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.