Malkin vs Vargas: The Battle Royal That Wasn’t

The twitter debate on immigration between right wing pundit Michelle Malkin and the most famous undocumented immigrant in the U.S., Jose Antonio Vargas, was, as per this BuzzFeed story, riveting. Seriously, follow the link. I had no idea that twitter could be so fun and educational.

If you need an incentive to look, consider the players. I love Michelle Malkin. Obviously, I despise her political views, but, at a time when much of mainstream political media plays like reality TV, Michelle Malkin is the Omarosa of punditry. The world of political commentary without Michelle Malkin and her ilk would be like a remake of “Jaws” with no shark. Why bother watching?

And then there’s Jose Antonio Vargas, the quintessential nice guy of the immigration debate. He invited Malkin to dinner, offering to make a favorite Filipino comfort food, even rolled out his nice-guy bona fides by citing his bromance with Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler. There could be no more perfect foil.

And then the debate began and continued, roaring through 3 rounds before, sadly, ending in a whimper. Neither side really got to the heart of the issues at stake.

Now, to be fair, tweets are a poor forum for complex ideas. By using this debate to illustrate a point, I’m turning both players into straw men. Apologies in advance. But, the 140 characters or less limit on tweets caused certain features of the mainstream immigration debate to be magnified in a way that is instructive. I couldn’t resist commenting.

First, a summary of Malkin’s points: our government is too lame to enforce its own immigration laws. This jams up the system for “good” immigrants trying to get green cards, and puts the concerns of 11 million scofflaws ahead of 302 or so million “legal” U.S. residents. Oh, and the opportunity to live in the U.S. should be meted out carefully and protected by law enforcement. If you want to avoid arrest, you should self-deport.

Vargas on the other hand, argued for a humane,  practical solution. 11 million undocumented immigrants, 1 million or so Asian, are already here and contributing to our economy. Fixing our broken system should include a path to citizenship as well as “fair” immigration enforcement. Many immigrants are good, otherwise law-abiding, contributing members of society who aren’t asking for special treatment. He used himself as a case in point. He turned himself in as undocumented in order to ask that he, like many who were brought here as children and now know no other home, gain legal citizenship.

I’m guessing you know that if I was picking sides, I’d be on Jose’s team. I believe that those who are coming out as undocumented are human rights heroes.

But, I’m still deeply dissatisfied with both arguments. Why? Well, lots of reasons. But the main one is that it never asks the question, are all laws good laws?

In a country like the U.S. that once excluded women and people of color from the vote, and where a marital rape exception once allowed husbands to rape their wives with impunity, we should all easily answer “no.” And, given what we know it took to end these injustices, we also know that simply working through the system to create change is rarely enough.

So, let’s for a minute consider why Mexicans, the largest group of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., are here.

The U.S. and Mexico are separate and unequal trading partners under the rule of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA, imposed by the Clinton administration, hammered the Mexican economy by flooding their markets with U.S. grown corn. U.S. corn cost less than Mexican corn because of agricultural subsidies. This unfair competition threw huge numbers of Mexicans out of work and off their land, leading to a dramatic uptick in border crossings.  Not that long before NAFTA, the largest group of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. by nation of origin were Irish.

NAFTA alone does much more to damage the Mexican economy than simply opening Mexico to U.S. corn. Trade agreements like NAFTA allow capital to flow freely across borders while immigration regulation prevents people from following the money, creating terrible conditions of poverty, often leading to strife (Mexican drug wars, anyone?), not just across our southern border but all over the world. And it’s just one of many forces at work here.

Moreover, Mexico is the third largest trading partner of the U.S. after Canada and China. Money sent home by Mexican immigrants is Mexico’s number 2 source of foreign income after oil exports. Our economies are tied together, as illustrated by the impact of U.S. corn on Mexico, yet we never consider the consequence of cutting Mexico off from another major source of revenue.

So why begin the debate by conceding to the law? Doing so avoids the roots of the so-called “problem.” Assuming that we can arrive at “fair” immigration laws in the context of unfair trade policy is a mistake, both to our economy and in terms of human rights. Better that we should be juxtaposing good immigration laws against bad ones, than good immigrants who came here as children against “bad” immigrants breaking essentially “good” laws that should be enforced.









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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

4 replies on “Malkin vs Vargas: The Battle Royal That Wasn’t”

Thanks! I lived in Mexico for a couple of years and was surprised to find that the pork in the carnecerias was from the U.S. and wondered about that. Good to know. Will follow up with a story.

Scot, thank you for another great article sir. Others often leave out your facts about how businesses and goods can cross borders but our laws don’t allow the actual people to cross as the business needs rapidly change.
Malkin and Vargas had a lot of banter without
* a solution
* without mention that they are occupying land of Native American NDNs
* and without mention that freedom and liberty includes freedom of migration

Great piece, Scot. You might already be familiar with _Harvest of Empire_, a documentary film based on Juan González’s book by the same title, but i thought i would give it a shout out from here, since it illustrates some of your arguments above.

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