John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Papers, please

In a jocular post the other day, I connected — and one reader cried “non sequitur”— high school students’ ignorance of basic information about U.S. civics and the uproar over illegal immigration. One reader commented:

"Illegal" should mean you don't qualify for anything to which legal American citizens are entitled. Why is this so difficult to absorb? The idea of anyone just showing up in another country and demanding what those citizens have is, to me, anathema.

The principle is simple and clear. It’s the reality that is not.

For one thing, many illegal immigrants are doing work that Americans prefer not to do, and doing it cheaply. I don’t hear anyone saying that illegal immigration is a good thing, but rather that it has become deeply intertwined with our economy. (Like the underground economy in which people, including citizens, get money on which they don’t pay taxes. You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would you?) Disentangling it poses complications.

Assume that illegal immigrants could be expelled and further illegal immigration could be blocked. How much extra, then, are you willing to pay for produce at the grocery? For clean dishes in a restaurant? For clean sheets in a hotel?

That assumption in the previous paragraph that illegal immigration can be reversed and curbed, how far are you willing to go to accomplish that? We have already been paying a fantastic sum to build a wall across our southern border. But that is plainly not enough. How far are you willing to go in enforcement? How many businesses are you willing to shut down and employers to lock up over employment of illegal immigrants? How many additional federal immigration enforcement officers are you willing to pay for?

Or this: Are you willing to require every American citizen to carry an ID card containing a memory chip with personal data? That would make it simple to identify the undocumented. But with people screaming in the streets that the country will go Stalinist if everybody has medical insurance, I doubt that there would be much enthusiasm about being stopped regularly by police officers asking, “May I see your papers, please?”

What journalism — honest-to-God journalism, not the back-and-forth shouting on radio and cable television that passes for it — is supposed to do is to reveal and explain the complexity of the world, so that we can understand it and make intelligent and informed decisions.

That, incidentally, is also why it would be a good thing for high school students to learn how the country operates, so that they can recognize and understand actual journalism when they stumble across it, and perhaps even be a little less vulnerable to demagogy of all flavors.

23 comments:

  1. Everyone who is a legal citizen needs a small numeral tatooed on the inside of his or her right wrist. No tickee, no washee.

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  2. John....you Marxist, socialist, fascist, community organizer you! Unfortunately, reasonable discussion on these topics has left the building. Glenn Beck on the cover of Time drives that home. I sit on my porch and watch the workers in the four tobacco fields surrounding my house labor and wonder how we have survived as long as we have with the intellect we don't have. As for a huge majority of the kids I know...figure out how to text the important information (LOL,WTF?) and it may seep through.

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  3. I challenge you to write a curriculum now for 5 year olds just entering schooling that will be particularly useful by the time they leave. Trying to prepare students for a future you can't predict is a losing battle. You might say good journalism will always be good journalism, but most kids won't be that interested in reading deeply into journalism.

    On another note, you don't think people have the sense to recognise good journalism when they see it? More likely people just prefer mind numbing rubbish before (or after) a day of working a job they don't like and doing things they don't really what to do.

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  4. Nicely done, John. And a lot of "illegals" are people who came here legally, had legit jobs and then didn't leave when they were supposed to. They have, one way or another, paid taxes in many cases, or supported the economy by buying goods, renting apartments, etc. I'm not crazy about the "let them all in" argument but the reality is different from what a lot of people say.

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  5. Geez, John, you're a great editor, but when it comes to politics, you're just as naive as the next liberal Democrat journalist.

    Do the math:

    Illegal immigrants cost us billions of dollars a year with their crime, their drunk driving accidents, their reliance on hospital emergency rooms and their collection of government welfare handouts.

    See this link, for instance:

    http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_1_the_illegal_alien.html

    But somehow you all think that's OK, because they make our lettuce a little cheaper?

    I don't think so.

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  6. Just use e-verify for all jobs. No jobs, and there will be much fewer illegal immigrants. Those who stay should never get to be citizens. Someone else other than the public should subsidize them.

    Become a nation of laws again! Employers of illegal immigrants unfairly compete, and shift costs onto the community at large.

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  7. You see? All you have to do is suggest that a problem is more complex than the most simplistic description of it, and the name-calling begins.

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  8. Illegal immigrants cost the American taxpayer over $100 BILLION per year. (sarcasm switch on)...Gee, sounds like such a good deal to me... (sarcasm switch off)

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  9. We are by far the most generous nation on the face of the earth concerning LEGAL immigration addmittance, with 1.5 admitted annually. That is more brought in than all the other nation's numbers in the world combined. Then, another 8000,000 to 1 million illegals enter annnually. And libidiots don't think this doesn't have severe negative consequences?

