Immigration Reform 2013, the Shutdown, and Miss America All Have One Thing in Common


The Miss America Pageant, the recent government shutdown, and immigration reform appear to be disparate and distinct topics, but they are actually related in a deep and meaningful way. The racist response to the crowning of the first Indian American Miss America is indicative of a growing fear of diversity in America that will pose a major obstacle to our legislative process moving forward.

When Nina Davuluri accomplished a first by becoming the first Indian American Miss America, her feat was marred by ugly tirades of racism expressed by ideologues. Rants from so-called "critics," erupted immediately from Twitter accounts and blog posts. We were given a glimpse into America’s ugly psyche of racism and disgust.

Wednesday night, we saw the end to the government shutdown and an agreement to lift the debt ceiling when the president signed a bill that Congress miraculously passed. After more than two weeks of intransigence, dysfunction, lost wages, and frustration, a deal was reached.

Finally, consider the possibility of immigration reform. Immigration reform has become another frustration wrapped in an enigma. The Senate’s bold and intricate plan (Senate Bill 744) is a study of contrasts, while the House’s piecemeal approach (the KIDS and SAFE acts) and Democrats’ own proposal signify disagreement and disunity.

To begin to make sense of these seemingly distinct events, think about what each means for our society.

It is perhaps surprising that Miss America could make some of us hateful and fearful of terrorists. Tirades perpetuating narratives of terrorism reveal a hidden prejudice lurking in the depths of our collective, national subconscious. This prejudice pushes some Americans to label, identify, and reduce others to their skin color, or their parents’ or their own attributed nationality or citizenship. Should we be surprised by this racism? It is not all that surprising when we turn to the two other recent events.

The common wisdom had it — incorrectly — that the partial government shutdown was precipitated by dissatisfaction by members of the Tea Party with the Affordable Care Act. News outlets reported that politicians like Ted Cruz railed against Obamacare, holding out at all costs. But that was only part of the story, and a misleading one at that.

The opposition to funding Obamacare was just a pretext for a larger agenda: to reduce the size of government at all costs. The Tea Party and their advocates would like nothing more than to (partially) shutdown the government — permanently. I don't mean to suggest they wish to shut down the entire government, just cripple it and prevent it from full operation and efficiency.

That there would be dire consequences of such a shutdown on a longer timescale is not of significance to these members of Congress and their base. The consequences of such an event would be felt (and were felt, to a limited extent) primarily by minorities and the less fortunate, those with a need for programs considered “non-essential” like head start, school lunches, and health care.

The same racism that motivated the Tea Party's decisions can be seen in the rants against Nina Davuluri. Such remarks actually unveiled a deeper conviction: that anyone considered a racial or social minority, the other, un-American, or un-patriotic must be a terrorist. It revealed a deep anxiety which will become ever more present among certain members of our society as our country’s demographics change and evolve. While the majority of free-thinking Americans have — and will — embrace this change, there will be some (and we have seen them recently in Congress) who resist a new America, a more cohesive and all-embracing nation.

And this brings us to immigration reform. There is no question that Senate Bill 744 is a major accomplishment, and would go a long way towards reforming America's broken immigration system. It has important provisions relating to greater due process protections, changes to asylum procedures, and protecting the right to counsel, in addition to legalization and revamping the immigrant visa system to allow for greater efficiency and a great economic benefit to our country.

But if the Senate bill (in some modified form after a hoped-for conference between the House and Senate) is to pass, we must first acknowledge and deal with those intransigents in the House who have now shown themselves so starkly and visibly. Do we imagine that those in the House who worked for a government shutdown by advocating defunding Obamacare would ever agree to revamp a broken immigration system in any positive way?

Since such opponents have now made themselves known, let us find strength even in their ignominious ramblings. Let us resist racism and prejudice which is really what is behind their rhetoric and obstructionism. Some of the messages we heard during these last few weeks convey deep confusion — about what it means to be American, what is means to love this country and one’s society. Immigration reform is deeply connected and intertwined with a larger issue lurking behind all policy decisions: How we see ourselves in a future America, what that America looks like, and how our government functions to make that future a better one for us all. Until we grapple with these issues, no reform can happen.