Scholars have pointed out that in the U.S., part of this resistance has historically been against sharing public resources with African-Americans. The creation of Social Security was delayed for years because it might cover black citizens, and they were not fully incorporated into the system until some time after it was established during the Great Depression.
Our great black-white schism slowly is being bridged — witness Obama’s election — but our other great historical divide has been with immigrants, and it is opening wider.
Through most of American history, this second divide had fluctuated as each new ethnic wave — Irish, Italian, Poles, etc. — assimilated and became “us,” and was no longer “the other.” The current wave, made up mostly of Latin Americans, Asians and Africans, began as a trickle in the 1960s, but by last year fully 12.5 percent of the population was foreign-born, close to the historical highs of a century ago. Such dramatic change is reason enough to create social resistance. But what is unprecedented is that almost 11 million immigrants — or nearly 4 percent of the people walking among us — are not even legally entitled to be here.
This is not to say that Americans want to kick these foreigners out. Diverse polls show that most Americans agree to legalizing the unauthorized immigrants if they “earn” it by paying back taxes and the like. But Americans overwhelmingly want to stop future illegal flows, and a hard-core minority wants to sharply cut back immigration altogether.
The truth is — the celebration of our being a “nation of immigrants” notwithstanding — public support for more immigration is almost always low. It is the business, political and humanitarian elites who historically have pried open the borders.
Other countries are the same. As Georgetown professor Marc Howard shows, it is the presence of strong far right-wing political leaders that turns public unease into xenophobia, which becomes sufficiently large and active enough to pull back on social welfare, too.
In the U.S., populist news personalities such as Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck help play this role. A recent study by Eric McGhee and Max Neiman of the Public Policy Institute of California offers some salve, however, for liberals and the Obama administration. The researchers find that support for small government dilutes as the size of the anti-immigrant core grows.
None of this suggests that health reform is doomed by destiny or that we should cut off immigration tomorrow. The nation’s economy needs immigrants, including low-skilled workers from Latin America, if it is to make up for its aging work force and compete with highly populated emerging powers such as China and India.
But the fact that health and immigration totter together is appropriate. Only by openly recognizing the challenge that one presents for the other can President Obama and liberals address the legitimate, underlying fears of voters.
What level of immigration do we want? And who should those immigrants be?
Edward Schumacher-Matos is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.