Rhetoric Watch: Raising Cain in Tennessee

It’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction, that humor is a cloak for truth, and that jokes reveal more about the teller than the teller might wish. Perhaps President Obama was joking when he explained why immigration reform was taking so long – but there was a large kernel of truth in what he said:

“You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.” (See Remarks by the President on Comprehensive Immigration Reform in El Paso, Texas, White House Press Office, 10.May.2011.)

Don’t look now, but moats and alligators have become passé. The new deterrent of choice is the electric fence.

Yes, it’s that time of the election cycle again. Just as the smoke is clearing from last year’s mid-term elections, Presidential hopefuls are stumping for office from pillar to post, on the airwaves, at meet-the-candidate rallies, and in nationally televised debates. There are still so many candidates in the GOP nomination race that some are shouting to be heard – literally shouting, as often happens during the debates, but figuratively shouting, too, taking extreme positions.

Whatever the explanation for the ruckus, during a recent campaign appearance in Tennessee, presidential candidate Herman Cain’s voice rose clear above the din of the campaign with perhaps just a joke, perhaps just an ill-considered proposal. To deal with our nation’s illegal immigration problem, Cain said:

“First, secure the border for real. It’s common sense. Part of [the solution] would have a real fence. Twenty feet high, with barbed wire – electrified – with a sign on the other side that says it can kill you. It’ll be in English and Spanish.” (See Top Hispanic Congressman Slams Herman Cain’s Illegal Immigration Remedy, by John Parkinson, 17.Oct.2011, ABC News The Note.)

Cain appeared to recant in an appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press, the following day, saying he was only joking – only to “re-recant” in subsequent public appearances.

In recent months, these gaffes have become coin of the realm – not from Cain in particular, but from politicians courting border-control constituencies within the GOP and Tea Party. As the New York Times put it, “Today, Republican candidates are competing over who can talk the toughest about illegal immigration – who will erect the most impenetrable border defense; who will turn off ‘magnets’ like college tuition benefits.” (See Comments on Immigration Alienate Some Hispanics, by Trip Gabriel, New York Times, 19.Oct.2011.) The Times article noted that both Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann are touting their plans for a border fence, “electrified, in Mr. Cain’s case, double-walled in Mrs. Bachmann’s,” while the other candidates slug it out over who is truly tough on illegal immigration.

The point of the Times article was that GOP candidates should think twice before playing the “who’s-tougher-on-illegal-immigrants” game, because in doing so they will alienate the fastest-growing bloc of voters in the country: Latinos. One might hope they’d have other, more altruistic, reasons to moderate their anti-immigrant rhetoric. As we noted in this space several months ago, when a Kansas State Representative proposed controlling the southwestern border by shooting illegal immigrants from helicopters:

“Make no mistake: we neither endorse nor condone illegal immigration – but illegal immigrants are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity. Vigorous public debate is the mark of a healthy democracy, but the conversation needs to remain temperate, rational, responsible, and fact based, if it’s going to contribute anything of value to the problems we face as a nation. Treating immigrants as animals, somehow subhuman – even if only rhetorically – is beyond the pale of civil discourse. It also adds nothing to the debate. A little civility would go a long way here.” (See Rhetoric Watch: Say What? MurthyBlog, 23.Mar.2011.)

This dehumanizing rhetoric is unworthy of us, and smacks of scapegoating, as if illegal immigrants were culpable for everything that ails us a nation – culpable to the point that illegal border crossings should be met with deadly force.

In an ideal world, political candidates would take care to cast more light than heat on the issues of the day. Immigration policy is already a hot-button issue; making it more so is self-defeating. A thorough overhaul of our immigration system is long overdue, and it doesn’t do us any favors to delay the day of reckoning: in the meantime, other nations are snapping up more and more of the best and brightest minds from overseas; in the meantime, we continue to let the world think we’ve rolled up the welcome mat, because our immigration system has not kept pace with the demands of a modern economy and society; in the meantime, we divide ourselves as a nation and separate ourselves from the global community.

Some will reject extreme proposals – like the “killer fence” idea – because they fly in the face of our better values. Others will find the political risks too great. For those still unconvinced, an investigative journalist at Mother Jones magazine has asked and answered the simple question: “Could this even be done?” His answer: yes, if you don’t mind spending upwards of $75 billion for electric fencing and another $21 million for warning signs – leaving aside the damage to our national reputation from using lethal force on unarmed civilians. (See How to Build a Deadly Electric Border Fence, by Tim Murphy, Mother Jones, 24.Oct.2011.)

Only Mr. Cain knows for sure whether he was joking, but this much is clear: our immigration system is no laughing matter, and we would be better served by practical solutions than by uncharitable jokes or flights of rhetorical fancy. We all deserve better.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.