May 2, 2010

Glenn Beck thought he was making a great point earlier this week when he held up a bag of pot and a bottle of prescription pills and compared illegal immigration to the pot:

Beck: Let me be clear -- what I have said in the past is, there is a difference between legal and illegal immigration. There's a difference between legal and illegal. This is Allegra D -- or so, this is actually crack cocaine, but I get it from a doctor, so it's OK -- Allegra. Drugs? Pot! Drugs! 'I have a problem with drugs!' No no no -- I have a problem with illegal drugs. Not prescription drugs. I don't want to ban all drugs! Prescription drugs are good for you when used by prescription and follow the advice of the doctor. Bad otherwise. Got it?

Immigration -- good! Illegal immigration -- bad!

This was, of course, a classically dishonest Beckian analogy. Because in many states, it's already perfectly legal for people to obtain marijuana by prescription, particularly if they are cancer patients using it for treatment relief.

In a more honest analogy, Beck would hold up not a bottle of Allegra but a bottle of Jack Daniels. Because the reality is that marijuana is illegal largely for its recreational use. No one is taking Allegra recreationally.

And then the analogy is actually somewhat useful. Because it sheds a very interesting light on the nativist argument -- favored by the Glenn Becks and Tom Tancredos, but also echoed frequently among many "moderate" Democrats -- that "all we really need to do is enforce the laws we have on the books."

Because I think a lot of people are perfectly aware that, when it comes to illegal drugs and the "War on Drugs," taking the "enforce the laws we have on the books" approach is a dead horse we've been flogging for the better part of thirty years, and it's getting more rank and fetid with age. The marijuana laws in particular are a classic case of an antiquated approach in which merely "enforcing the laws on the books" has failed miserably and is fueling a drug war on the Mexican border. It is a situation that really calls for an overhaul of the laws themselves, one in which drug users are treated medically instead of criminalized, and the black market and its attendant drug kingpins scattered to the winds.

A lot of progressives and libertarians in particular are well attuned to this reality. But it's surprising how few of them -- at least the non-Latinos -- apply the same logic to our immigration laws.

And the truth is that there are 12 million human reasons not to just "enforce the laws on the books" when it comes to immigration, as well. The first and most important of them is that our current system of immigration laws are so outmoded, antiquated, and misbegotten that they too need a complete and thorough makeover.

It's worth remembering that our current immigration system is built on the bones of the Immigration Act of 1924, the law that first created the concept of "illegal immigration" by cutting off all immigration from nations whose citizens were "ineligible for citizenship" -- namely, all Asians. That law was passed in a milieu of extreme xenophobia, and was ultimately a manifestation of eliminationist eugenics in American politics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, our current drug laws are built on nearly identical bones. Like the immigration laws, they were largely enacted in the same kind of milieu: predicated on defending white privilege and keeping a law-enforcement thumb on nonwhites, including immigrant Latinos:

When marijuana was popularized in the 20s and 30s in the American jazz scene, Blacks and Whites sat down as equals and smoked together. The racist anti-marijuana propaganda of the time used this crumbling of racial barriers as an example of the degradation caused by marijuana. Harry Anslinger, head of the newly formed federal narcotics division, warned middle-class leaders about Blacks and Whites dancing together in "teahouses," using blatant prejudice to sell prohibition. In 1931 New Orleans officials attributed many of the region's crimes to marijuana, which they believed was also a dangerous sexual stimulant.

During the Great Depression, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act came into law, again using racism as its chief selling point. The same Mexicans who were vying with out of work Americans for the few agricultural jobs available, it was said, engaged in marijuana induced violence against Americans.

Certainly, the results of the War on Drugs -- and particularly its "racially disproportionate nature" -- bear a powerful resemblance to the ultimate outcome of our misbegotten and dysfunctional system of immigration laws.

Both immigration laws and drug laws needlessly criminalize millions of hard-working Americans, citizens and immigrants alike, and produce solutions that militarize our police forces and draw us nearer all the time to a police state -- Arizona's new immigration law being the most vivid recent example.

It's always more effective, in my experience, to outsmart problems with solutions instead of beating them over the head with a blunt object, which never seems to work. Americans need to wise up -- both in their never-ending "war on drugs," and in dealing with immigration. For once, a Beck analogy is not that far off the mark -- though predictably, Beck embraces the wrong side, even then.

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