessarily others. And regardless of what I may think of even the darkest motivations of the worst of the anti-immigrant activists, there are some real considerations that have to come into play.  Eleven million undocumented aliens are too many, particularly if they place additional burdens on an overtaxed educational, social welfare and healthcare system.  That number tells us that previous attempts at immigration legislation, quotas, and limited amnesty haven’t worked particularly well.  The tendency for certain immigrant groups to cluster themselves in mini-ghettos and isolate themselves culturally creates significant barriers to assimilation-even more importantly, to citizenship in the fullest sense of the word.  It is critical that immigrants learn English and are able to fully participate in and contribute to the society they elected to join.  So, it’s not enough to just buzz off the anti-immigrant section of our electorate as yahoos or racists. An effective immigration policy has to couple compassion and our historic openness and tolerance with a system that has defined and enforced rules.  It must also demand of our new guests (and possibly future fellow citizens) that, while they honor the customs of their native lands, they are fully supportive of ours. 

Which brings me back to Mayberry.  After being irritated by the bumpkiness of Gomer, Barney, and Wally (who owns the filling station but won’t work on Sunday,) Mr. Tucker is finally convinced he is marooned and calms down enough to allow himself to be brought home to Andy’s house, fed by Aunt Bee, and generally treated like a member of the family.  The closing shot is of him asleep in a rocking chair on Andy’s porch, a partially peeled apple in his hand. 

These are potent images of small-town simplicity and friendliness, of escape from the driving, pushing, success and money-oriented life.  The women have gender roles familiar to the time (homemaker, teacher, librarian), but they are smart and strong.  For all their quirkiness, and the citizens of Mayberry are alike; all white, rural, unsophisticated but not unintelligent.  They slow down on Sunday; most go to church, where the minister gives a predictably bland and gentle sermon. They aren’t critical scolds, but they have a clear sense of right and wrong and of both community and self-reliance.   They are fictional characters, but somehow seem more authentic that our modern politicians who claim the same values.

I don’t know how many Mayberrys, if any, are left in America, but I think they occupy a space in many people’s souls, a yearning for a quiet place, untouched by time, with friendly and familiar faces.  Immigration-at least the modern type, less European, more Latino-threatens that.  It tells us that the quiet place is not forever, that the new and strange will push out the old, and that the world we knew is no longer ours to own completely.

We struggle with that, whether loudly in the streets, or quietly in our hearts.  We know our country is becoming more and more diverse, and that sometime in the foreseeable future, those of European ancestry will no longer be in the majority.  Our politicians largely ignore that: they often pander to either our worst xenophobic instincts or our liberal guilt. Few speak openly and honestly about the societal challenges to come, fewer still about the expectations of a common future.

We are going to have to have that conversation, fences, moats, alligators, and drones notwithstanding.  It’s the Third Rail, but it’s going to be touched.