The condensation from the Republican establishment and media dismissal of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate front-runner, reminds me of the initial reception of the candidacy of George W. Bush whose pedigree and wealth overshadowed his inability to formulate grammatically-correct sentences.
Without the benefit of an elderly cadre of advisors (Papa Bush's buddies for W), Trump has come out with an immigration policy all other GOP candidates seem to endorse even if they aren't thrilled with his rhetoric. It's anchored by a commitment to completing the 2,000-mile long border fence (or wall) between Mexico and the United States.
To be clear, it was President George W. Bush who signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 with wide popular support from Congress and the voting public of border-states. When "57% Think US Should Continue Building a Fence along Mexican Border" (Pulse Opinion Research, LLC 4/9/13), Trump's own bravado simply expressed popular sentiments. It's a mixture of "strong on crime" mind-set associated with the Republican Party and a recognition that a law-abiding nation must disallow illegal immigration.
A "great big wall" with a "big door" seems to fit this bill. Yet, this seemingly consistent argument for continuing the fence/wall construction is also met with the following public sentiment: 47% agree that "Immigration Helps more than Hurts" while 43% say the opposite (NBC/WSJ Poll, 7/26-30/15). Is there an internal inconsistency here? Or is it partially a veiled racist sentiment against a growing Hispanic population (with political implications if it votes for Democrats)?
Looking historically at walls around the world, the Great Wall of China is the first that comes to mind. Built between 700-206 BCE it spanned some 5,500 miles. Regardless of its partial success in defending and isolating China in the past, it's now a tourist attraction. By contrast, the Korean Demilitarized Zone that has been in use since 1953 to separate North from South Korea, -- spanning some 160 miles across the peninsula -- is still a functioning barrier. Miniscule by comparison to its Chinese counterpart, this barrier is a symbol of extreme xenophobia that causes hardships for an entire population.
The Berlin Wall that was operational between 1961 and 1989 was a symbol of the Cold War with some 70 miles within the city and its environs. Given the famous challenge of President Ronald Reagan to the Soviet President Gorbachev -- "Tear Down This Wall!" (6/12/87) -- why are presidential candidates still obsessed with wall building?
Perhaps one answer is the so-called success of the "separation barrier" on the 1949 "Green Line" border between Israel and its occupied territories of Palestine. Construction of this cement wall began under Prime Minister Barak in 2000, and its planned length is about 440 miles. Commonly cited is the fact that between 2000 and 2003 there were 76 suicide bombings in Israel's pre-1967 borders; between 2003 and 2006 there were "only" 12 such suicide bombings. Hence, this wall has helped limit the danger from Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. A neoconservative narrative then extrapolates from the Israeli success-story to the ongoing illegal immigration through the Mexican border.
Facts about illegal immigration, deportation, and "dreamers" do not undermine the Republican narrative. The fact that there are less illegal immigrants coming over to the Unites States today as compared to a decade ago is ignored (NYT 4/23/12). The fact that under President Obama (six years in office) more illegal immigrants were deported (over 2 million) than under President Bush (full two-terms in office) is also underreported (New Republic 4/17/14). And the fact that it's Congress, now under Republican control of the two chambers, who ought to initiate immigration reform is also lost in the debate. Wasn't it the Great Recession (2007-2012) that was a greater deterrent to immigration than any wall or fence?
Unlike the (visible) walls of separation, there are numerous invisible barriers of discrimination. It is those we should point out to the Trumps of this election cycle and ask them to tear them down. Among them is the glass ceiling that seems to be made of concrete, where upward mobility is limited if not impossible. Likewise, women's pay inequality (77% as compared to men, Forbes 4/7/14) remains an embarrassing reality. Educational barriers (44% differential between rich and poor schools, The Hechinger Report 4/6/15) have become worse despite the rhetorical pronouncements of all presidential candidates. And most disturbing is the increasing gap in the opportunities for upward mobility of the poor (Nicholas Lemann, "Unhappy Days for America," NYRB 5/21/15). As we saw in the latest housing bubble, the American Dream turns into an American nightmare with three missed mortgage payments.
Outside of the alleged socialist candidate for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, politicians are loath to bring up class warfare. But as the latest incidents of police brutality and murder of black youth from Ferguson, Missouri, to Staten Island, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, (to mention just a few such cases) show racial tension is best understood in socio-economic terms, in terms of poverty and abject neglect of poor neighborhoods where blacks and Hispanics reside.
Underemployed and falling outside the welfare net, these are also citizens (yes, they are legal residents whose voting rights are challenged (MSNBC 8/14/15), not illegal immigrants), who are part of the 12.9% medically uninsured (Gallup, January 2015); when there are still around 40 million Americans without health insurance, not to mention the fact that more than 45 million below the poverty line of $23,550 (Huffington Post 9/16/14), building a fence on the Mexican border looks absurd.
Instead of building walls of separation, we should tear down the invisible discriminatory barriers that still plague our country. Let's turn our attention to the success of the Silicon Valley, where waves of immigrants -- some with proper special visas, some without -- have brought about creativity and ingenuity, hard work and enormous prosperity. If Republican (and Democratic) candidates look for solutions to economic problems of growth, Silicon Valley is a model of tolerance, open-mindedness, and acceptance of all languages, countries-of-origin, racial, gender, and religious differences.
Among the geeks of startup companies, only performance counts; all other characteristics are irrelevant. Is immigration a question of needed skills or race? Aren't the special provisions for migrant agricultural workers in California not skill based? Or is it simply a profit motive that overlooks the immigration factor of the fantastically successful high-tech industry compared to menial work? This reminds us that we are a country of immigrants, after all, where one must climb the ladder of success and where the only indigenous people have been slaughtered or confined to reservations.
Raphael Sassower is philosophy chair at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Prof. Sassower's latest books are Compromising the Ideals of Science (2015), The Price of Public Intellectuals (2014), and Sports and Religion in American Culture (2014, with Jeff Scholes). He grew up in Israel and moved to the United States as a young man after serving as an officer in the IDF.
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