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Wednesday, 23 August 2006 00:00

Immigration and a complicit, angry America

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On July 13, the Buncombe County Republican Action Club posted two billboards in Asheville featuring a photograph of a Mexican flag flying over an American flag, the latter of which was also turned upside down. The accompanying message read, simply, “Had Enough?” I’m not sure, but I believe the original photograph was taken when some high school students in California hoisted the flags in this configuration, a stunt that was quickly shut down, but not before the photograph was taken and transformed into a rallying cry for the Action Club and its supporters. The topic, of course, is illegal immigration, a complex problem that the Action Club would like you to believe is not complex at all, but the result of bleeding heart liberalism, pure and simple.

As club president Kathie Lack wrote in The Asheville Citizen-Times, “To just allow them to walk across the border, bring whatever diseases or bad habits they bring with them, and demand we should treat them like citizens is a bit over the top.”

Diseases and bad habits? Some have characterized Lack’s description as racist. Some have charged that she is using the ugliest possible stereotypes to fuel fear and resentment. Before drawing any conclusions about her motives, perhaps it is worthwhile to look at the example of one small town and ask whether the example might be typical, as I suspect it is.

I grew up in Sparta, North Carolina, a very small town bordering Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sparta is a quaint, charming town, but it is not racially or ethnically diverse, at least it didn’t used to be. When I was in high school, there were a handful of black students. I don’t remember any Hispanics. Honestly, I cannot recall a single one in my graduating class, or even in the entire high school. Twenty-five years later, there are not many more black citizens in Sparta than there were then, but there is a thriving population of Hispanics. In fact, there are now several Mexican restaurants, even businesses that appear to cater almost exclusively to this population. The movie rental stores now have entire sections devoted to movies in Spanish.

So, what happened? How did such a small town tucked away in the hills of North Carolina experience such a dramatic influx of Hispanics? Why didn’t the powers that be put a stop to it, if these new arrivals were indeed illegal aliens? Wouldn’t it be a drain on the town’s resources? Wouldn’t crime go up? Jails filled? Diseases spread? Bad habits fostered? Who would pay for their hospital visits? How would their kids be assimiliated into a school system that was in no way prepared for non-English speaking kids?

It would not be fair or accurate to say that, in some quarters at least, these questions were not asked, or that the concerns were not legitimate, the problems not real. They clearly were, and are. But the fact is that most people did not protest too much because they witnessed first-hand the typical experience of an illegal alien — a man who traveled thousands of miles to work 40 to 60 hours a week in a patch of Christmas trees, for minimum wage or probably less. This man probably lived with six other men in a trailer with bad plumbing, and had to catch a ride to and from work every day. You might see six or seven of them in the back of a pick-up on any given weekday morning on the way to the field. Basically, he worked hard in a job nobody else wanted, sent money home when he could, and minded his own business.

Say what you will about mountain people, but they respect a strong work ethic, not to mention the impulse to take care of one’s family and improve one’s lot by the sweat of the brow. There was really not much of a sense that the typical illegal alien was there to “milk the system” — we had plenty of locals more than willing to play that role — but only wanted to do a job and get paid for it, no doubt a lot more than he would be paid in Mexico, although we would look at that same check and shake our heads in pity. It is really all a matter of perspective.

If the average citizen was willing to give the illegals a pass out of pity or sympathy or even respect, how about “ruling class?” Well, here we have a slightly darker impulse at work. I’m no historian, but when, since the abolition of slavery, has labor been any cheaper since the massive influx of illegal aliens into the fields and orchards of America? One might argue that the illegal aliens have been exploited, rather than the common argument that it is they who are exploiting the system. If it is the case that we have reached a saturation point with immigration and are paying a price in tax dollars, then maybe it is a case of the chickens coming home to roost. We wanted the cheap labor — after all, if there were no jobs, there would be no reason for them to come, would there? But now they are here, living among us, having babies, going to school, getting sick. Without citizenship, without healthcare, without a reasonable living wage, how can they not be a drain on our resources?

In order to address this problem, we must first acknowledge our complicity in it — and, please, do not confuse this with “liberal guilt,” when it is nothing more than a badly needed dose of reality, a rare medicine indeed in this day and age. It is just not possible to solve a problem you do not understand — a lesson you would think the Action Club might have learned with the ongoing debacle in Iraq, yet another case where oversimplifications and distortions have resulted in disastrous consequences. Let’s stop with the slogans and the billboards and the pandering. We must not allow the likes of Kathie Lack and her lackeys from the Action Club to seize control of this debate and turn it into a cowboy movie, with them as the good guys and the Mexicans as the bad guys.

Although I would like to see the lot of Lack and her cohorts ride off into the sunset. And the horses they rode in on.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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