As House Republicans struggle with the dilemma of how to make themselves less radioactive to Hispanic voters without alienating their party’s nativist base, their internal debate about providing illegal immigrants with some sort of legal status highlights several bitter ironies well beyond the ken of most Republicans and, for that matter, most Americans. According to recent reporting by the Associated Press, Speaker Boehner and the rest of the House leadership are now willing to support the erection of some sort of halfway house between the civic favelas of the American untouchables and the blessed realm of anointed citizens. President Obama, desperate to garnish his second term with some sort of accomplishment beyond record corporate profits and a pile of corpses in Pakistan, seems eager to play along. No doubt, Marco Rubio will find some way to take credit for the compromise that seems to be in the offing. And what a compromise it is.
For House Republicans, the grudging preconditions being mooted for the attainment of legal status include paying all back taxes, serving honorably in the armed forces, or graduating from college with qualifications that will boost the performance of the economy. Evidently, Latino immigrants who toil through the heat of a Houston summer replacing tired shingle roofs over the heads of real Americans, or who cram 16-week old, antibiotic-laden turkeys into crates for trucking to the slaughterhouse so real Americans can stuff their bellies at Thanksgiving, do not deserve the blessings of legal status, never mind actual citizenship. Their service to the empire has not been sufficiently distinguished. No, they must either surrender their bodies, minds, and spirits to the hazards of combat in foreign military campaigns, thereby risking being killed, dismembered, or psychologically damaged for life, or they must somehow pay for and complete courses of higher education that qualify them for more respectable endeavors in the temples of capitalism. If only they could all go to law school, like Mr. Rubio, and really contribute something to society, then their presence here might become acceptable. Otherwise, they are mere human trash.
The New Three-Fifths Rule
A few years ago, when House Republicans celebrated their seizure of the lower chamber by using taxpayers’ time to read the Constitution to one another – surely an exercise as pointless and hypocritical as the reading of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address (warning us about the military-industrial complex) at the start of every Congress – they simply elided the rather awkward section that described black people as partially human for the purposes of conducting a census and allocating representation among the various states. Little wonder, then, that a group of white men with such selectively poor memories would perceive no irony – and expect their constituents to perceive no irony – in re-creating a similar invidious distinction for modernity’s underclass of sweated laborers. Indeed, one could argue that Republicans are simply being true to their flag-waving branding, continuing the quintessentially American tradition of discrimination that their forefathers enshrined in the Constitution (pace Michelle Bachmann’s remarks about John Quincy Adams). But this is hardly the only respect in which the proposed second-class-citizen law should make us consider the continuation of ghastly American traditions.
From Underclass to Superclass
While the American underclass must prove its worthiness to gain entry into cattle class, for some passengers of the S.S. America a special form of legal status has already been created: the privilege to live by their own set of rules.
For America’s first-class corporate persons, there is no insistence on paying back taxes. On the contrary, trillions of dollars in profits, accumulated in offshore tax havens by exporting chunks of what used to be the American economy, are allowed to be excluded from taxable income. At certain intervals, the legislators owned by these special persons allow the repatriation of these profits at drastically reduced rates. And even in normal years, the 35% tax rate we are constantly told is too high for our poor corporations to bear is seldom paid by the richest corporations, who use private armies of tax experts – often exploiting obscure provisions conveniently inserted for their benefit into the tax code – to convert large tax bills into small ones and even into refunds.
Similarly, while day laborers may find themselves deported for the sin of assembling on a street corner to find work, day traders find themselves rewarded by massive bonuses and effective immunity from prosecution when they take unethical and illegal risks with other people’s money. For Wall Street’s elite, legal status is not a thing to covet, but a thing to ridicule. Leona Helmsley may have lived to regret her comment that taxes are for the little people, but the demographic make-up of America’s prison population strongly suggests that the rule of law definitely is. Amnesty is unconscionable, we are told, for those who are here illegally; yet it is a given for those who illegally trade huge sums of other people’s money.
