Eric Alterman: Why I favor building a wall on the border with Mexico

Whatever meager credibility I have on the question of immigration derives from two facts: one, I spent a week, a while back, riding around with members of the INS in San Diego chasing illegal immigrants and trying to understand their lives; and two, like most upper-middle-class Americans, I exist in a web of endless exploitation of them, sometimes knowingly, often not, though with the single exception of the two (sisters) I've tried to help with legal issues, I never actually ask about their status. And even if I were to insist that everyone who worked for me had legal papers, I could hardly control the practices of say, the people who deliver my takeout or come over to fix my stuff when it breaks.

My point is that the current system implicates (and corrupts) all of us. I think many liberals are no less woolly-headed and simple-minded about illegal immigration than they were (and still sometimes are) about welfare. Yes, the yahoos exploit the issue. Yes, there's plenty of racism involved in the opposition. And yes, the victims are often the people with the least amount to say in the outcome, but that hardly makes the current system worth defending.

Personally, I support a fence. The current system encourages the horrific abuses that take place against immigrants attempting to sneak in. Naturally, I support allowing generous numbers of immigrants into this country, but I support doing so legally, first and foremost. I also think it encourages contempt for the law, which is a net negative in any society. (I also support the legalization of pot for the same reason.) And certainly any nation has the right to determine to whom it wishes to grant citizenship.

If a fence is the best way to enforce those choices, well, then, why not? For symbolic reasons? I don't care about "symbolic reasons." I care about reality. Present conditions invite the abuse of the poorest, weakest element of the system -- frequently by unscrupulous coyotes and, far less frequently, by nefarious or simply overtaxed law-enforcement types -- in order to further enrich those of us who can afford to pay higher wages and, more significantly, wealthy corporations at the expense of people getting a fair wage for their labor, as well as the ability of American unions to organize labor to resist conservative class warfare (which, if you haven't noticed, folks, is winning across the board).

Why are lefties who complain about enforcement of the law so eager to ally themselves with exactly the same position embraced by the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal? And why do you think lawyers and doctors, for instance, are so good at getting laws written to prevent immigrants from employing their qualifications achieved abroad to compete with them here, while unskilled American workers must see their wages depressed by an overcrowded labor market? Once again, it's the wealthy who benefit from the exploitation in the current system and the poor who pay for it. Julia Preston of the Times has a rundown of who benefits and who doesn't from the current compromise here. I'm going to stay away from the details, except to say, I support the end result, whatever it is, because ultimately, I believe in a society of laws, and because I'd rather see the poor and exploited at the mercy of the law enforcement officers with whom I drank and traveled in San Diego than the people who are doing the exploiting now.

And by the way, as the grandson of three immigrants, I know from whence I came. When I wrote my last Nation column, inspired by Schocken's publication of The Jewish Writings of Hannah Arendt, I was hoping to have room to give a shout-out to Norton's publication of A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward edited by Alana Newhouse, here. I didn't, so I will here. It's a beautiful book and, of course, an important document. One could quibble with some of the choices, but to have it all in one place and so elegently and respectfully presented deserves a massive ma'azel tov from anyone with an interest in immigrant history.

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