*On Drawing the Line, Twice: Obama, Fox News, and Illegal Immigrants

Yesterday, in what is already being described as an unprecedented event, Barack Obama appeared on five television talk shows. Today’s New York Times has five nearly identical photographs on the front page, each featuring Obama with one of his interlocutors. Somehow, poring over the photographs, I kept on thinking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Apart from the fact that his interlocutors were all white men — Jorge Ramos, anchor at Univision, is Hispanic, Mexican-born, but only someone like him can represent Mexican-Americans, not a woman or man of Indian descent — since they are evidently still the public face of America, those apparently still best entitled to an audience with the President of the United States, the most interesting news item pertained to the audience Obama did not have. Quite uncharacteristically, stated the New York Times, echoing what is doubtless a wider sentiment, Obama decided, in retaliation for Fox News’s decision not to broadcast his health care address to the nation some days ago, that he would not grant Fox News an audience. Obama drew the line.

Obama would not have been speaking to the choir had he chosen to engage directly with Fox News. The viewers of Fox News are almost certainly among his most dedicated foes, and Obama, so goes the conventional wisdom, has never been shy of taking the battle to his enemies. If he is to convert his skeptics and critics, it seems imperative that he should continue to engage them. So Obama’s decision to draw the line at Fox News is being viewed with some surprise, all the more so since he has represented himself, on numerous occasions, as someone who unites rather than divides. However, Obama appears to me to have acted judiciously, and not merely because Fox News is quite bereft of the norms of civility that do guide most other people in the conduct of human affairs. It is high time that Obama questioned his own self-presentation as the supreme ‘Unifier’ and began to understand that more, rather than less, divisiveness in some matters may be desirable in leading the country.

What is far more germane in assessing Obama is how he drew the line when he delivered his address on health care reforms to a joint session of the Congress and why he has not been taken to task for certain egregious assumptions about who all constitute the body of people known as ‘Americans’ or ‘citizens’. His address has now become famous for that infamous heckler, Joe Wilson, Republican member of the House from South Carolina, who publicly accused Obama with the words, ‘You lie.’ Little time need be wasted on troglodytes such as Wilson, but the words that provoked his outburst deserve far more attention: Obama said, “There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms – the reforms that I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” So, as far as ensuring the health of people is in consideration, the ‘universal’ coverage of which Obama is a proponent would extend only to citizens and immigrants who are in the US legally. How can Obama abide by that distinction in the first place, and if the election of Obama marks a break-through, a watershed moment in American politics as his most fervent supporters claim, what does Obama’s strident repudiation of the rights and entitlement of all people present in the Untied States to health care benefits (and, for that matter, other social services and public schooling) tell us about his politics?

When will we relinquish the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, between documented and undocumented workers, citizens and non-citizens? Or is the response merely going to be that politics is for pragmatists, not idealists? The distinction that has been the pillar of immigration policy, between legal and illegal immigrants, is nearly sacrosanct in American political circles, and few are even the liberals in number who have taken a critical position on this matter. To describe a person as ‘undocumented’ is to render the person into oblivion, into a non-entity, and it staggers the imagination to suppose that undocumented or illegal aliens should be viewed as undesirables while those politicians elected to high places who repeatedly violated the United States constitution should be living comfortably in splendid retirement. As I wrote in my blog on May 31, in defense of ‘undocumented’ students who at great risk have advocated for their rights to state aid, it is these students, and their parents, who have embodied the finest aspirations of human beings. If at all the United States is to claim to being the most distinct immigrant society in human history, it can only do so with the awareness that no ethnic, racial, linguistic or religious group can now lay claim to this country, and the country belongs to all those who choose, as an expression of the right to unfettered movement across borders, to make it their home. Obama is yet to show that he is even remotely close to embracing this view.