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Mark Olmsted Headshot

Immigration and the American Decline in Empathy

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Arizona's "Paper's Please" law is the latest in a series of recent political events that underline the decline in empathy in the United States. Americans increasingly resist the simple act of imagining themselves in the shoes of others. This resistance is serious business; its natural consequence is dehumanization. When you don't quite believe others think or feel quite like you do, it's much easier to jail or even torture them.

The contempt for empathy came out of the closet during the hearings of Sonia Sotomayor. I suppose it undercuts the rightwing attachment to American exceptionalism--the idea that we are inherently superior just by virtue of nationality. Frankly, such adolescent thinking makes me laugh. All those people believing being born here or speaking their maternal tongue constitutes some sort of accomplishment. Such delusions are the empty calories of self-esteem. Since the status they confer is counterfeit, they require classes of people to look down upon, to see as fundamentally less than. "Yes, it must be hard to pick fruit in the 90 degree sun, but they're used to it. They're not quite like us."

The inadmissible truth is that we would do exactly the same thing if we were them. If you can only feed your kids once a day, you don't pay a lawyer to get a visa or sign up for English lessons before you go to where the jobs are. You do what you have to do to take care of yourself and your family, to give your kids hope for a better life. This is what human beings do--unless they are lucky enough not to have to. I was born into the white American middle class, so I don't have to. That makes me lucky, not superior.

Exercising my capacity to empathize with the undocumented doesn't mean I'm blind to the real problems caused by too much unchecked immigration. Mexicans who come here to work end up not agitating for necessary economic change in their own country. But their continued presence here is also symptomatic of our addiction to cheap labor. You can't have it both ways. If you want Mexicans to stop coming, you have to pay American citizens a decent wage to clean toilets, pick fruit and bus tables. That means more unions, not less. It's no coincidence that the decline of organized labor has gone hand in hand with the rise in illegal immigration.

As for the criminal element, the rise of the Mexican narco-state is the most basic expression of the free market. Americans want to get high and will pay a great deal of money to do that. The War on Drugs has created a vast criminal class and filled our prisons to the breaking point. Marijuana should be legalized and taxed. Gangsters should become legitimate businessmen, just as they did when Prohibition ended. There should be a treatment bed for every addict that needs one. Addiction should be a public health issue, not a criminal one.

Concerned about illegal immigration? Then agitate for more unionization, not less. Support an end to the War on Drugs, not feeding the prison/industrial complex. But stop demonizing people for making rational economic choices. You would do no differently--just ask your great-grandparents.