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Phantom Menace: The Pyschology Behind America's Immigration Hysteria


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Phantom Menace: The Pyschology Behind America's Immigration Hysteria
Topic: Society 8:25 pm EST, Feb  2, 2008

Clearly, the furor over illegal immigration has spread beyond places where jobs have been lost, wages reduced, and public services strained, to places where migrants have not disrupted the local economy. And, even in places like Iowa and South Carolina, the anger was never solely a function of disappearing jobs or overburdened social services; it has been about the use of Spanish on signs and ballots and even grocery lines, and about the spread of little Mexico Cities. Indeed, around the country, the furor is not simply about illegal immigration; it's more often about Latino immigration, legal and illegal--about what Pat Buchanan calls the creation of "Mexamerica." Which leaves us with something of a puzzle: How did so many Americans come to feel so vulnerable to what for many of them is merely a phantom menace? How did an economic problem that is concentrated in certain states and regions become a national Kulturkampf?


To understand that, you have to examine the movement's historical antecedents--a strain of political protest that begins in the late Jacksonian era with the Know-Nothings and continues through the Populists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to today's anti-immigration movement. It is based on the displacement--sometimes with cause, sometimes without--of deep-seated social and economic anxieties onto an "out-group," and it is voiced most often by the "intermediate strata," the social and economic classes most threatened by the development of capitalism. In the nineteenth century, the intermediate strata comprised urban artisans and small farmers; in the twentieth century, small businessmen, farmers, and craft workers undermined by industrialization; and, more recently, workers who lack adequate technical training or whose jobs are being sent overseas. These workers have seen themselves as "producers" victimized by "parasites"--by Wall Street and big business from above and by an underclass of African Americans and immigrants from below.

Today's anti-immigration movement is rooted in these intermediate strata and in this neo-populist ideology. According to an extensive 2003 survey sponsored by Hamilton College, opponents of immigration are particularly concentrated among those who have no more than a high school diploma, make less than $50,000, and live in small towns or rural areas. According to a poll conducted in December by Democracy Corps, those who believe that "immigrants take more from our country than they give" are strongest among men between the ages of 30 and 39 without a college degree. This is a rough approximation of those Americans who work at a lower--but not the lowest--rung of blue-collar or white-collar jobs, who own very small shops or businesses, and who are most susceptible to losing their jobs or income in economic downturns or through outsourcing.

Politically, these Americans are the heirs of the nineteenth-century Populists, but, more immediately, they are the descendants of the working-class Democrats who abandoned their party to vote for George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. They are the voters who were convinced that welfare was a giveaway by pointy-headed bureaucrats to inner-city freeloaders. They were relatively quiet during Bill Clinton's second term, but, in the last six years, the members of the intermediate strata have taken to the hustings. That's partly because, after faring well in the late 1990s, they have begun to see their jobs disappear and their income fall, even as the economy ostensibly began to recover from the 2001 downturn. According to the Economic Policy Institute, people in the second income quintile--roughly speaking, the lower middle class--saw their income grow 10.8 percent from 1995 to 2000 but then shrink by 4.4 percent from 2000 to 2004. Surveys show that this group has been the most dissatisfied with their economic lot and the most insecure about their future. In a poll taken in March 2006 by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, three- quarters of Americans with an income between $30,000 and $50,000 said they faced "increasing uncertainty about employment, with stagnant incomes, paying more for health care, taxes, and retirement, while those at the top have booming incomes and lower taxes."

Phantom Menace: The Pyschology Behind America's Immigration Hysteria

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