    Concerned about the environment, congestion, resources? Then, watch this short video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCAGq8E8FoU&feature=player_embedded

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  10. Let me make this point again. I approve nearly all comments because I believe in the First Amendment and free expression, but I really don't appreciate being insulted on my own blog, and I don't think that name-calling constitutes an argument now or ever did.

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  11. Mjbwrs and various Anonymi: Let's just inject every citizen with a microchip at birth that tracks their location at all times. Why not? If you're not an illegal alien, you have nothing to hide -- do you?

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  12. Immigration is a lot more com-licated than it seems on the surface? Yeah, right and a can-do small town accountant couldn't just waltz into Washington, do an all-nighter and balance the books. ;-)

    You are right, the costs to fully control immigration in this, or any other country, would be exorbitant and require just as much curtailment of the freedoms of citizens as as illegal immigrants. When I think of countries that have managed to maintain total control of their borders, I think of countries I thank goodness I don't live in.

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  13. A tweet from @Fritinancy: Eminent sense from @johnemcintyre on legal/legal immigration. Naturally, commenters commence frothing.

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  14. It's hard for me to come down too hard on poor people who want to work and make a better life for themselves and their families.

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  15. Considering that the origins of the US are rooted in immigration which was often, if not actually illegal, highly dodgy, I am surprised that Americans don't rise up in knee-jerk indignation at the idea of human beings - as opposed to their acts - being classified as legal or illegal. Someone may break laws or abide by them, in neither case does that make him a legal or illegal person. The implications of branding people 'illegal' just for existing are almost too awful to contemplate.

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  16. Whence all the frothing? What is so fearful? The cost? Please remember that the cost of the Iraq war (per the CBO) is over $12 billion PER MONTH (that's in excess of $100 billion per year). Over that: funds misappropriated/lost equals around $12 BILLION a year. We should be careful throwing the cost factor around. The complication of language, which is always changing and growing? The changing needs of educational process? Likewise, a growing process. This noise is not new. Your ancestors heard this directed at them.
    Xenophobia: the undue fear/hatred of foreigners.

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  17. I'm highly amused that one paragraph in my earlier comment should reveal the thin skins of some constant readers. Because something is complicated, we shouldn't look for a solution. The problems with illegal immigration go back decades: ergo, we shouldn't do anything about it now. When the EU, in its bureaucratic inanity, decided to remove all policing of borders, Western Europe began to experience all the same problems with illegal meanderings that we have. This has made those countries less secure in every way. The leftish reaction that we'll pay more for some things just doesn't work: I'll gladly pay a few cents more if I know that whoever picked, packed or delivered the goods and whoever hired him to do it, is within the law.. It's not just the picking of fruit: illegals are now, particularly in California, insinuating themselves into the business of construction, electricians and plumbing, wihout credentials or experience. Yes, companies who break the law should be exposed and fined. And please, spare us the "branding of people illegal" argument: we are talking about their status, their behavior and the enormous effect they have on this country, not a group of saints and martyrs. (How did we modulate from the abysmal teaching in many public schools to the contributions of illegal immigration?)

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  18. Hmm, I'm not sure I saw John put his own opinion in the original post. But, then again, immigration tends to be one of those if-you're-not-with-me-you're-against-me issues.

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  19. Spare you? You post twenty lines of invective in reply to a seven-line comment and suggest that I'm the one who's haranguing? Is this a new meaning of 'terse' or is it supposed to be ironic?

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  20. "Assume that illegal immigrants could be expelled and further illegal immigration could be blocked. How much extra, then, are you willing to pay for produce at the grocery? For clean dishes in a restaurant? For clean sheets in a hotel?"

    The assumption in that paragraph is that only "illegals" are doing this work. I am sure there are many "legal" immigrants and, yes, even citizens who do this work, whether by choice or necessity. Maybe we should be working to ensure that *all* workers earn a living wage, not just complain about how "illegals" are ruining it for the rest of us.

    Retired in Elkridge

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  21. Dear John: If you think that was invective, you haven't read much. I didn't once use the word "haranguing" but you did. When I hear that kind of 1960s baby talk about "branding people" I'm sure that someone is, in the words of an earnest but frustrated black minister, "missin' the messsage." And when I say terse, I mean terse. I can go from irony to sarcasm to downright high dudgeon with the speed of a Lamborghini.

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  22. Dear Patricia: I have read quite enough to recognize invective, or 'vehement denunciation,' though I have no doubt you are capable of even greater vehemence and more outraged denunciation. I still can't find a dictionary definition of 'terse' that says it means any of the things you apparently think it means.

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  23. I think that it may be time to agree to disagree and move on to other topics.

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