And America’s elite need not worry about the need to serve their country, unless by service one refers to availing oneself of the opportunity to profiteer. Thus, the corporate servants who took the United States to Iraq did not send their own sons into battle, and had little combat experience of their own. (Colin Powell, the only senior figure in the Bush Administration with meaningful military service to his credit, was also the most skeptical of the whole adventure. Sadly, military service had taught him too much about respecting the chain of command and not enough about denouncing bullshit in public.) For Dick Cheney’s Halliburton, service brought rich contracts instead of PTSD-induced suicide. American citizens who exhorted one another to “support our troops” were really telling themselves to “support Halliburton’s profits,” but good citizens – the kind America wants – are never tested on their ability to perceive such obvious realities. Presumably, by the time the proposed new cadre of second-class citizens has earned the right to full citizenship – if they are ever considered worthy of the honor – they will have come to understand that when the state tells them to wave a flag they are to do so without question. (Of course, the demands of economic survival for the lower orders leave little time or energy for consideration of such matters, and present the corporate media with a relatively simple task in maintaining discipline.)
Reforming the Rogue State
All of the foregoing issues pale into insignificance compared to the ultimate irony on display in the debate about legal status; namely, that the United States of America is itself a constant violator of the law. What can be done to make this rogue state a legitimate member of the family of nations? Let us consider some standards that could be viewed as preconditions for the attainment of legal status.
We could start – arbitrarily, we concede – with a need for reparations to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. America’s completely pointless brutality against the people and land of Indochina amounted to a form of genocide and ecocide. Beyond the millions killed and the countless thousands of acres of rainforest destroyed, an enduring legacy of unexploded ordnance continues to maim the innocent to this day. The United States should be required to clean up its mess and compensate its victims.
Similarly, there is now a genuine need for nation-building in the land that American presidents of all stripes have been hell-bent on destroying, Iraq. After Bill Clinton’s sanctions claimed the lives of a million people, half of whom were children, Bush II followed him with an orgy of violence that has claimed another million. Yet the United States pays no penalty for this gratuitous war of aggression, and the psychopaths who launched it enjoy secure retirements and corporate sinecures. The United States has a moral obligation to repair the colossal damage it has wrought.
Having visited nuclear hell on the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when Japanese surrender in WWII was assured, the United States went on to poison the atmosphere with nuclear tests at various locations. Why is the United States not doing more to help its Japanese ally deal with the catastrophe of Fukushima, particularly since its radioactive toxins are likely to end up concentrating off the Pacific Coast of North America? Is the United States capable only of the destructive use of force? Can it not be a force for good in the world?
Having allowed its financial titans to wreak havoc on the global economy by engaging in reckless speculation and industrial-scale fraud, oughtn’t the United States implement a series of financial reforms to ensure that runaway financial capitalism can never impose such colossal costs again? Instead of ensuring that the masters of the universe regain their multi-billion-dollar income streams, could it not use its taxing and regulatory powers to compensate foreign investors who were bilked by actors who should never be trusted to manage anyone’s money ever again?
And right here at home, will the United States acknowledge its theft of land and livelihoods from the indigenous peoples for whom its territory had been a sacred home for centuries? Will it replant the redwood forests of the Pacific coast so that future generations may one day marvel at the grandeur of nature’s cathedral? Will it allow the Great Plains to be repopulated with bison? Will it stop its rapacious, corporate-driven consumer culture from destroying the natural treasures that remain?
The answers to all these questions are obvious. The United States never admits its mistakes. It never apologizes. If it issues any form of compensation, the amount will be insultingly trivial and far too late. Its manifest destiny is to take what it wants, by force if necessary. It does not care what anyone else thinks of it, for it is a law unto itself.
Thus, for those individuals not currently admitted to membership in the precious club of American citizens, it is worth pondering what such membership actually represents. To be an American citizen is to be tainted with the blood of countless victims of depraved, evil violence around the globe. It means accepting responsibility for crimes against humanity and nature that can never be excused or repaired. Perhaps, given the nature of this club, an associate membership is the most that a person of good conscience should even consider. And in that case, though the irony is almost too sublime to contemplate, perhaps the star-spangled GOP has unintentionally done America’s illegal immigrants a great favor.