Who owns Horatio Alger? As part of an effort to lure the 2012 Hispanic vote, both the Democratic and Republican parties are embracing the tropes associated with the 19th-century American writer, who captivated readers with his rags-to-riches stories. His humble boy characters — with their determination, skill, and Puritan work ethic — provided a vision of this nation as a land of opportunity that’s been eloquently repeated at the podium by first-generation political leaders in both Tampa and Charlotte.
Never mind that Alger wrote of Americans with names like Timothy and Charlie and Mark. There is no hero named Marco (as in Rubio) or Julián (as in Castro) in his work. Even so, his early stories still inform the narrative of upward mobility that many Americans — and many immigrants — believe in.
But Alger had another side, one that is often ignored. As Alger searched for more authenticity, his stories became darker and more disturbing. He began to represent an American underbelly, a forgotten society that was vivid but at times horrifying. The American public chose then, as it sometimes chooses now, to reject those stories; his sales languished as did his reputation.
Alger’s whole career provides a mirror to the differences on immigration between the parties. Honestly, who isn’t for rags-to-riches? But the problem with promoting only the uplifting first part of the Alger opus to talk about immigration is that it does not help us grapple honestly with a complicated, multifaceted issue.
Striving for a better life is part of the immigrant experience, but so are the kind of unhappy matters Alger highlighted later in his career. In the case of today’s immigrants, the story may include residing in the background; being manipulated by ruthless employers; posing unique challenges to health care and education services; and being separated from the fabric of America, despite being integral to the economy.
In practical terms, the parties’ understanding of the immigrant experience is being put to the test on three inextricably linked issues: the need to enforce border laws, the workforce demands of a 21st-century American economy, and the need to resolve the status of the 12 million to 14 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. Democrats and Republicans agree, in theory, on the the first, but disagree on the details.
On the second, the Republican and Democratic platforms are quite consistent in seeking to reform immigration rules related to commerce, including increasing the number of H1-B visas allowed for skilled workers. At both conventions, the focus was encouraging lawful immigrants to come to America to live the first part of the Alger narrative. Both parties sounded the same note: “We love immigrants!’’
But on the third issue, illegal immigration, the party platforms couldn’t be more different, and the compelling personal narratives of the convention speakers belie fundamental differences between the policies they favor.
For the Republicans, the illegal immigration problem is something not to be discussed in mixed company. For example, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, whose embrace of tough immigration laws is a bit of a downer for Hispanic vote recruitment, had no formal public roles at the Republican convention.
So it is behind closed doors where the platforms are written and debated. The Republican platform on immigration was led by Kris Kobach, the conservative secretary of state in Kansas who helped to write the anti-immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama. To address the problem of illegal immigration, the platform relies on unsubstantiated hopes of “humane” self-deportation — of making conditions off-putting enough to prompt a voluntary exodus of undocumented workers. There is an exclusive emphasis on what policy makers should not do — provide amnesty.
Meanwhile, the platform the Democrats embraced this week discusses illegal immigrants and a path to citizenship through comprehensive immigration reform. The idea has been circulating in Congress for years, and the Democratic platform provides few details on how to finally get there. Still, it at least acknowledges that other aspect of the immigrant experience.
Who owns Horatio Alger? His career is varied, as is the experience of the lawful and unlawful immigrants who come here. Their stories are not always as pretty as the ones we have heard at the conventions. But they too are part of the American tale. It just requires reading the full body of work.