May 23rd, 2006

Illegal Immigration: The Breadloaf Harvest

by Philip Baruth

Most every May for the last ten or tweleve years, I’ve driven up into the mountains to the Breadloaf campus in Ripton to teach at the New England Young Writers Conference — a.k.a. Baby Breadloaf.

The students are supremely talented high school juniors; the other writers are the best New England has to offer. You’re deep in the woods, high in the mountains. And they feed you fried chicken and manicotti at every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It’s intense, dude.

This year I decided to run a blogging workshop, and not surprisingly half the writers and students in the room knew more about it than I did. And everyone in the room was very politically aware, almost itching for action: a self-selected group of proto-activists.

So after some set-up, and an introduction to the various underlying Principles of VDB, I threw out a complete set of the day’s newspapers and tasked them with blogging a story they found intriguing. Among the papers: The New York Times, The Boston Globe, USA Today, NY Daily News, and The Burlington Free Press.

The upshot? With one or two exceptions, they all wrote about immigration: the politics of it, the practical implications of fencing and militarizing the Southern border, the bad faith of using the issue as an election-year wedge.

bush, in a buggy

An unscientific sample if ever there was one, but worth thinking about: Republicans have succeeded, clearly, in making illegal immigration and their response to it the dominant issue of the moment.

Not only were all the papers mentioned above featuring the story, but all the 17-year-olds in the room found it the most intriguing, the most worthy of comment.

Of course, by and large those comments were critical — to say the least.

Part One: America, The Gated Community

Caitria went at it by way of misdirection:

“I used to share a room with a sister whose things had the unfortunate tendency to wander across the implied border onto my side of the room. The easy remedy: build a fence spanning approximately 1/5 of the distance. Of course, that will solve any problem of this nature.

“Using this age-old and well-proven method of border protection, the Senate has just approved a measure calling for 370 miles of border fencing to remedy the problem of illegal immigration, according to the Boston Globe. Three-hundred-seventy miles, of an approximately 2000-mile border. Hell, one in five is still something, optimists will say.

“Of course, this wouldn’t be a real border drama without firearms, so Bush announced on Tuesday that he would ‘send up’ 6,000 National Guard troops along the US/Mexican border as well. Nothing says inter-country relations are thriving like fences and firepower.”

Sam from New Haven actually went at it from the POV of the fence (don’t try this at home):

“I am steel creased into thin folds, welded into sharp points and square spaces. And soon I will grow like an apical meristem, soon I will fill the sandy spaces, and I will be 2,000 miles long.

“But I am tired, the more I grow the more I feel sick. There are holes in my flanks now, and I feel like a piece of swiss cheese, there is air blowing through me. And now I know why my East Berlin father was torn to pieces, lugged away by the very demons he fed on, and I am worried.”

Part Two: America, the Divided

But two of the most intriguing pieces focused not on the two sides of the imagined border fence, but on the two sides of the nation’s political landscape.

In a piece called “Homeostatic Loop,” Seth from Ripton argued that blogs are doing serious damage to our political discourse:

“There’s a concept in biology called a homeostatic loop. Basically, it’s a mechanism or system meant to keep the environment inside a living being stable. If your temperature gets too high, for example, mechanisms like sweating kick in to cool you off.

“There’s a different kind of feedback loop, too: a positive loop. This is a classic vicious cycle, a reaction that makes the original problem worse. The HIV virus, for example, destroy’s the victim’s immune system, making the hapless sufferer even more vulnerable.

“Blogs have created just such a self-destructive loop in modern politics.

“Rather than opening up the field of political discourse to populism, blogs just lever their readers farther apart — well, mostly. You can keep reading opinion pieces, but do your part for homeostasis: try crossing the divide.”

And Andrew, a chaperone at the event as well as a very advanced political science type from Middlebury, had this to say:

“If caricature is the weapon of choice in American politics, both parties are bolstering their arsenal. The debate over immigration is rhetorically polarized, as Republicans denounce “amnesty” and Democrats condemn “militarized borders” and totalitarian border controls. Neither side is truly advocating either perspective but attempting to paint their opponents into a policy that is untenable to voters.

“For the sake of clarity consider three truisms that seem to cross party lines:

“1) There are millions of illegal immigrants in the United States, and it is ridiculous to think that we can deport them all, and naïve to think that more than a small minority even desire this outcome.

“2) The nature of international drug trafficking, national security, and limited resources for social programming demand meaningful border security.

“3) Illegal immigrants are abused in the American economy and deserve protection — whether it is from manipulative businesses or false hopes.”

In other words, Andrew argues, Republican security concerns and Democratic labor issues must make up any comprehensive solution. He goes on to argue that President Bush has placed himself quite skillfully at the working center of a vastly complicated political problem, and that Democrats should support him in pursuing “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Somehow I was with Andrew until this last connection — my own take is that Bush has pandered to the worst elements of his party — but like the rest of the pieces in the Harvest, it was carefully constructed and passionately argued.

Part Three: America, the Googled

And Marie from Reading, Massachusetts, handed me this as she walked out the door, with a little smile on her face:

“Fun Little Fact.

“Google ‘Failure.’ Click the ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button. It will bring you to our dear President’s biography page.

“That’s all I have to say.”

What can I tell you, friends — the hope of the future. And a bountiful harvest this year. For which VDB gives thanks.

Late Update: Tuesday, 4:30 p.m.

Among other interesting folk I met up on the mountain this past weekend was science fiction writer Jeffrey Carver, of Eternity’s End and The Chaos Chronicles fame. Jeff sat in on the blogging workshop, and then today sent on a link to a blog of his own, Pushing a Snake Up a Hill.

In this entry, he argues that Bush is an alien. And sells it.

You have to love a Harvest that never really ends.