Monday, April 23, 2007

Bashing 'illegals'

A lesson for Don Brown on taxes they pay

When children do something wrong and stupid then have to cope with the consequences, they unholster the standard disclaimer: "I didn't mean to do it." It's in the nature of children, of course, sometimes to do wrong and stupid things. When politicians do something wrong and stupid then have to cope with the consequences, they unholster a standard disclaimer of their own: "It was meant as a joke." State Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, used words to that effect to explain why he sent a racist cartoon, through his government e-mail account, to fellow legislators.

The cartoon read, "Don't forget to pay your taxes -- 12 million illegal aliens are depending on you!"

Brown thought he was being "cute." Racism often seems that way to those too dense to know the difference between a joke and an offense. The line can sometimes be blurry. It's what gives jokes their power -- to amuse, to speak certain truths, and to offend. It's a good idea for government officials not to tread the line when obvious sensitivities radiate from the subject matter, which is why Brown's fellow-Republicans were first to call his stunt racist, not funny.

Why, you ask? Because the "joke" hinges on false assumptions and bigoted stereotypes, its thrust clearly aimed at brown-skinned immigrants who supposedly take advantage of taxpayers' largesse because the immigrants don't themselves pay taxes while taking advantage of the country's social services.

The joke's premise is a lie. Of course illegal immigrants pay taxes -- property taxes, sales taxes, Social Security taxes, gas taxes, excise taxes, and even, for millions, income taxes: Since 1996, the IRS has been allowing illegal immigrants to file taxes by assigning them so-called tax-payer identification numbers. The rule was designed to cover non-Americans making income in the United States, such as foreign investors, but the IRS says the majority of the 11 million numbers issued goes to illegal immigrants. Applications for such numbers spiked by 1.5 million last year. Between 1996 and 2003, The New York Times reported, filers with tax-payer identification numbers reported nearly $50 billion of tax liability. The numbers demolish assumptions -- like the cartoon's, like Brown's -- that illegal immigrants don't feel a responsibility to pay their fair share.

Other numbers, like what immigrants, documented or not, contribute to the nation's economy, including the food and orange juice they harvest before it reaches dinner tables like Brown's, demolish the cartoonish assumption that migrants are an unproductive drain on the economy. What people who may laugh at Brown's cartoon also don't know is that Congress in 1996 eliminated legal immigrants' access to all but emergency federal benefits. An immigrant must wait at least five years before tapping into social services like welfare programs or Medicare and Medicaid. After the five-year wait, it's up to the immigrant's home state's laws (most states, including Florida, provide benefits).

For all of Brown's ignorance, worse than his sending the e-mail in the first place were his subsequent reactions besides trying to childishly explain the stunt as a joke. First, he half-heartedly apologized to his e-mail's recipients, but only "if you found the content of that e-mail to be offensive." That "if" compounds the offense, because it means Brown doesn't get it -- which Brown himself proved he doesn't: A few days after his half-baked apology, he redacted it, saying he wasn't apologizing, neither for the cartoon's message nor for using such terms as "illegal aliens."

Brown's suggestion that the state study the economic impact of illegal immigration in Florida isn't a bad one, so long as it's an academic study free of Brown's stereotypes. The impact on the state's image of stupid jokes and of legislators who peddle them, of course, needs no studying. It only needs the right reflexes at election time.


No comments: