By Doctor Comrade
"They took our jobs" and "Build a wall!" have become familiar right-wing tropes about immigrants. Immigrants have been accused of coming to the US and stealing jobs from hardworking Americans, and are therefore blamed for the economic insecurity felt by many working-class people. But immigrants have also been accused of stealing welfare from Americans as well because they are lazy or culturally parasitical. These contradictory notions have nonetheless been completely internalized by the right wing.
Rush Limbaugh claimed that Mexican immigrants come to the United States in order to exploit the government's propensity to give them welfare. Ann Coulter said that Latinos are part of a permanent "underclass" that are nothing more than “nitwits who deserve lives of misery and joblessness.” Kris Kobach, a Trump adviser and architect of Arizona's racist SB 1070, said that the US should make life so difficult for immigrants that they voluntarily leave the country. We already know these are not the kind of people bothered by facts: immigrants commit less crime, they receive less welfare, and they work harder than white Americans. Despite their hard work, non-white immigrants (and native-born Latinos) are still paid less than whites.
Why, then, do immigrants become this focal point of criticism about work ethic? Studies have clearly demonstrated that immigrants produce wealth in the US: they work hard, they pay taxes, and they take less than their native-born counterparts. And yet their morality is criticized by anti-immigrant, right-wing activists who find fault in immigrants' work ethic.
We should turn to Slavoj Žižek's analysis of anti-refugee furor in Europe. He argues that European hatred of refugees is a critical part of the paranoid European identity:
"Refugees who flee terror are equated with the terrorists they are escaping from. The obvious fact that there are terrorists, rapists, criminals etc, among the refugees, while the large majority are desperate people looking for a better life – in the same way that, among the refugees from the German Democratic Republic, there were also hidden Stasi agents – is given a paranoid twist. In this version, immigrants appear (or pretend) to be desperate refugees, while in reality they are the [spearhead] of a new Islamic invasion of Europe. Above all, as is usually the case, the cause of problems which are immanent to today's global capitalism are projected onto an external intruder. A suspicious gaze always finds what it is looking for: 'proof' is everywhere, even if half of it is soon proven to be fake."
He goes on to observe that refugees may seem strange and outlandish, but similarly all Europeans seem strange and outlandish to them. The solution is not an empty form of cultural relativism that lets both sides off the hook, but rather to "recognise a stranger in ourselves – therein resides the innermost dimension of European modernity. The recognition that we are all, each in our own way, weird lunatics, provides the only hope for a tolerable co-existence of different ways of life."
What makes this analysis so formidable is how he treats fear. To Žižek, fear is a manifestation of ideological confusion, the projection of internal distress upon an external target. So for American anti-immigrant bigots, they hate immigrants because they are projecting an internal hatred of themselves. Specifically, they target the work ethic of immigrants because they realize the weakness of their own work ethic.
Look first to the binary distinctions made by these right-wingers between idealized versions of "immigrants" and "Americans": Immigrants are lazy, leechlike, and destructive; in contrast, native-born Americans are hardworking and productive. Constructing immigrants as the undesirable Other simultaneously reinforces the essential goodness of Americans, a group to which these right-wingers belong. By constituting the other as naturally evil, they also constitute their own identities. As Žižek argued, this externalization of fear is part of the foundation of European (or in this case, American) identity: it allows the constructor to anchor their identity to an identifiable pole; and at the same time, they establish an enemy which guarantees stability of that pole.
However, because the hardworking-but-somehow-lazy immigrant is the enemy, it creates an identity paradox that paralyzes right-wingers with envy and hatred. Why should Americans have to work so darn hard while those undeserving immigrants enjoy the products of their labor?
They envy and fetishize the lazy immigrant because, if they were in the same position as this mythical immigrant, that's what they would do: be lazy. That's how weak the anti-immigrant work ethic is: they believe so strongly that they are entitled to the fruits of the American system that when other people (who are generally hardworking and upstanding people) benefit, they become enraged. They imagine themselves being that mythically lazy immigrant who reaps all the benefits without working. And they desire to be that way.
And because part of their identity is belief in their cultural (and racial) superiority, they see how a supposedly inferior group of people has gotten the better of them. They can't understand how an inferior group of brown foreigners who can't speak English could possibly extract so much without working. This realization devalues their identity, forcing them to reconcile with the fact that poor and uneducated immigrants are somehow besting them at capitalism. How dare these lazy immigrants steal OUR jobs and OUR welfare, they sputter.
Comedian Doug Stanhope has put this feeling into words: "They don't speak the language and they probably have minimal education. And if that guy can show up like that, as qualified for your job as you are, you're a fucking loser of such dynamic proportions, I would be ashamed and humiliated." Raging classism aside, Stanhope's ham-fisted pronouncement puts into perspective the kind of impotent rage that right-wingers feel about immigrants and immigrant work ethic. They find fault in themselves, a lurking piece of them that knows they are valued the same as an immigrant by an uncaring, capitalist system. It indicts their identity, their belief in the cultural superiority of Americans that comes from birth.
When we see anti-immigrant vitriol, we should recognize what the speaker is saying about the brutality of the American capitalist system. American capitalism, and its mistreatment of the American worker, is the primary cause for fear of immigrants. The nativistic, racist, nationalistic backlash against immigrants is an expression of fear: fear that one may not be good enough to fulfill "the American dream," fear that one may be the equal of an immigrant, fear that one's superiority is illusory, fear that one's labor is easily replaceable. That may help us understand why that fear manifests as hatred: because that fearful identity must be maintained, and only by identifying a hateable enemy could maintenance be possible.