As a recent transplant to the area, I'm struck by how closely the struggle with illegal immigration here mirrors larger issues that face the country. I'm also amazed, though not surprised, that the issue receives so little national attention.
That may change. There was Bush's visit, and now there's MSNBC's documentary, Crossing the Line? Following the formula of much local coverage, it is rife with images of gun-toting grandmas, despairing to the camera: "This isn't the Wild West!"
Considering all the rhetoric, it's clear that people don't necessarily want the big picture; instead, they tend to seize the snippets of information that support a pre-existing notion and form an opinion, without getting too bothered by what they don't know.
It's enough to make a liberal blanch, but that kind of mindset is what we call "fundamentalism" in America. It's the process of allowing complex and difficult topics like religion, terrorism, illegal immigration, homosexual marriage or the war in Iraq to be reduced to a few convenient soundbites that are used to support various arguments. It's the same tendency that makes Bible thumpers reduce that book to a few, selected quotes. Perhaps it's a reactionary byproduct of the Information Age, but that doesn't make it any less pernicious.
The problem with fundamentalist mentality is that it inevitably leads to another "f" word--fear. And fear only leads to more of itself. What if Granny kills somebody? What if some illegal wants my job? Make no mistake: The question mark tacked onto the title of that documentary is also about fear.
No one would argue that the border is a dangerous and difficult place, yet what seems to have slipped the collective memory is that immigration, legal or illegal, is always difficult and dangerous. Poverty and desperation are always marked by violence, just as immigration is always stimulating to the economy.
That has been true from the Irish turf wars in old New York, to the range wars, to the Dust Bowl migrants, to the Cubans in Florida and to the boat people of Vietnam. It is equally true here, now, along the border. Why do we think we're immune?
Immigrants are not always legal. They are usually poor, desperate and sometimes criminal. They don't have much to lose and everything to gain. That's why they come. America offers them something: that dream of a better life we keep hearing about. To deny that is to overlook yet another fact: People don't stop dreaming, no matter how many times they are turned back.
Yet illegals serve as a political whipping boy for the health care crisis, the education crisis and the crisis of cheap labor. They are continually selected as a "reason" for our problems and, of course, a "security" threat.
But it's worth a reminder to Granny and her gang that it isn't the responsibility of government to solve problems associated with owning property. The administration has told Katrina victims that, essentially, they picked a real bad time to own a house in New Orleans; why should its message to border ranchers be different? Grandma may not like it, but she does live in the "Wild West."
The real estate boom aside, simply owning property doesn't mean you're immune to problems associated with it, and building a fence isn't going to keep the world away when the world comes knocking at your door. America as a whole could take a lesson.
Because if we don't, fundamentalism might well turn out to be the prelude to an even more dangerous mindset, one which dictates some people have a "right" to be here, and others don't, and judges legal status for one set of people by one standard while using a different standard for somebody else.
It's an attitude that insists we are entitled to defend personal and financial interests at any and all costs. It happens while we go about our daily business, too busy for the bigger picture; it's forged by simple soundbites, which are used to justify fear and suspicion, when the "security threat" is only a new name for a very old problem. It can cause us to surrender personal responsibility to government with a license to find the solution.
That's another "f" word--it's called fascism. And I don't think anyone needs another history lesson in that.