"How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" asked the British essayist, Samuel Johnson, on the eve of the American Revolution. Although regarded as one of the finest writers of the 18th Century, Johnson wasn't a popular figure in America at that time. But he did point to an intriguing paradox about American political life where high-minded defenses of freedom co-existed with the extreme curtailment of it.
McGill University's Jacob Levy maintains that this paradox didn't end with slavery. Rather, it has repeated itself with disturbing regularity in post-antebellum America. And it is doing so again in the wake of the pandemic, given that the same right-wing movement that cheers President Trump's draconian immigration crackdowns in the name of enforcing the "rule of law" is now in full defiance mode against the lockdowns in the name of freedom.
There is no doubt that many lockdowns have gone overboard. In Michigan, where I live, the original 41-day lockdown has grown into two months and counting. Meanwhile, even as the state's Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, eased some restrictions, she added stringent (and nonsensical) new ones — including classifying more businesses as non-essential and barring them from opening. Worse, given that there is no vaccine in sight, the risk of secondary outbreaks is spawning containment schemes that will make an all-encompassing surveillance state to track and trace the movements of Americans a massive danger to civil and economic liberties, requiring constant vigilance.
These liberty-busting restrictions might be intended to avert a broader public health threat, but nothing analogous is the case with immigration enforcement that goes after unauthorized workers whose only crime is that the government refuses to give them papers to do jobs that Americans won't. Yet President Trump, capitalizing on decades of right-wing anti-immigration incitement, has built a political movement around not just chasing them out of the country but also targeting their employers and cities that dare stand up to his policies.
Trump's first presidential pardon went to the notorious former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio among whose many human rights abuses is that he forced an undocumented woman to deliver a baby in shackles. Since then, this administration's zero tolerance border policies have resulted in even worse atrocities, like snatching 5,500 children, including infants, from migrant parents and putting them in separate detention facilities, without an effective tracking system to reunite them. But Arpaio, whom Rush Limbaugh once called a "national hero", was himself convicted for contempt of court because he ignored orders to stop racially profiling Latinos in his zeal to go after undocumented immigrants.
But that's not all he did. He went after employers who hired them too. He created a "criminal employment squad" in 2013 to raid restaurants, car washes, and cleaning services suspected of hiring undocumented workers, ruining over 800 small businesses. Meanwhile, Arizona's employer sanction measures, such as the 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA) that threatened to revoke the licenses of businesses with undocumented workers, helped ensure the Sunset State remained in the Great Recession three years longer than the rest of the county. Other states like Alabama have emulated Arizona's anti-business laws and threatened to yank licenses of any operation caught twice with undocumented immigrants in their employ.
So it is amusing that President Trump is now discovering individual liberties and tweeting that Whitmer and other blue-state governors should "LIBERATE" their economies. His calls are emboldening local militia groups, one of whom actually dispatched gun-toting members — sporting MAGA paraphernalia — to stand guard against cops as a local barber reopened his salon in defiance of the "rule of law."
Not that businesses everywhere have to fear law enforcement given the growing resistance from cops themselves. In New Jersey, one officer wished supporters of a gym gathered to witness it re-open in violation of the lockdown to "have a good day" and walked away without issuing any citations. Six sheriffs in Michigan have declared they won't enforce their state's lockdown because they "question" some of the restrictions, basically turning themselves into "sanctuary cities" on this issue. Whitmer hasn't pushed a confrontation with these sheriffs, perhaps because she does not want to risk the bad optics.
But Trump is letting nothing slide on immigration. He is deploying an iron-fist approach to deal with cities that refuse to cooperate with federal enforcement efforts. Literally from day one, Trump declared war on them and has been trying to come up with new ways to strip them off federal funds. Just a few weeks ago he threatened to withhold coronavirus aid from sanctuary cities that don't cooperate with his immigration agenda.
Such hardball tactics are popular with red state governors too. Texas and Ohio have proposed bills to fine and arrest duly elected local leaders who so much as "criticize" anti-sanctuary policies, basically outlawing dissent. Arizona has considered laws to freeze the assets of pro-immigration protesters. In other words, in the name of enforcing the rule of law against a victimless crime, the police state is spreading to every facet of American life — corroding a whole swath of American liberties.
Yet folks like Fox News' Laura Ingraham, who has accused immigrants of "destroying the America we love" and has been among the chief cheerleaders of Trump's enforcement regime, is now without any hint of irony warning that the coronavirus crisis is a liberal ploy to achieve "social control over large populations ... through fear and intimidation and suppression of free thought." Meanwhile, her colleague, Stuart Varney, himself a British immigrant, who exulted in February that Trump had "unleashed the Justice Department to go after the sanctuary movement" revolting against his immigration policies is now giddy that anti-lockdown "defiance" is growing.
Beyond partisanship, one reason why folks like Ingraham and Varney are more worked up about this country's war on the pandemic than about its war on immigration might be that more people in their orbit are affected by the former. But if they were merely turning a blind eye to the loss of liberties and economic destruction from a harsh immigration enforcement regime, it would be one thing. But they go beyond that: They invoke an alternative set of political principles that prioritize not freedom but law enforcement to justify the immigration crackdown. And they have developed an elaborate vocabulary under which undocumented immigrants are branded as "criminals" and "invaders," not just folks trying to feed their families like the jobless Americans sneaking around to make a buck during the lockdown. Meanwhile, the businesses that hire immigrants are not merely trying to stay alive like those reopening despite the lockdown, but, in the parlance of a leading restrictionist outfit, "crooked, faithless employers" who deserve the harshest penalties for violating the "rule of law."
President Trump got elected the first time around by mounting a campaign of "fear and intimidation" — in Ingraham's words — against immigrants. But after three years of disregarding civil liberties and human rights, he is positioning himself as the champion of liberty to get re-elected.
Samuel Johnson's paradox, in other words, lives on.
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