Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

The Immigration Debate: The Real Earthquake?

Demonstrators march in Boston to protest a controversial new Arizona immigration law. i i

Demonstrators march in Boston to protest a controversial new Arizona immigration law. Jan Brewer/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jan Brewer/AP
Demonstrators march in Boston to protest a controversial new Arizona immigration law.

Demonstrators march in Boston to protest a controversial new Arizona immigration law.

Jan Brewer/AP

You may have heard about this: We had a little earthquake in the D.C. area in the early morning hours last week. It registered about a 3.6, and I think maybe 90 percent of the people around here felt it — that would be the 45 percent who were already up, or were shaken awake, and the 45 percent who thumped their partners, yelling, "What was that?"

That other 10 percent were those people none of us can stand — who can literally sleep through anything, even an earthquake.

Anyway, comparing reactions later that morning was hilarious. My husband spent considerable time in California, so he was part of that oblivious 10 percent, my panicked reaction notwithstanding. When I heard what I thought was a massive truck rumbling by our house that stopped as suddenly as it had started, all he had to say was: "Earthquake. Go back to sleep."

Yeah, right.

Can I just tell you? I felt utterly vindicated in my anxious reaction by the hyped-up reaction of our local media. But that was until I read a post on our neighborhood listserv by another neighbor, a California native, who found the whole thing quite amusing. He said, and I quote here, "A real earthquake — assuming that your property isn't damaged or people hurt — is kind of fun. Everything you ever thought solid and dependable begins to move and you are reminded what a wonderfully surprising place this planet is."

But he also pointed out — rather kindly, I thought — that when he first moved to the Midwest and experienced his first tornado warning, he was terrified.

"Where you grow up makes such a difference in what causes one to panic," he said.

I have been thinking about this as I ponder a number of our recent controversies around race and ethnicity, immigration being a critical one. The older I get, the more it seems to me that fear is at the root of so many of our reactions to these events. But because we do not respect fear, we turn to anger as its less useful proxy.

The most basic fear is the fear of the different. And some of these fears are just learned over so many generations, we don't even remember where they came from.

The actor Mel Gibson helpfully reminded us of this in one of his profanity-laced rants at his former girlfriend when, expressing anger at what he said was her revealing dress, he warned her that she'd be raped by a pack of black men. (Of course, he didn't use that word; it was the "N" word.) And his fellow celebrity Whoopie Goldberg assured us that he is not a racist, and I am sure he does not think he is.

Maybe he isn't. But what else do we call it when someone uses the specter of being raped by someone who looks like my father, brother, husband and son — not to mention our president — as the way to instill maximum fear?

Of course, our current debate over immigration — legal and illegal — is also tinged by fear. It is interesting to me that the economic arguments against the kind of large-scale, unregulated immigration we have experienced over the past decade should be the most compelling, given that the most economically vulnerable Americans — the least educated native born, the most recently arrived legal immigrants among them — are likely to be the most affected, are likely to have their opportunities for advancement limited by this increased and unregulated labor competition.

But that's not what we hear most.

What we hear most, both from the public and from so-called leaders who should know better, is the fear — about excessive crimes, about degraded public services, about the deterioration of the culture.

The objective data show that many of these complaints have no basis in fact at all — that immigrants do not commit a disproportionate number of crimes, that they do pay taxes and that they do, in fact, for the most part, want to learn English and participate in the culture, if given the chance.

It seems strange to me that the richest and most powerful country on Earth, with a free-flowing access to information, many avenues to disseminate it, continues to be ruled in some important aspects by fear of the unknown, especially at a time when it is possible to know a very great deal.

I wonder what kind of leadership it would require to allow us to experience this world as the wonderfully surprising place that it is, as my neighbor put it, instead of lurching from panic to panic.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues