Scapegoating and the Anti-Immigrant Hysteria

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According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, a


is 'a goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people, after which he (the goat) is sent into the wilderness in the biblical ceremony for Yom Kippur.' A second definition is 'one that is the object of irrational hostility.' Some sources add that a scapegoat is a metaphor 'referring to someone who is blamed for our misfortunes, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes.'

Currently in the United States , 'illegal immigrants' function as scapegoats. They are blamed for the self-inflicted wounds of our welfare state. For example, communities located in the West and Southwest find that government-run schools, welfare programs, and healthcare institutions (subject to government mandates to provide care to everyone) are bursting at the seams. Immigrants are being blamed for the problem. While it is not surprising that these institutions are plagued by overuse, poor quality, and skyrocketing expenditures, it is not the immigrants who are the source of the problem. In the course of this article, we will explore the real source of the problems affecting these institutions and the reason immigrants have been singled out as scapegoats for our self-inflicted wounds.

A False Solution for a Problem We Created Ourselves

Despite arguments by some economists that immigrants contribute as much financially to the United States economy as non-immigrants, anti-immigrant sentiment continues to grow. In an attempt to 'correct' dysfunctional public schools, welfare programs, and healthcare institutions, politicians have joined many American citizens in calling for sweeping measures that focus on immigrants as the source of our troubles. One solution is to prevent their entry into the United States by resorting to a prohibitively expensive, surveillance-studded, pork-barrel project: a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico , which was authorized in October of 2006. Some politicians have added that they will do 'whatever it takes' to physically secure our borders and coastlines. There's a lot of wiggle room in the words whatever it takes, and it doesn't bode well for our shrinking supply of liberties.

For example, the proposed fence will be accompanied by a dramatic increase of government snooping into our lives through measures such as national IDs. Even without the IDs, however, the fence will multiply the population of government bureaucrats. It also will enrich the coffers of contractors seeking to build, maintain, and staff this high-price-tag 'solution.' Despite these expenditures, the project is likely to fail. As we already know, government doesn't work, and big-government tends to flop on a much grander scale. The border fence is no exception to this rule, and chances are that it will be undermined as quickly as today's barriers. For example, every few months, new tunnels are discovered beneath the current border fence in the San Diego area. It is a situation that has been going on for years, and there is no reason to expect a halt.

In addition to its probable failure, the 700-mile fence is a gold-plated guarantee of higher taxes. That's why fiscal conservatives should run away from it like a wet kiss from a politician with herpes. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has tested a 28-mile 'virtual fence' with a price tag somewhere between $20 million and $67 million. So far, the results have been mixed, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said ( Feb. 22, 2008 ) that the high-tech part of the fence may not be replicated along the entire border. Regardless of the final solution that is selected, we've already learned that government budgets are little more than fiction ' or better yet, fantasy. Remember how the Bush administration's director of the Office of Management and Budget told The New York Times ( Dec. 31, 2002 ) that the cost of the Operation Iraqi Freedom (sic) would be $50 to $60 billion? According to the Boston Globe, (Aug. 1, 2007) the Congressional Budget Office reported that the cost of the war has already reached $500 billion and will exceed $1 trillion. Even worse, according to Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz in a study published in the Milken Institute Review (Fourth Quarter 2006), $2.3 trillion now seems more realistic ' 45 times the original estimate. The 28-mile 'test' fence on the Mexican border has already been a failure, and it was only budgeted for $67 million. Imagine the cost of the full, 700-mile-long fence. Even without the inevitable add-ons (remember the Bradley Fighting Vehicle?), straightforward multiplication tells us that it would cost 25 times as much, or $1.7 billion. Then, if we take a hint from budget-busting Operation Iraqi Freedom and multiply that figure by 45, we get $76.5 billion. And that's just the cost to build it. What will it cost to operate for . . . say . . . 10 years? Be prepared to add some extra zeros.

Who Caused the Problem?

Even worse than its expense, this mountain-range-sized boondoggle does not address the source of the problem ' the welfare state, which is a monster that American citizens created all by themselves. Now encompassing taxpayer-funded schools, food and housing programs, and healthcare institutions, the American welfare state has fostered a dependency mentality that is so ingrained that few citizens will even admit they are part of it.

  • ' On one hand, most U.S.-born parents refuse to pay the total cost of schooling the children they produce. Instead, they hire the government to take these funds from their neighbors in the form of school taxes. How is this behavior different from that of the immigrants these same parents despise?
  • ' In a similar act of legalized theft, public-assistance programs force one group of citizens to feed, clothe, and house other citizens. Does it matter if the recipients were born here or not?
  • ' At hospitals throughout the country, doctors and nurses are forced to serve people who do not pay. Consequently, facilities are often overcrowded, and the financial burden is shifted to taxpayers and paying customers. Does it matter if those who do not pay are citizens or not?

In each case cited, a coerced transfer takes place between a victim and a recipient. Unlike purchases at retail establishments, where customers use their own money to buy products from sellers, the 'customers' of public schools, welfare programs, and healthcare facilities do not always pay their way. Many of them live off of the taxes paid by others. Consequently, it should not surprise us that the number of non-paying 'customers' has skyrocketed ' a phenomenon that was in full swing before immigrants stepped into the picture. The government has created incentives that undermine a sense of responsibility. As the saying goes, 'you get more of what you subsidize and less of what you tax.' In each case, the nationality of victim and recipient is irrelevant. Non-paying 'customers' simply do not pay, regardless of their origins.

The Blame Game

Immigrants did not invent this country's welfare state. In fact, immigrants are the only ones not to blame for our welfare-state and its problems. They never voted for the creation or perpetuation of the welfare state. They were not here. We did it all by ourselves'introducing public schools in the 19th Century and expanding the welfare state under the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and their more recent counterparts. In each case, home-grown Americans wanted something for nothing, and they voted for the welfare state. Now they are upset because dependence on tax-funded programs has become a noticeable and growing problem. Before blaming immigrants, however, law-abiding, home-grown Americans should take a good look in the mirror. First, we shot ourselves in the left foot when we asked for the welfare state. Now the same politicians and interest groups are asking us to shoot ourselves in the right foot to pay for a 700-mile white elephant so that we'll forget how much our left foot hurts. Is this a sound policy?

Why We Play the Blame Game

Is it possible that the source of the anger directed at immigrants is really a manifestation of something else? Is it possible that the loudest anti-immigrant voices are simply angry because they believe that immigrants are cutting in on their tax-subsidized benefits and making it more difficult to live at someone else's expense? When it comes to such people, forget all the talk about 'respect for our nation's laws' and the horrible burdens placed on our public schools and other institutions as a result of immigration. If the anti-immigration crowd really were opposed to the 'freeloading' they perceive in immigrants, they would demand an immediate end to the welfare state. But the truth is that they depend on the welfare state and wish to preserve it ' as long as it is working for them. But as soon as they perceive a threat to the programs upon which they depend, they look for someone else to blame. At bottom, perhaps they simply perceive that their 'share' of tax-funded loot is being cut into ever smaller portions by the newcomers, many of whom arrive here with a better work ethic than those of us who were born here.

In his book Calculated Chaos, Butler Shaffer, an instructor at Southwestern University School of Law, explains why people play the blame game. He attributed it to the psychological phenomenon of projection:

. . . projection involves our imputing our own attitudes and personality traits to other persons. We can project either good or bad, positive or negative, desirable or undesirable qualities onto others.

. . . We see in others the personification of those discomforting aspects of our own lives that we have learned to reject (refuse to acknowledge in ourselves). We conclude that other people are greedy because they put their selfish interests ahead of our own, and we advance the belief in the malevolent nature of mankind.

For example, if I am a typical parent with three or four kids in the local public schools, I know that my property and income-tax payments barely cover the costs of even one of my children attending these schools. Rather than face the psychologically threatening notion that I am not paying my way, I project onto other people the fears I have about my own government dependency ' attributing this trait to poor urban families or, better yet, immigrants. Shaffer identified some additional details about the habit of projection:

. . . We may also seek to alleviate our pent-up anger and frustrations by projecting our felt undesirable traits onto a 'scapegoat' (i.e., another person or agency upon whom we bestow the evil quality we fear is within us). Political and religious institutions, in particular, have prospered at the expense of scapegoats. The popularity of this practice is enhanced by its adaptability to so many situations. The scapegoat is a marvelously versatile creature, capable of becoming whatever anyone wants it to become: businessmen, hippies, communists, blacks, whites, extremists, Jews, Arabs, rock music . . . atheists, Iranians . . . drugs . . . OPEC nations, television, Wall Street, feminists, Ivy League professors, robber barons, the ACLU, homosexuals, scientists, doctors, illegal aliens . . . .

The point is that Americans, like most people, would rather not look too closely at their unattractive traits. We like to pretend that we are self-sufficient, honest people. But our desire to rely upon and preserve the welfare state reveals the truth about who we really are. Instead of facing up to the theft and self-deception that surround our support of the welfare state in its various manifestations, we simply project our traits onto people who seem different because they are poor and desperate and have nowhere else to go to make a better life. Furthermore, when we accuse these immigrants of 'breaking our laws' to come here, perhaps we should remember that the kind of laws they are breaking are the kind that were firmly in place in the Soviet Union before it fell ' laws against making a profit, earning a good living, and creating one's own destiny. In other words: laws against freedom.

Putting It All Together

For 500 years, we have lived with our North American neighbors in relative peace. It is only recently that we hear panic-stricken cries to re-shape nature's landscape in the Southwest with a budget-busting boondoggle and surveillance programs to verify the identity of U.S. citizens. What has changed during this 500-year history to explain the New Xenophobia and the appearance of absurdly misnamed groups such as the Minutemen? Have the people to the south and north of us changed? No. They were there all along. We are the ones who have changed. We created a welfare state, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. Instead of removing the true source of the problem, politicians and their dependency-prone constituents are launching expensive government programs to 'solve' the problems created by earlier programs. In so doing, they have retained all of the original dysfunctions and costs while adding a new layer.

The only practical and ethical alternative ' one that corresponds to our heritage of liberty ' is to open our borders to people who wish to improve their lives through their own efforts. Those of us who were born here should also learn to improve our lives through our own efforts instead of someone else's. And that means dismantling the welfare state. It would not cost a penny. In fact, it would cost less than nothing because it would eradicate the financial burden of our current welfare state, the fraud and waste that go with them, and the social disruption and family breakdowns that the welfare state produces without fail.

The desire to penalize American citizens who wish to employ immigrants by mutual consent is an affront to the concepts of hard work, freedom, and free trade. The desire to prevent peaceful people from entering this country to improve their lives is nothing less than bullying ' preying upon the weak and hopeful instead of facing up to our own dark desire to live off of our fellow man by means of the welfare state. Scapegoating is both childish and dishonest. Even worse, when we de-humanize immigrants as 'illegal aliens,' we de-humanize ourselves and deceive ourselves about our true motives.

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Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture
Columns on STR: 37

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.